Across the country there is a growing debate over whether men’s and women’s gym facilities should be separated, especially on university campuses.
In recent months, Western University made the decision to provide women with the option of attending women’s only gym hours. Other universities in Toronto such as Ryerson and York have already implemented women’s only hours in an aim to make female gym attendees feel more comfortable. As reported by CBC, Western’s initiative was met with criticism by at least one student who argued there are better ways to deal with harassment and safety than the segregation of facilities.
In 2015, amid heated debate, McGill University turned down a request for women’s only gym hours.
The debate over women’s only hours has been met with two contrasting views. Opponents state that segregating gyms will regress equality for women, while offering men less time to use the facility. Proponents often seek a segregated space for personal, cultural or religious reasons.
Cathy Baker, a former kindergarten teacher, has attended the women’s only hours at the Toronto Pan Am Centre for three and a half years. The gym, which is jointly owned by the City of Toronto and the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), holds women’s only hours every weekday at specific times and sees attendance from students and older women.
“It can be really intimidating for them [women]; you get young men who are lifting massive amounts of weights and banging around and strutting with all their testosterone and some of these women, they are really intimidated by them,” Baker said.
Natalie Elisha, the equity coordinator in the athletics and recreation department at UTSC, says that the idea behind offering women’s only hours is about being able to serve different groups’ needs appropriately and not about offering all groups the same access to the gym.
“Equality is treating everybody exactly the same, and equity is treating different groups with different needs differently. So, it’s not about assuming that everyone is going to able to access the place in the same way and sometimes you have to put different things in place, and you achieve the same outcome,” Elisha said.
It’s not about excluding, it’s about including.
Beth Ali, the executive director of athletics and co-curricular physical activity at the University of Toronto St. George campus, says that offering women’s only hours helps to break down the barriers that may prevent women from participating in athletics. However, Ali says that even if women’s only hours are offered, co-ed hours still make up a larger amount of the total gym times offered in a week, which allows any gym attendee to use the facilities.
“It’s not about excluding, it’s about including,” Ali said.
Baker added, “The fact of the matter is a lot of women feel intimidated when they go into the gym. So, having a few hours out of the whole entire week where they can have some privacy … is not unreasonable.”
As a woman who wears the hijab, Husniya Naushad, a first-year student at UTSC, said she does feel more comfortable attending women’s only hours. However, she said she understands why some people feel it’s unfair.
“They [men and women] should have equal times, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a women’s only section. In fact, maybe there should even be a men’s only section,” Naushad said.