Pay in the Fitness Industry

Pay in The Fitness Industry - A Pretty Place To Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

I don’t think it’ll be a shock to anyone when I say that pay in the fitness industry isn’t the highest. Depending on your source, the average fitness professional is self-employed, working for an hourly rate of (on average) either £10.51 (ONS) or £21 (emdUK). The vast majority of fitness professionals are women, and nearly a quarter of those women work part-time. So if you’re working 20 hours a week and receiving £21 per hour (let’s be ambitious) then you’re likely to be taking home around £420 a week/£1,680 before tax and any costs associated with running your businesses. That’s just over £20k per year before tax/costs. It’s not hugely surprising then that those who are looking to leave the industry cite low pay as a reason, especially when career progression (driven by professional training) is often limited due to cost, which fitness professionals have to foot themselves.

Over the weekend a friend drew my attention to job advert for a social media role at a London gym that paid £60 per month plus unlimited classes. I know it’s not specifically a fitness role, but it is in the fitness industry so I think the observations about the state of the industry apply. Admittedly, this example is at the very far end of the piss-taking spectrum, but it does illustrate how some companies value talent, time and work in an industry where low pay is already an issue.

What was particularly interesting was how the company in question defined their values and the image they wanted to communicate. They talked about clients who built life long friendships, personal transformations, community and celebrating women’s strength and capabilities. The Guilty Feminist and and Beauty Redefined were used as examples. It’s clear this company sees itself, or at least wants to be seen, as a place that champions and supports women. Which makes the low pay offered for this role perplexing.

Pay in the Fitness Industry - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Pay is a feminist issue. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that in 2016 the average pay of women working full-time was nearly 10% lower than men’s pay. This means that compared to men, women stopped earning on the 10th November 2016, and after this date were effectively working for free. The gender pay gap in part-time work is even greater at just over 18% in 2016. In 2012, 64% of the lowest paid workers were women. Admittedly, the ONS found that female fitness instructors are paid 22.9% more then men, but while this is promising I don’t think that negates the industry’s responsibility to pay fairly, particularly for part-time work. It is also worth noting that, while I am drawing on data from the wider fitness industry (the emdUK drew on data from people working in a rage of roles in the industry), the ONS data only considers the role of fitness instructor. When you look at the gap for marketing associate professionals women are paid 7.5% less than men.

Coupled with this is an issue is access to quality part-time work. This is work where the flexibility is not skewed in the employer’s favour (as is arguably the case in the example above), but work quality work that pays fairly with a balances power dynamic between capital and labour. Flexible working is a feminist issue, and an important social issue and can contribute to closing the gender pay gap. According to Timewise, only 6% of quality jobs are advertised with the opportunity to work flexibly, suggesting that lower value may be attributed to part-time working when no one in leadership is working flexibly. 1.5 million people are in jobs they’re overqualified for because they need flexibility (I’m one of those people), and 1.9 million aren’t meeting their full earning potential - which would most defiantly be the case for whoever takes up this poorly paid social media role.

This is why it’s so awkward that a company that positions itself as being all about lifting women up is advertising a role that is well positioned for a woman who needs flexible work, but is paying unfairly and suggesting an uneven power dynamic. This entirely contradicts the values of feminism. It undermines the work a lot of people are doing to overcome gender pay and work issues, and most importantly it totally undervalues an individual in an environment supposedly built to elevate people.

I really hope that the wage advertised was a typo, although even £60 a week or £600 a month would be a bit low for the work being advertised. I also really hope the company concerned listen to the outpouring on comments on the advert expressing dismay at the pay and take steps to apply the values they say they have to the way they work behind the scenes.

Update: the advert has now been removed from the company’s Facebook page. I have reached out to the company for comment.

Update 16 July 2019: since I wrote this post I’ve spoken with the owner of the company mentioned. The owner explained that where they had gone wrong was posting this job on an official job page on Facebook when actually they consider it a ‘skills swap’ and that they ‘absolutely did not intend to insult, exploit or cause offence to those who are looking for part time work’. They have emphasised that they are a sole-trader offering classes in public spaces serving their local community and they do not have the income to pay a marketing professional.

The owner went on to explain that they are a novice when it comes to social media and that this was compounded by dyslexia which can mean they don’t always find it easy to communicate effectively. In hindsight they can now see just how much they’ve asked for, and that these things can’t realistically be done in a few hours a week.

The ‘skills swap’ was premised on previous experience where the owner’s clients had offered to help with elements such as branding and building their website in exchange for free classes. The owner acknowledges now that this may have led them to become a little naive and that they are embarrassed and upset about this situation. They have suspended their search for support.

I do not intend to pass judgement on this statement.

* images: Alex Dixon




Striking Women:


Gendered Resistance (in Indoor Cycling)

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Since I got injured I’ve become obsessed with indoor cycling. Right now nothing comes close the sweaty endorphin boost I get from pounding it out on a bike, plus it’s a really good way to keep my fitness up when running is off the cards.

Because I’m a woman on a budget, and I don’t always want to go an workout at work, I decided to start hitting the spin classes at my local gym - Brockwell Lido. For just over forty quid a month I can take as many classes as I want, and if I stick to my goal of three bike sessions a week I’ll definitely be getting my moneys worth considering how much classes as boutique studios like Psycle are (although I do love them so!). So last Monday I toddled off to the Lido to check out my first class(s - obviously I decided to hit a double).

Being totally straight I wasn’t expected classes even close to those I’ve taken part in at Psycle, Boom or Heartcore, after all the Lido is essentially a local leisure centre not a trendy studio, and the offering reminded me a lot of the Spinning classes I used to go to occasionally as a teenager. The instructor shouts out a resistance and an RPM and you do your best to keep up, no fancy choreography and no faffing about with upper body, it is all about the bike. What I wasn’t expecting was the instructor to should out one level of resistance for ‘the ladies’ and another for ‘the men’, calling out those who weren’t on track as he wandered around the studio.

Maybe I’ve been training alone for too long, or maybe I spend too much time in high end studios, but I honestly thought that this approach had died a death. While I’ve heard stories of ‘ladies weights’ I figured that type of thing was a one off, and that I wouldn’t experience sexism around performance in any gym I went to.

Now this isn’t about my capabilities or ego - if anything my current injury means I need less resistance rather than more - but it is about the messages we share with men and women about their capabilities as athletes (and in this context I’m using athlete to refer to anyone who moves, because Chevy Rough raised me right). It’s also as much an issue about men and masculinity as it is about women - reinforcing notions that as a man you should be able to achieve a particular level of athleticism based on your chromosomes, something we are gradually realising is deeply damaging. Similarly, it reinforces notions that women are inherently weaker than men, and therefore need to tone down their exertion, which again promotes damaging stereotypes. Yes, men and women do have physiological differences that can impact performance, but at the level of a sports centre cycling class this isn’t an element I think is particularly relevant.

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Leaving class the instructor’s directions played on my mind, and I decided to ask some of my friends who teach indoor cycling for their thoughts. Was this actually a relatively normal approach that I’d simply missed by riding in fancy studios? Was there a good reason for gendered resistence?

Honestly most people I spoke to (including other staff at the Lido) were really surprised that anyone still took this approach, although (and much to her credit!) Mollie did fess up and tell me that she thinks that she’s probably done similar when training people on Keiser bikes (where there’s a visual display of resistance, so similar to what I was riding during this class). Mollie commented that as an instructor it can be hard to know where everyone is at in terms of strength, and while you could give guidance based on the idea of beginner and advanced riders it is easy to cheat, and some people might identify more with directions based on gender. I can see where Mollie is coming from, but I’d argue that we need to take care around reproducing narratives - it’s like your Mum always says, just because so-and-so does something it doesn’t mean you have to as well. When it comes to gender ideology (and this scenario is a prime example) we need to be alive to challenging rhetoric and language if we want to promote change.

I was curious to know how this all worked from a training perspective, and Carly chatted me through the various approaches to coaching in a class setting. Reflecting on my experience she explained how the instructor I encountered may have slipped into assumptions around gender and performance - when teaching indoor cycling you can work on watts (power) and give an indication on what athletes should be aiming for, and her thesis is that the instructor may have interpreted this as related to the factual biological capacity of each gender. Which does make sense, although as I mentioned earlier in this post I don’t think is necessarily relevant when considering performance in the context of a leisure centre fitness class. But then maybe I’m underestimating my fellow Lido goers and my analysis is actually based on bias?

Carly told me that the approach used in my class wasn’t one she’d use herself as she’d worry about alienating women and making men feel ashamed if they weren’t able to reach the prescribed resistance, as well as bringing negative segregating language into an environment where she’s trying to make people feel good (God I love that woman). She also highlighted that performance is affected by a myriad of different issues, some of which can vary almost by day - take my leg injury for example - and really prescriptive instructions about things like power and resistance aren’t helpful if you take this into account. While the intention might be to encourage people to push themselves, this could really backfire. It’s a tricky balance.

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

I can’t begin to imagine the challenges of teaching a group fitness class, but I do think community environments have a responsibility to be conscious of the impact of words and actions and that it’s important we reframe athletic efforts if we want to break down gender barriers in sport. Hell, we need to do this if we want to break down barriers that suggest you can only participate if you’re already fit or athletic.

What are your thoughts on this? Do we have a responsibility to be mindful of the effect of our approach on gender, or am I being a bit extra?

*images: Anna Rachel Photography for The Altitude Centre.

Set Up To Fail? Women and Sport Science

Women in Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

One of my biggest passions is advocating for women in sport. I firmly believe that gender ideology around sport undermines women’s participation, whether that’s giving girls the impression that sport isn’t for them, selling the idea of cosmetic fitness above performance or sports science that privileges men.

Writing in The Telegraph, Caroline Criado Perez explains (extremely succinctly) the ways that sports science fails women and draws specific attention to ‘the gender data gap’. The gender data gap is the difference between the amount of data and research we have in relation to women verses the amount we have in relation to men. Where a gender data gap exists we risk drawing conclusions that potentially favour one gender over the other. Caroline outlines a really great example of this in relation to carb-loading (something very close to a lot of runner’s hearts, especially in the run up to London Marathon!):

The general advice for endurance athletes is to carb-load, with at least one expert specifically advising against fat-loading.

But it turns out that this standard pre-race advice is based on studies in men. And it does not hold for women, who have to eat 34 per cent more calories than they usually would to achieve even 50 per cent of the performance benefit men experience from carb-loading. Which may not be an “appropriate strategy” given “the potential deleterious effects on performance” of overeating. Rather, the authors suggest, because women burn more fat than men during endurance exercise, they might be better off fat-loading. Might. We do not know, because, of course, “few studies examining the effects of fat loading […] on performance have included women”.

In short, because of the gender data gap the pre-race nutrition strategy used by a lot of women might actually be undermining their performance. Not cool.

Women and Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

This isn’t to say that the advice to carb-load is necessarily wrong, it just might not be right for women, because the majority of sports science research is carried out on men. More concerning is the impact the gender data gap could have on advice relating to more serious health conditions, which Caroline explores in relation to high blood pressure and highlights that if more sports science research included female participants we might take a different approach to managing this condition in women.

So why does this happen? You’d think scientific rigour would demand thought be put into sample populations when carrying out research, and it probably is, but in my mind the issue comes back to gender ideology. Gender ideology in sport is pervasive, modern sport is a symbol of masculinity and in turn that creates a powerful form of sexism. We see it everywhere, media coverage that is saturated with images of male sporting performance, interviews where female athletes are quizzed about their personal lives over their athletic interests, the challenge of securing coverage for women’s events (and accompanying mutterings that, really, they’re a bit crap). The world around us constantly reinforces the idea that sport is for men, so why would sports science be any different? Academics aren’t infallible, our choices are always informed by our experiences, that is ideology at play.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

The challenge in this scenario is that by its very definition ideology is a set of beliefs or principles on which social organisation is based. As I’ve mentioned, in my work I argue that modern sport is a symbol of masculinity which plays out as sexism in society. When I talk about gender in my work I am referring to the socially constructed roles of men and women. In British society gender has historically been categorised based on biological definitions, focusing on the idea that there is a ‘natural’ difference between people in each category. Overlaying this is the idea that men in British society experience privilege, and this is used to determine and justify the difference placed on people in each category.

Sport as we know it emerged during the Victorian era and were very much the domaine of men. They were symbols of masculinity, chauvinism and power. Women for the most part were excluded. If they did engage in sport they were deemed unattractive (aesthetic rationale), acting in opposition to femininity (social rationale) and at risk of endangering themselves psychologically and physically (medical rationale). The belief that there's innate biological and psychological differences between the sexes created a form of sexism so pervasive and powerful that the exclusion of women from sport felt like common sense. And so women’s participation was restricted to whatever activities society (men) felt were acceptable and outside of these narrow parameters was unwelcome.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Although we’ve come a long way (and this post explains how), social and cultural ideas about how the genders ought to behave remain pervasive and continue to play a role in the choices we make, for example whether we choose to participate in sport, what sport and to what extent. Arguably ideology has had the effect of protecting sport as a masculine domaine and we are still in the very early days of overcoming this, which could be one of the reasons why there is such a significant gender data gap in sport.

You can help overcome this gap by challenging assumptions, share articles like this one and Caroline’s piece in The Telegraph, participate in sport and share your experiences, go to watch women’s sport, watch women’s sport on TV and encourage others to do the same, support publications that actively promote women’s sport and generally make some noise! If you come across someone who is disparaging help educate them, it’s chipping away that makes change.

*images: Kaye Ford