Why Women Aren't A Trend - They're A Necessity

From its modern origins at Muscle Beach and the founding of the first Gold’s Gym in 1965, the fitness industry has come a long way in many respects. The term fitness has broadened to describe a lifestyle, and fitness business models have diversified considerably. No longer are our consumers limited to choosing between a dank, dark weightlifting floor, or a fuchsia and teal, spandex-laden group fitness room. Whatever your fitness niche of choice, there’s a home for you. Cycle, Pilates, HIIT, boot camp, yoga, you name it, it’s out there. You can even pay a Flexologist to take you through an active stretching protocol! The rise of the boutique has provided a plethora of diversity in terms of the offering. What you still may have a hard time finding is many females in leadership roles.

The subject of today’s article isn’t about the diversity of those attending classes and clubs, but the “statistics” are worth a peek. I use statistics lightly as finding any scientific tracking outside of IRHSA’s annual benchmarks is nearly impossible.

· For a traditional fitness facility, “gym,” the mix of males to females is roughly 50-50.  However, women are nearly twice as likely to bail on their membership within the first year.

· It’s been said that as high as 90% who claim allegiance to a boutique offering are female.  It should be noted that in most cases, those women tend to skew very heavily white, slim, and young.

· Even outside of the boutique space, some big-box models are strongly female. At Planet Fitness, the membership base hovers around 70% of women.

So, our customers are female. What do our fitness leadership teams look like?

That's some crazy mirror - leadership doesn't reflect the customer base

When I moved into my first management role in 2005, all of my bosses were male. The owner of the company was male; the VP was male; all of the other General Managers in my region were male. It wasn’t something I even considered as odd at the time. But this trend continued as my career progressed. At some point, I remember sitting in a board room and noticing I was the only female out of 15.  Somehow, I’d made my way into the boys’ club. Locker room talk was the norm, but I’d been deemed “one of the guys.” In fact, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a male from outside our circle to say something off-color and quickly notice that I was sitting across from him and apologize; not so much for what he had said, but for failing to notice a female was present and edit himself. My comrades would quickly fire in, “Don’t worry about that, buddy, Melissa’s one of us. It doesn’t bother her.” And truth be told, it really didn’t. What did bother me was knowing the salaries of every other person in the room and knowing that mine was still far less than even the next lowest paid. I may have had a seat at the table, but my seat was deemed worth far less.

Why does female representation matter?

First, if leadership is skewed too heavily to one type of person, we miss out on a different perspective. If that leadership fails to jive with its consumer base, a disconnect occurs. Diversity means that a team will have different characteristics and backgrounds, different skills and experiences, and different ideas. It also leads to increased creativity.

It spears innovation and leads to faster problem-solving. According to Josh Bersin, inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market. Harvard Business Review found diverse teams are able to solve problems faster than cognitively similar people.

It leads to increased profits. McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, conducted research which included 180 companies in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They found out that companies with more diverse top teams were also top financial performers.

It makes for a better work environment and causes employees to feel accepted and valued. Deloitte conducted research which captured the views and experiences of 1,550 employees in three large Australian businesses operating in manufacturing, retail, and healthcare. This research showed that engagement is an outcome of diversity and inclusion.

It’s good for your reputation. According to TalentLyft, companies who are dedicated to building and promoting diversity in the workplace are seen as good, more human, and socially responsible organizations.

Workplace diversity also makes your company look more interesting. Finally, if you present a diverse workforce, you will make it easier for many different people to relate to your company and your brand, opening doors to new markets, customers, and business partners. 

Moving the bar and removing (or at least working on) the ceiling 

We certainly have some solid female execs leading big brands, Anytime Fitness, President, Stacy Anderson, and Francesca Schuler, CEO, In-Shape, to name two.  But executive leadership teams are still overwhelming male at many companies: LA Fitness (8% female) and Planet Fitness (12.5% female) are more representative examples. Probably the most encouraging moment I’ve had in the past few years happened this week. I just returned from Las Vegas after spending several days at the Xponential Fitness convention. There I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the female presence in attendance. So many of their franchise owners are women! It’s also worth mentioning that three of their brand presidents are female, Sarah Luna, President, Pure Barre; Lindsay Junk, President, YogaSix; and Melissa Chordock, President, AKT. I look forward to a time when XPO is less of an outlier and more the norm.

Fast forward over a decade from my first leadership role, and I find myself in a much different place. I’ve started and sold my own business. I’ve seen private equity take an interest in fitness and move quickly to invest in businesses throughout our sector. I’ve helped guide a team through an acquisition, and I work with a leadership group that is much more business savvy and progressive. Out of the leaders who report to me, over half are female! I may still often find myself the only female in the room, but we’ve moved out of the locker room. I can name peers in my space achieving great things as female leaders in our industry, but they still exist on a very shortlist. We still need a bigger shift. We need a longer list.

Just getting started

Note - I didn’t even touch on the major gap we have in diversity regarding color (both in membership and leadership.) This is another mountain our industry needs to surmount; one that will require examining marketing, pricing structures, and studio culture. I’ve listed a few insightful articles in the list below.

A few articles I recommend:

Is There an Opportunity Gap for Women in the Fitness Industry?

Is Your Spin Class Too Young, Too Thin, and Too White?

Gender and the Gym

Women in the Fitness Industry: Leaders or Eye Candy?

Priced Out: Paying a Premium for Boutique Fitness

Where Are All of the Black Women in Studio Fitness Classes?