Working out is hard. And it’s especially hard for women who are forced to compete in what is traditionally a male-dominated space. Smelly, sweaty gyms filled with loud, grunting men can intimidate and ruin some women’s experiences in an area that is meant to be inclusive and welcoming for all. But because of the women’s hours at the University of Oregon recreation center, women can feel a little more comfortable — at least from 3 to 5 p.m.
Women’s hours is a program in the fitness block of the recreation center where, for a two hour period every weekday, a large portion of the gym is reserved for female-identifying students. The blinds are drawn for extra privacy, and the room is staffed only by female-identifying workers for added comfort. Although some believe the policy overcrowds the open portion of the gym for men, others say it is an essential program for helping women exercise in a male-centric environment.
The rec center began hosting women’s hours in 2012 after being requested by students attending women-focused weightlifting classes, such as “Women on Weights.” According to Chantelle Russelle, who helps coordinate UO's physical education department, women reported that they avoided the weight room because of intimidation and a lack of comfort in the male-dominated space.
“It’s not even an issue of being gawked at by other men,” said Lindsey Reed, who said she is a frequent gym-goer. “It’s just a different vibe having men in there doing their grunting.”
Reed also said some women feel pressured to get out of the way when men are waiting for their turn in the gym.
“If a guy is using a machine or standing near me waiting for my machine, I’m going to feel pressured,” she said.
In response to the issues communicated from female students, Russelle and others at the gym formed women’s hours — an attempt to create a space where women can learn and feel comfortable exercising. Women who feel intimidated or self-conscious using the weight room are encouraged to participate and ask questions. Russelle said the goal for the hours is about “empowering women,” with an emphasis on allowing women “to gain experience and gain education so they can feel good about what they’re doing.”
At UO, female students outnumber male students by 7 percent, but that isn’t reflected in the population at the rec center. According to data provided by UO, the median number of men using the gym every day is 60 percent greater than their female counterparts (1,409 men to 884 women).
Because of this disparity, the focus has been placed on helping women feel more comfortable in a setting that is disproportionately dominated by men. “What we are trying to do is create equity,” said Tiffany Lundi, associate director for facilities and operations.
Amelia Armstrong said she uses the women’s hours every day, and while she understands how the hours could inconvenience men, she says you can’t please everyone.
“If the intimidation factor is something that’s preventing people from coming to the rec, then there should definitely be [women’s hours]. I mean it’s only two hours, five days a week, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
Another gym-user, Jenavieve Lustyik, said, “I don’t think [women’s hours] are necessary, but I think it’s helpful.” Lustyik continued, “Sometimes it can be a little intimidating — or a lot of the spaces can be taken up by guys.”
But the program has its fair share of critics as well.
With the women’s hours taking up a large portion of the weights, the remaining open parts of the weight room can become crowded and difficult to navigate when gym users have to compete for a limited supply of weights during one of the most active periods of gym participation.
Some men said they feel that the weight room becomes too cramped during women’s hours, which deters them from working out. Brennen Diehl, who said he is a longtime lifter, has expressed his frustration while using the weight room during women’s hours.
“As a guy, if that’s your free time, you’re going to have more of a struggle working out,” he said.
While a goal of “equity” is common among other university recreation centers, holding women’s hours in the weight room is something unique to UO, at least in the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington and Oregon State University run similar programs for women’s pool hours — something UO has as well. But neither of these schools, nor Western Washington University or Western Oregon University, hold women’s hours for their weight rooms.
Many campus rec centers have a centralized weight room, so if they want to block it off for one group of people, they would have to block off the entire room. The UO rec center is different in that it has weights divided among multiple rooms. This makes it much easier to implement programs for select groups of people while minimizing the effect to other groups who might be inconvenienced.
“I never wanted to come across as exclusionary, but I also understand the burden of responsibility to provide space.” said Lundi.
Colleges around the world have proposed similar programs, and while some institutions have adopted these programs, others have rejected them. One example is McGill University, in Montreal, Canada. In a highly publicized event in 2015, where a women’s hours proposal was shot down, a senior staff member, Oliver Dyens, said, "We don't believe in the segregation of our services. We don't believe in separating some groups from others on campus."
The management team at the rec does not have any plans to add any more similar programs or to expand the hours of existing programs. Russelle commented on the difficulty of finding a balance of “providing access and opportunity to students and also not wanting to have a bunch of individual times blocked off.”
In an ideal world, Lundi stated she would like to see the number of women who need to use women’s hours decline, “because that means we’ve successfully created a space, a more equitable space where women feel as comfortable using all open rec space.”
The end goal of women’s hours is more complicated than just participation rates. Lundi said she hopes the women’s hours have a lasting impact for gender equity in the gym: “We would like to change culture where women feel confident and educated.”