Who are the top bosses at the fitness clubs or companies where you spend your time? Is the CEO a woman or a man? Thinking about your own job, are you paid a comparable wage to others whose work is the same as or similar to yours? How would you know for sure?

Sizing up gender issues across industries, we observe that men typically dominate high-ranking business positions. And, yes, wage inequality between male and female employees is a thing. Public conversations like the #metoo and Time’s Up movements have helped shed light on professional challenges women face, including a strong desire for workplace equity, free from harassment and discrimination.

But how much do these issues affect the fitness industry, where women represent more than half the frontline workforce? Let’s investigate whether female fitness pros enjoy ample opportunities, recognition and pay compared with their male counterparts. This article is for women and men to read. When we unite to support advancements in the industry, we all move closer to our common goal of inspiring the world—that means everyone—to greater health, fitness and well-being.

Where Do Women Stand in the Fitness Industry?

The fitness industry first took off—with women leading the charge—when “dance aerobics” became popular. Group exercise is still largely female-focused, but the industry has branched out in many new directions, including personal training, which some people consider more of the domain of men. It’s a common stereotype to imagine a female instructor and a male trainer.

For example, advertisements or stock photos in blogs, on websites and in magazines often depict trainers as men and instructors as women. In the world of CEC education, many of the most celebrated personal training experts are men. But these gender generalizations don’t quite reflect what’s going on in the industry.

Stats from multiple certifying bodies do confirm that fitness instructors are likely to be female. But women also make up the majority of personal trainers certified by four out of five major associations offering trainer certs.

So, what accounts for the male-trainer typecast? One explanation might be that personal training represents a serious, business-oriented aspect of fitness, which some people associate more easily with male characteristics. This perception is born out of traditional gender roles.

“Women are inextricably connected to child-rearing and thus associated with being caregivers: nurturing, gentle and forgiving,” says Ingrid Knight-Cohee, MS, director of group fitness for Steve Nash Fitness World & Sports Club in Vancouver, British Columbia. “These are not traditionally ideal attributes in the realm of fitness/sports or business leadership/ownership, where being firm, aggressive and intense are often considered necessary to succeed.” In reality, all these attributes have more to do with personality and coaching style than with gender.

Still, “there’s a stereotype that a no-nonsense male approach will yield better and faster results,” says Knight-Cohee. In some cases, female trainers must work harder to prove to clients (male and female) that they can train them at an appropriate level. When first marketing herself as a personal trainer, Samantha Cordova—owner and head trainer at MissFit Training in Alameda, California—says she had to “hustle more” to highlight her skills for clients who otherwise preferred a male trainer.

Like Cordova, many women in the industry are serious about business ownership. For example, IHRSA’s 2018 Global Report states that Orangetheory® Fitness claimed top spot in 2017 for delivering the fastest-growing women-owned businesses in the United States—that included all industries, not just fitness. In spring 2018, the fitness franchise, founded by physiologist Ellen Latham, remained among the top five winners but moved to second place for the same distinction (WPO 2018).

The future of women in business is promising, but there’s still work to do. Even as women manage much of the fitness frontline with training and instructing, their presence diminishes by the time you get to executive and senior leadership roles in many circles. If women generally outnumber men as industry service-providers, why aren’t more women also leading from the top?

Most Fitness CEOs Are Men

When it comes to the largest, wealthiest and/or most influential fitness businesses, women rarely hold a CEO or president title, according to information gathered from business publication Bloomberg.com and various companies’ online executive-team directories. Examining a cross-section of executives at 30 prominent fitness companies and club chains (major brands you’d see at industry expos and/or chains with numerous club/studio locations), only one CEO is a woman. Men hold the CEO and/or president title in the other 29 cases.

For more information and strategies for successful negotiations, please see “Gender Equity in Fitness: Are We There Yet?” in the online IDEA Library or in the November–December 2018 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal). If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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