How To Get More Women in Your Martial Arts School
Updated: May 20
How can we attract more women to martial arts training? How do we retain them?
Here's my thoughts on the subject.
1) WOMEN AREN'T ONLY CONCERNED ABOUT BEING RAPED BY STRANGERS AND PHYSICAL FITNESS
The reasons women take the martial arts are as varied and complex as the reasons men do. These include:
✔ Physical fitness
✔ Self Defense
✔ Self Confidence
✔ Mental fitness
✔ Challenge of competition
✔ Overcoming bullies when young
✔ Fantasies of being a ninja or action hero, just like in the movies
Does that sound familiar, fellas? Are one of the reasons YOU got started in the martial arts on that list?
I've noticed, however, a preponderance of marketing in the martial arts aimed at women primarily focusing on two of these reasons:
✔ Self Defense (and it's almost always stranger rape prevention)
✔ Physical Fitness
I have seen far too many fliers, ads, etc. aimed at starting up women's martial arts courses (or the six week self defense courses many of us run) that are almost always using the message "Don't get raped by studying with us". Usually the message is accompanied by a woman being attacked or menaced by a stereotypical "criminal" type, often in a hoodie.
Now, there's a lot of problems with that message, but mainly it's just poor marketing tactics. Scaring your customers into your door probably is only going to work for a very small population. By focusing there (and only there), you are ignoring the larger audience that might be interested for all of the reasons I listed above and are turned off by the "You'll get raped if you don't study with us" message.
Instead of trying to scare your customers, why not use imagery of real-looking, average women using your real martial art to actually use self defense against a generic big scary dude in a well lit area. Let your audience fill the blank in their own minds ("self defense against rape" "self defense against scary ex-boyfriend" "self defense against Mean Sheila, the neighborhood bully, who lives next door.")
As for physical fitness.. this is true more often than not for fitness training in general, and I find it annoying. It almost always features a very beautiful, incredibly physically fit young woman in a tank bra and very short shorts (or skintight pants) kicking or punching a bag.
Why not use a normal looking woman, maybe in your school's t-shirt and shorts (not short-shorts - regular shorts that go no higher than mid-thigh) or gi pants, doing the same thing? Here's a crazy thought - include at least one image of a woman over 40!
So, I recommend that you think about the other reasons women train that I listed above, and show regular women doing that stuff, along with testimonials from current students in your marketing materials and in the conversation you have with potential students.
Don't ignore the crime prevention and fitness thing, but don't make it the only thing you talk about either.
Oh, and feel free to emphasize the fun aspect, ok? We all know it's a huge amount of fun! It's okay to tell women that! Women like fun stuff too!
2) HELP US OVERCOME THE FEAR OF STRANGERS IN OUR PERSONAL SPACE
First off, none of us like it when our personal space is invaded by strangers. Allowing people you don't know very well into your personal space to touch you is incredibly intimidating for many women, even if they want to learn a martial art (it's also intimidating for men, but I don't think as bad as it is for women, as men spend more time culturally in contact sports than women generally do).
This is a huge hurdle, because there has to be a level of trust that this touching and invasion of space will not be sexualized by training partners. I imagine this is probably the worst for the grappling arts.
Make sure your club doesn't have any pinups or sexualized imagery of anyone, does not allow sexual jokes or horseplay or language, does not allow displays of affection such as kissing and whatnot even with couples on the floor and any inappropriate non-martial arts touching is completely unacceptable. Avoid all of that in your social media channels and advertising too (and they'll find it, believe me).
I can hear men saying, "What, we can't have fun in the dojo?" Well, that's not fun for lots of women (including me), and if you want all those things, you won't have many women in your dojo! I certainly won't train with you.
Working on making sure your club is one in which women can trust that their personal space won't be inappropriately violated is a HUGE thing you can address to make your space female-friendly. If you're not sure if it's right or not, ask for assessments from women who are not your friends/family/students and don't have any incentive to tell you what you want to hear.
It takes a lot of work to establish that trust with new students. Think about your training progression and curriculum and make sure you have that in mind when starting new students.
3) ADDRESS - AND MITIGATE - THE FEAR OF INJURY
To outsiders, martial arts training consists of us beating the hell out of each other on a regular basis. While this is true for a few arts I can think of, most of us train using modern methods and we do not seek to actually hurt each other in training. Getting hurt is far less frequent than most people think.
Most people don't want to get hurt!
The idea of having to basically survive Fight Club versus bigger, stronger, far more skilled people weekly in order to train is completely unappealing to most people, not to mention women.
So talk about safely training, show how control in sparring works, demonstrate safety equipment. Emphasize your school is not about getting hurt - don't avoid the fact that we do get minor injuries sometimes, but talk about all the things we do to mitigate it.
The fear of injury is worse than the reality of it, but it's very hard to help newbies past the fear. Make sure you have in place good reactions and coping mechanism when injury DOES happen in your school, including making sure things like band-aids, wraps, and ice packs are readily available.
For Pete's sake, do not have a "suck it up buttercup" attitude to injury. It's dumb.
By the way - you should know that it's not unusual for me to get asked when I go to my doctor or dentist covered in bruises (not unusual for me) for them to ask if things are okay at home and if I need help. Yep, they're guessing that I might be a victim of domestic abuse (and I'm glad they do this for the women that DO need help). I find it incredibly annoying, personally, and I can see it as a deal-breaker for other women, because it's just not a question we want to have to answer repeatedly.
4) DON'T SEND THE MESSAGE FEMALE = LESSER, EVER!
I feel like I shouldn't have to say this in the 21st century, but guys, remove any reference in your school to female stuff being lesser, weak or unworthy.
That includes using wearing pink belts - usually a color in a lot of our cultures associated with females - as a punishment.
Don't use "fight like a girl" as a derogatory term (these days, that term has been flipped to a positive and empowering, and that's fine when you use it that way).
5) ADDRESS PRACTICAL TRAINING BARRIERS A LOT OF WOMEN COPE WITH
CHILD CARE: See what you can do to help with child care during class. Maybe you can start a "coop" babysitting service with other people in your club to mind Junior while Mom and/or Dad is on the floor training, turning an office or spare room into toy room or something. This was a major obstacle for my husband and I when our youngest was little, and it absolutely influenced our decision on where to train. This applies to parents of all genders, and if you can address it, it's a huge competitive advantage for you.
FEMININE HYGIENE: It is very possible - especially for you poor souls who have to train in white gis on a regular basis - for our periods to start unexpectedly or for it to be heavier than we are prepared for, so we'll soil our pants as a result. This is INCREDIBLY embarrassing! Make sure your club has tampons and pads freely available, and heck, if you can have a couple of old spare pants available, that'd be going above and beyond (or at least advise your students to buy and pack an extra pair of gi pants in their bag). And make sure that you have a way for students to discreetly leave the training floor and head to the bathroom should something like this arise.
REGULAR HYGIENE: Make sure your club is strong on cleanliness - on the mats, in the bathrooms, and personally. Do not tolerate stinky dirty gis, feet, or students. This applies to everyone, but I'm including it here as "dirty, smelly gym" is a stereotype of macho-male training in some circles, and you should make sure your school doesn't give that impression.
Like most of you, I would love to see more women training in the martial arts. I know that it can be a very empowering and supportive environment (it totally has been for me, anyway). I hope my suggestions above help you move in the right direction!
Did I miss anything? I'd love to know your thoughts!