Women put off using the weights sections of gyms by “intimidatory atmosphere” among men, says research

Women are put off using the weights sections of gyms by “an intimidatory atmosphere” among young men working out, new research says.

Two University of Winchester researchers found that women gym users felt intimidated by men staring at them and by equipment that was designed only for men.

Dr Luke Turnock, a post-doctoral teaching fellow in criminology, told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow today [Friday 26 April] that most of the women gym users he spoke to avoided the weights section or only used it when there were few men around.

Dr Turnock, who worked with PhD research student Maria Moxey, said: “Based on my observations in gyms, I have seen women come into the weights area, take equipment, and immediately leave. One of the primary issues identified was a feeling of intimidation when using certain areas or equipment.

“Crossing the divide into the male space could be intimidating, and the majority of women, even those who were themselves comfortable in other areas of the gym, commented on this issue. It seems to be a common feature to the majority of commercial gyms today.”

Some of the 25 women he interviewed who used gyms in London, Cardiff and the West Country, told him that they felt uncomfortable going from the cardio area to the weights section. Others said:

• “I can see they’re looking at me, it’s very obvious to me that they’re [young male gym users] talking about me, and they make me uncomfortable. When they’re in a group, they become overly confident, and they make comments and laugh about it – they’ll be quite perverse.”  (20-year-old woman)

• “Being a girl and going downstairs with the free weights, I feel like you get stared at, like ‘what are you doing here?’ sometimes”. (A 19-year-old woman member of the gym staff)

• “There’s nowhere to hide – with the weights section, there’s just nowhere to go. Like everyone can see you, you are on show all of the time, a lot of them are completely mirrored.” (22-year-old user)

• “It’s just like a crowd of boys like moving around, which is obviously like quite intimidating for a girl. If I want to use [the weights] downstairs, I come to the gym first thing in the morning, when it’s completely empty.”  (21-year-old)

Some women found that the weights equipment was designed only for men, Dr Turnock told the conference.

One woman highlighted “how at five foot one inch, it was impossible for her to reach the collars if she wanted to use a barbell rack, effectively designating it as a piece of equipment for men.

“An observation I made related to a punching bag in the gym, where a single pair of gloves was provided, in size large. Effectively, this designated the equipment as male only, since very few women will be able to wear large gloves.”

Dr Turnock said that changes should be made to alter equipment layouts, so there was a less distinct feeling of a men’s area and women’s area. “Many women commented on how better integration of equipment, and changes in structure could help the atmosphere in gyms.”

For more information, please contact: 

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392 


The British Sociological Association’s annual conference takes place at Glasgow Caledonian University from 24–26 April 2019. Over 650 research presentations are given. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235  www.britsoc.co.uk