When Equal isn’t Equal, or ‘Why doesn’t my school have more women?’

a bearded man and a woman making intense eye contact while holding knives

There’s an old refrain that pops up in discussions of gender in the Historical European Martial Arts community: that running events aimed specifically at women (whether they be introductory courses, ongoing classes, or tournament categories), or modifying ones’ teaching to appeal more to women, is discriminatory. The theory goes that singling out a specific group and catering directly to their needs extends them a special privilege. Equality would be better served by treating everyone the same way. Equality = equal treatment. Simple, right? Obvious, even.

This argument bothers me more than most because it often comes from good people. Actual misogynists who don’t want girls in their clubhouse, or who genuinely believe that women are inferior and that there’s no reason to put effort into teaching them a skillset they’ll never excel at, are a different breed that uses different tactics. The “egalitarians” are usually good men who want to bring more women into their classroom, but disagree on the best way of getting them in the door. Their intentions are good, and their solution makes a whole lot of sense on paper. The only problem is that, in every case where I’ve heard a male instructor make the argument, “I treat all of my students the same way”, what they mean in practical terms is, “I treat all of my students the way I treat other men.”

Let’s strip the gender tags out of this for a moment, and look more closely at the implications of that choice. Let’s say that the participants in your chosen art can, broadly speaking, be categorized into two groups. There are people that don’t fit tidily into either, and not all members of each group share all the same characteristics, but it works as a rough sorting of the humans you generally interact with. Those groups might look something like this:

Group A

A typical member of this group:

  • likes swords
  • has high upper-body strength, and moderate endurance
  • has broader shoulders than hips, a flat chest, and a relatively high centre of gravity
  • warms up quickly
  • is motivated strongly by competition
  • prefers not to show emotion under stress

Group B

A typical member of this group:

  • likes swords
  • has low upper-body strength, and high endurance
  • has hips equal to or wider than their shoulders, a protruding chest, and a low centre of gravity
  • takes a while to warm up
  • is motivated strongly by cooperation
  • expresses emotions to relieve stress

In HEMA, the majority of instructors don’t have much formal pedagogical training, and most teaching happens in informal practice groups. Even the most established schools usually began life as small, backyard training circles. This means that most instructors start out teaching what works best for them, and then adjust their training methods as they go. In this environment, an instructor belonging to Group A is likely to design classes that cater to Group A members on a whole bunch of levels: logistics (there must be swords); biomechanics (effective techniques capitalize on high upper-body strength, and movement patterns are optimized for humans with broad shoulders, flat chests, and high centres of gravity); scheduling (warmups can be brief and need not be too intensive); mindset (formal competition is likely a goal for many students, and friendly internal competition helps drive individual progress); and culture (laughing/giggling during drilling is frowned upon, and tears are hidden away and not acknowledged – if they happen at all).

Over time, the class will likely attract a majority of students from Group A, as well as a few from Group B whose love of swords (our point of commonality between both groups) overrides any mismatches between their learning needs and the class environment. Those Group B students, however, will have to actively modify how they learn in order to thrive. They’ll either put in extra work to build up their upper-body strength, or be less good at executing the school’s preferred techniques. They’ll adapt their own movement to mimic that of fighters with larger shoulders, flatter chests, and higher centres of gravity, or struggle to perform patterns correctly. They’ll come in early or go running before class to get warmed up properly, push themselves harder during warmups and drills to get the burn they need to fight their best, or spend their training time at a lower performance level than they’re capable of. They’ll learn to find value, motivation, and joy in competition, or be discouraged by what feels like an unkind or unsupportive environment. They’ll suppress their nervous giggles when they’re confused by a drill, and learn to hold back their tears until they can cry in the bathroom, or resign themselves to not being taken seriously in stressful situations.

And so we end up with an instructor who treats everyone equally, but with unequal results. Any member of Group A that comes to class is entering an environment that’s optimized for their needs and learning style. Any member of Group B has to spend a chunk of every lesson adapting to an environment that doesn’t favour how they naturally move, learn, and socialize. Many will struggle to do as well as their peers from Group A, and will never advance to leadership positions or high ranks. Others will burn out on trying to adapt, or find that a few environmental factors are just insurmountably ill-fitted to their needs, and will drop out. A few will thrive, whether through luck and predisposition (e.g. they happen to be stronger, broader-shouldered, flatter-chested, more competitive, and less emotive than most other members of Group B), or sheer force of will. Through no direct malice or effort on the instructor’s part, you’ve got a classroom where members of Group B have to work twice as hard just to keep up, and are substantially more likely to fail or drop out.

This is the reality I see in a lot of schools that are run by men who “treat everyone equally”. There are often a good number of female students at the beginner level, because swords are awesome and attract all kinds of people. At higher levels, the number of women drops off precipitously, with many either remaining “beginners” for far longer than average, or leaving once they plateau and burn out. There are few female role models (senior students and instructors), and very, very few – if any – women in decision-making or administrative roles. Those that do lead and excel are anomalies, and are often “one of the guys” in temperament and fighting style. The men running these schools see the problem. They see that women are dropping out at high rates, or not coming through the door in the same numbers to begin with. They feel the lack of women at higher levels, but don’t have anyone who’s ready to be elevated to a role model position. They want to increase female participation and retention, and they want their school to be welcoming to everyone – that’s part of why they’re so committed to egalitarian treatment. They’re not jerks, they don’t hate women, and they certainly aren’t deliberately driving them away. They just happen to have created an environment that makes it difficult for all but the most exceptional woman to do well.

So what now? If you’re an instructor at a school that struggles to recruit and retain women, and you really want to address that problem, you’ve got two options.

You can stick to your ethos of treating everyone equally, and modify your training methods and culture to include a broader understanding of who “everyone” is and what they need. You make sure to prioritize a mix of techniques that rely on a variety of physical strengths, teach movement skills that are ergonomically sound for a range of body types, and expand your understanding of correct form to include minor variations based on physiology. You tweak your class structure to accommodate people who warm up at a range of different rates (for example, you might vary when sparring or evaluations happen, sometimes putting them early in the class period to capitalize on students being “fresh”, and sometimes putting them at the end when those who warm up slower are just hitting peak performance). You encourage both competitive motivation (e.g. preparing for external competitions, internal mini-tournaments, and the occasional friendly rivalry) and cooperative motivation (e.g. mutual verbal support, training exercises that are more process-oriented than goal-oriented and emphasize the shared experience of training together, collaborative research projects). You respect a range of emotional expressions, and create an atmosphere where laughter is welcome so long as it doesn’t interrupt the actual lesson, and tears can happen in private or on the shoulder of a friend, depending on what a student needs most.

This approach may require a complete overhaul of your teaching methods and class structure, and will require tweaking and more subtle changes with time as your school grows and your student body changes. It also requires a willingness to step outside of your own comfort zone, and to create an environment that isn’t tailored specifically to your own learning needs (or those of people most like you). This is a challenging path, as it forces instructors to actively re-tool their training methods on an ongoing basis, and to balance often disparate needs in a single classroom. It pairs very well with one-on-one coaching as a tool for optimizing each individual’s training to meet their personal goals, and can be more labour-intensive as a result. The payoff is a diverse, integrated school community in which anyone who puts in the work really can succeed.

But maybe you don’t want to change your school’s culture; maybe you really value the way things work on a day-to-day basis, or don’t have the time and teaching resources to extensively re-tool your programming. Your other option is spinning off dedicated programming that’s designed specifically with women in mind. You encourage some of your members to run a women’s study group or class (it may only meet once or twice a month, or be entirely informal, depending on available resources). You put women’s categories in tournaments, or run women’s-only tournaments. If there aren’t enough women at your school to build something from scratch, you bring in guest instructors for occasional woman-centric workshops and teaching weekends.

Having these programs and events isn’t discrimination; it’s an acknowledgement of the reality that women often have different training needs, and that your core classes aren’t optimized to serve those needs. Some women will continue attending your main classes, and some of them will do quite well. Adjacent women-specific programming will provide a better learning environment for those women for whom your usual way of doing things isn’t a good fit. It may also act as an alternative means of entry into your main classes by giving women beginners a chance to get comfortable in a space tailored for them, and build up the confidence and skills that will allow them to do well in a range of environments.

Overtly separating out women’s programming does come with challenges, as it’s a lot more likely to read as a political move to outside observers, and can lead to cliquishness and social stratification within your school if there aren’t enough opportunities for different classes and groups to mingle (a familiar problem for schools with different program streams or study groups). This approach has the benefit of consuming fewer ongoing resources and of allowing you to keep your existing training environment running the way you like it best, and can still dramatically increase how inviting and nurturing your school is to women overall.

True equality comes from giving all of your students the tools they need to succeed, and requires you to recognize that not everyone needs the same tools. Whether the differences between students’ needs come from gender or memory/learning style (you’ve likely dealt with the differences between teaching visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners), a good instructor makes a good-faith effort to understand and meet those needs. If you treat all of your students the same way based on an archetypal “generic student”, it’s worth examining who that student looks, acts, and learns like – and who they don’t.