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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

The Only Woman on the Mat

When I train in martial arts classes and at camps at seminars, it is not unusual for me to be one of the only - if not THE only - women in the room.

Me at a camp a few years ago. There is one woman in the room. Can you spot me?

I can't speak for all styles and organizations, but in my experience, adult women are a minority in the martial arts.

The percentage of women varies, from place to place and group to group.  But it's totally normal, in my personal training experience, for me to be one of a handful of women in the room... or even the only one.

I'm not talking about kid classes.  In kid programs, it's not unusual for young women to be the majority of the class, sometimes.  I'm talking about adult women.

It would be interesting, as a study, to see the retention rate of kids in martial arts continuing to train into adulthood and if it's different for boys and girls.

I bet it is a different retention rate, and I bet it's higher for boys.

I'm not sure why this is, to be honest.  Do I think there's some sexism in our ranks? Yes. Sometimes it's subtle and accidental, and sometimes it's blatant and intentional.

I don't think that's the main reason we don't see more adult women training.

In fact, the vast majority of the time, I think that there's an effort to try to attract and retain women in training in most quarters. Yep, there's exceptions where the dudebros rule a training group, but I think that's a rare exception, not a rule.  More often, the conversation and the intent among the guys I know is to get more women on the mat and training, and I appreciate that effort.

Until those efforts succeed, though, I'll still expect to be in the extreme minority in any given training group.

That being said, there's some annoying downsides to being one of the few - if not only - women on the mat.

I notice that I'm not usually one of the people that is sought out as a partner to pair up with when the people around me don't know me well (like in a seminar).  That usually changes a little bit after they get to know me better and see that I'm not delicate or afraid of pain or that I've been training long enough that they don't have to carry me as a partner.

Yes, that tends to be the default assumptions about me.  But hey, I'm a short, middle-aged, sorta dumpy female.  Part of that is the sexism I mentioned above, but there's also the other parts of how I just described myself - short and middle aged and dumpy. I don't really look like someone who trains hard or is used to getting thrown around and locked up or isn't afraid of getting hurt.

I look like a bad seminar partner, and I have to work a little harder to prove that nope, training with me is not going to be a waste of your training time.  I have to prove that like any guy in the room, I'm just as into training and just as nerdy about what we do.

I can complain about this and let it ruin my training experience, or I can prove 'em wrong.

Some women find this intimidating.  Me, I'm very outgoing, I've always been a leader, and I'm not intimidated by a room full of strangers regardless of whether or not they look like me.  I'm very grateful that this is my default setting, because it makes it easier for me to just wade in and train with a room full of strangers, regardless of gender.

I am also aware that my being a good training partner makes it easier for other women who might not be an outgoing leader-type.  My efforts pay off not only for myself, but for women who follow me.

So if you're a woman reading this... don't let being the only woman in the room bother you.  Just get in there and do your thing to the best of your ability.  Don't be afraid of screwing up, or looking stupid - that's something all of us have to deal with, not just women.  Yes, we might have to work a little harder to prove worthy, but I look at it as extra incentive to just train harder and better and to be the best martial artist I can be.  Part of being a martial artist is conquering our fears as well as training our bodies.

If you're a man reading this... be aware of that intimidation factor for your female friends.  Seek out that only woman in the room at a seminar as a partner.  Don't assume that a woman will be a poor training partner (because there are so few of us, you're more likely to have a poor MALE training partner, just going by pure odds, and I can tell you this is definitely my personal experience).  Don't assume that women training are afraid of pain or getting injured any more than you are.

We can make our training spaces more friendly for our female minority and we don't have to make it that big of a deal to do it.

Tell me your stories of being the only woman in martial arts training situations.  Guys, have you sought out women to train with? What other things can we do to make the dojo friendlier for women? Let us know in the comments!

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1 Comment

Mar 29, 2019

Curve-friendly uniforms!!! I feel like I’m wearing a sack that I had to alter just so I wouldn’t trip over the legs and my hands would show through the sleeves. Uniforms, even “female” uniforms are based on an ideal that doesn’t exist, or the male form, just a little shorter.

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