Credit: Les Mills

Women smashing the fitness industry’s glass ceiling

By Merryn Hill

Women have often been sexualised within the fitness industry and often positioned as ‘eye candy’ by the male gaze, but women are changing the narrative.

In the last five years, women have gained so much within the fitness industry, striving for greater gender equality and representation in the sector. From fitness influencers to female fitness clothing brand ambassadors, the equality gap between men and women has never been smaller. Yet only a few years before, women were largely employed in front-of-house and host positions. 

Since the fitness industry first became popular with dance aerobics—often led by women—the perceptions of women have varied significantly from men. A common stereotype is to imagine the women instructor and the male trainer. This is only backed up by the numerous advertisements, websites and stock photos depicting men as the trainer and women as the instructor, or even the “eye candy”. However, now businesses owned by women and women-only gyms are becoming more and more popular and an increasing number of women are now employed in leadership positions within the fitness sector. With such sweeping changes in recent years, what are the reasons behind these long overdue changes?  

The most obvious is the fact that women are now holding more varied positions within the fitness industry. Women are now more visible in sports clubs and gyms, holding managerial and director roles across many organisations, and an increasing number of women are changing their own perceptions of their role in the fitness industry. Where they were once viewed as “eye candy”, women are now challenging themselves to take on the leadership positions that were once dominated by men.

Another crucial difference is that women are supporting women. Abandoning the age-old, toxic perception that other women are “competition”, the influential women that make it to leadership positions are now encouraging others to follow in their footsteps. As Jennifer Halsall-de Wit, COO of the Women in Fitness association said: “Because the managing director of Sports Clubs of Canada and Bally Total Fitness Canada of the Canadian market was a woman – Paula Comfort – many more women stepped into management positions. I had the wonderful opportunity of being one of those women placed in leadership positions and watching the gender balance shift”. Women supporting women is a powerful force behind encouraging more women to become involved in the fitness industry.

Moreover, fitness brands are now starting to engage more with women. An increasing number of sportswear brands are now launching campaigns to encourage women to get involved. For example, Nike built a loyal female customer base through campaigns such as the #betterforit challenge, which encouraged women to openly share their fitness goals or when Nike South Africa hosted the Believe in More event, which saw the nation’s leading female athletes and prominent personal trainers to lead workouts, where the participants shared their training stories.

Another major trend in the fitness industry that is growing more popular among women and viral on social media is women-only boutique gyms. This is not the first instance of women-only gyms becoming popular: Curves started the trend back in the 1990s, although the company entered financial trouble with many of these establishments shutting down. However, the recent rise of female-only gyms at a more local level seems different. These boutique gyms are racking in fantastic reviews and customer feedback, with some offering classes on sports more dominated by men, such as martial arts and strength training. The trend even spread to social media with the hashtag #womenonlygyms garnering over 18 million views in 2022 alone and 37,000 ‘female-only gyms’ on Google. It’s very obvious that the rising popularity of female-only gyms, which offer tailored classes and a safe space for women to workout, will surely disrupt the fitness industry market and encourage more women to get involved.

As hopeful as these changes are, women in the fitness industry are still facing rather bleak prospects. Although the majority of personal trainers are women, the vast majority of fitness CEOs are still men. In regards to the wealthiest or the most influential fitness businesses, the writing’s on the wall: women rarely hold a CEO position. ran a cross-sectional study of executives across 30 prominent fitness companies and clubs. Out of those 30 companies, 29 were men and only 1 was a woman. Generally speaking, women are still branching out into more executive decisions, however, top positions are still largely dominated by men. And the bad news doesn’t end there. According to the Gender Equality in Fitness Industry 2022 report, 70% of gym owners are men and leadership positions are less attainable for women. Women cited that some of their major obstacles were not feeling respected and being underestimated in their abilities which reduces their chances of being promoted. Of the women that made it to leadership positions, 27% said that their journey to becoming a leader was made more difficult because of their gender, in contrast to only 7% of men who cited gender as a reason.

With the rise of more women in leadership positions, female-only gyms and brand engagement, there is no doubt that gender equality in the fitness industry has been improving in recent years. However, true equality is still a long way away. With women finally venturing out into more varied positions, it is more important than ever to remain aware that there is still inequality between men and women in our world. But these trends signal that the fitness industry is starting to change for the better. 


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments