The Marino Center’s weight room radiates masculinity. Hulk-like men grunt and squint as they will their bench press bars up for one more rep. Sweat falls from foreheads and dots the rubber mats on the floor. Bicep curls are done in front of the wall-to-wall mirror so that weightlifters can admire their handiwork in real time. If there are any women, they are the vast minority.
Theoretically, the weight room is a genderless space. It’s meant for anyone who wants to pack on muscle, burn off stress or release endorphins. But for many women at Northeastern, this is not the reality. The room is dominated by sleeveless tees and testosterone; an unofficial boys’ club perched on the top floor of Marino.
“It’s just a lot of dudes bro-ing out,” quipped fourth-year law student Amanda Bradley. Keila Sheetz, a fourth-year biochemistry major, described it as “a lot of sweat and muscles and men.”
This bro-dominance at gyms is not restrained to Northeastern, either. Even though women make up roughly half of the gym population nationally, only 20 percent use weights at the recommended rates of at least two times per week.
Some of that figure can be chalked up to a simple lack of knowledge about the benefits of weightlifting, according to health website SparkPeople, but it is also undoubtedly due to the feeling that women don’t belong.
Sarah Konstantino, fifth-year marketing and management major, is one of the leaders of a female-only weightlifting class at Marino called Women of Iron. She described that often when a female lifter walks in to the weight room, the immediate thought is, “Oh … there are only men in here.” And fairly frequently, she has felt pressure from men to wrap up a workout so they can use the equipment. “If I’m on a machine, a guy will stand near me and wait. They ask me when I’m going to be done instead of the guy next to me,” said Konstantino.
Her co-leader of Women of Iron, second-year physical therapy major Aisling Dennehy, echoed this sentiment. “I’ve honestly felt pretty intimidated in the weight room,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why I don’t go in there very much. The only reason I ever really go in there is for the [Women of Iron] workout.”
This intimidation has created an environment where even when women do want to lift weights, they often have trouble finding someone to help them get familiar with the equipment (Since men dominate the weight room population, it is far more likely for a male to know a possible mentor and feel more comfortable in the weight room). This stunts most aspiring weightlifters before they can even lace up their sneakers. Establishing a weightlifting routine simply has a different level of difficulty than just hopping on a treadmill (And while Marino does have many female personal trainers, women should not have to dip into their wallets to find a weightlifting mentor).
“Everywhere else in the gym you can do your thing and it doesn’t really affect other people,” said Sheetz. “But in the weight room, if you’re doing something wrong it could affect someone’s ability to get a rack. Your workout is more connected to other people’s workouts; you have to know the etiquette.” Sheetz managed to break through this obstacle thanks to a friend who showed her the ropes. “It’s definitely good to have a way in,” said Sheetz.
Women of Iron was created with that goal in mind: to familiarize women and give them a “way in” to the weight room. According to Dennehy, the program – while very new – has already made a tangible impact. “Definitely for the girls who come to our workouts, it has given them confidence to come into the weight room,” she said.
If Marino’s weightroom is to become a place of relative gender equality, programs like this are a solid place to start. However, creating lasting change will be more difficult than creating a few women’s workout groups.. Making the weight room truly a more welcoming environment requires societal change, something not easily attained or even imminently possible. Perhaps the fastest way to begin creating this shift is a heightened awareness of the issue and encouragement amongst both genders for a more welcoming space.
“There should be reassurance from women, but also from men,” said Konstantino. “Why are [men] giving me a hard time for being in here? Don’t [they] appreciate women taking care of themselves?”
If momentum builds to get more women in the weightroom, a positive chain reaction could very well form. “The more women that go in, the more women that will go in [in the future],” said Dennehy.
Originally published in Woof Magazine