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The only woman on the mat.

Today I’m at the boxing gym. I’ve been going to this gym for over a year. The faces in the room are familiar. The cardio warm-up follows a routine. But today is unique. I am the only woman on the mat. I see others surveying the room in casual curiosity and I wonder how many of them have noticed one of these things is not like the others. I brush the notion off as ridiculous. I’m making assumptions, reading into the situation. This has always been an inviting, inclusive community. I am “one of the guys.”

We are asked to pair up. I hold my breath as it quickly becomes apparent that others did, in fact, notice. People avoid looking in my direction as the room organizes into pairs. I walked up to a younger guy that’s well matched to my height and for all intents and purposes would make a suitable partner for the drills today. I am standing in front of him, facing him. I make eye contact. I stand up with my shoulders squared and give a hearty smile, as if to reassure him that it’s ok, I’m a fun person and we’ll work well together. That I have confidence in this pairing. He looks at me and his brow furrows. He leans to the side, looking past me, and makes eye contact with another male across the room. They nod at each other and he walks past me. Suddenly everyone in the room is paired up and…shit, the class is uneven. I am now standing in the back of the room alone.

I take one small second to feel the anger, the annoyance, the “what the fuck.” I switch to executive decision-making mode and quickly walk up to the closest pair matched to my height. It just happens to be the aforementioned guy and his across-the-room pal. I cheerfully announce “Hey I’m Jess. I’m working with you guys today.” No reply, just forlorn stares. Then, as if I’m apologizing I tell them I’ll start on the Bob (the boxing dummy) and relegate myself as the odd “man” out. It quickly becomes apparent as the timer buzzes to swap partners that they have no intention of including me. So I begin to delegate. I leave the Bob and walk over to the pair, with my arm outstretched as an invitation to hold the punching pad. I announce the plans “ok I’ll hold the pad this round. You (pointing to the second guy) can be on the Bob this round, then hold for me next round.” The next time I’m on the Bob the female instructor comes over to remind me “make sure you’re rotating in with the guys.” She’s used to being the only woman on the mat and is passing along the knowledge that ultimately my training is my responsibility and, let’s face it, this is apparently not going to be a team effort.

I begin to think about female stereotypes that I appear to be unwittingly perpetuating out of the mere effort to just try and get some experience and build my skills through these damn drills today. I recall the times I’ve heard women in power or leadership positions be referred to as “bossy” and think “well how else are they supposed to ‘rotate in,’ to get a word in edgewise or make progress on a project in a room full of men.” I think of the time a guy at the gym told me he doesn’t like to spar with women “because they go all out, like they’ve got something to prove.” Don’t we though? I’m thinking of all the things I have to prove in this second: that I’m strong enough to hold the pad for the guys, that I have the skill required to be in this class, that I can “hang,” that I deserve to be here, to have a training partner. I'm putting in the sweat. I'm showing up on the mat. The thought crosses my mind that at the end of the day my training may be subpar today because a few guys are uncomfortable working with a woman. The thought also crosses my mind "what a bunch of bullshit!"

I’ve heard the retorts: “it goes against my nature/values/ethics to ‘hit a woman.’” Or “I was worried I’d hurt you.” Really? We’re adults, in a mixed-gender boxing class we both voluntarily attended. It’s our responsibility to tell each other to back down on the power if necessary and we can always focus on form or targeting or a number of other aspects of training. And those rules apply for any combination of training partners from different weight classes, ages, or skill levels. We should welcome diversity in training. Adaptation is a key component to survival and skill development.

So here is my call to action: imagine the same scenario above but this time replace me with your mother/sister/wife/daughter. What would you change about the situation? What outcome would you hope for? The next time you see the only woman on the mat remember that you have the ability to welcome her into the fray. She is not “the only woman.” She is a sparring partner, a skilled fighter, and a survivor-in-training. She showed up to the mat, wearing worn gloves and a smile. She's a tough SOB...just like you and every other SOB on the mat.


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