Originally posted 18 January 2015
The views contained in this article are those of the author.
By Mariana Lopez
On several occasions various people have mentioned the trouble of getting girls to try HEMA and after that, stay on… so we at Esfinges asked our members for ideas:
1.- Inclusive Images: There’s a large amount of advertising material of guys with swords but having only guys might make it look like a guys-only activity. Try to have both girls and boys in your material. Give the message at the first opportunity: “This is for everyone!”.
Image: Ilkka Hartikainen
2.- If you already have one girl and she is at a senior level, make her an assistant to the instructor: This will not only give the inclusive message right away, it’s also a great opportunity for girls who are intimidated by the perception of “guys only” to see girls can also rock at it. Also if you have a female instructor, that’s even better.
3.- Avoid uncomfortable atmospheres: If there’s no other girl in the club and you have one visiting, make sure your members refrain from using comments such as “You look so cute with a sword.” or “You’re so sweet when angry/fighting.” – even if made with no bad intentions, these comments can make someone feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. They won’t be able to relax and enjoy their training if they feel they are the focus of unwanted attention. Sexist/homophobic/transphobic comments (e.g. “Hit like a girl”, calling someone a “pussy”, ” that’s gay”) should not be permitted if you want to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.
4.- Clean spaces are welcoming: This is true both for men and women, but it always helps to keep club members. Have clean spaces… if it’s a closed space; make sure it smells fresh and clean. And if you have bathrooms in your place…Oh please make sure they’re the nicest ones, a person who’s grossed out by the place is less likely to come… And remember: Pushups make you look at the floor very close, we know when it’s dirty!
5.- Clean people are even more welcoming: It’s already intimidating to deal with muscular, bigger opponents. To deal with intimidating muscular, huge, smelly ones would scare anyone. Encourage your members to clean their gear and to be clean and presentable themselves.
6.- Ease people’s fears: They won’t say it, but many people join HEMA classes with the idea that swordfighters must be athletic people. Yes they will work hard, but by letting them know when they start out that they don’t need to have experience of any kind, or super awesome skills, can be very helpful and reassuring.
7.- Don’t over-encourage sparring: This applies differently within different cultures. Some cultures (mostly European) have a more open female society, others (such as in Mexico) have very traditional views on women’s behavior. Many girls are not used to having bruises at all, let’s not even mention being used to fighting… If your club is one of those that invites new people to spar right away, do so, but also don’t over-enthusiastically push them to spar in the first moments. Importantly, don’t make them feel bad if they’d prefer not to do so… coming to terms with the idea of a bruise can be a big deal for many girls (but not all).
8.- Be sure to treat everyone equally and individually: I don’t mean to tell everyone to do 10,000 pushups and expect everyone to be at the same level, but especially in countries with these heavy gender-role traditions: be sure to behave the same way to guys and girls in your club ( speaking as a Mexican in a macho culture – we are so used to it we fall into doing it even when we don’t want to some times). Being aware of cultural gender issues will help you, but don’t stereotype the idea… If you have a behavior for girls and one for boys it will go rather wrong. But also don’t ignore the fact that each individual has different needs, approach your new girls as individuals and see their concerns before they start training so you know how to work with them and make their first class as pleasant as possible.
Or in the words of one of our members “treat women as any other member *in* class, but outside of it let the women know that there are resources available specifically for them.”, which leads us on to…
9.- Talk to them about Esfinges on the first day!: What? Such shameless self promotion? Well YES! But with good reason… Some instructors have got into the habit of doing this and it apparently helps. If your club is male-only or has very few girls, pointing the new girls to Esfinges is an easy way to show them that HEMA are for Girls too, and that if they feel initially unsure about addressing some questions to guys, they can do it here. Female-specific gear for example: when there are no other girls, your new female students may well be reluctant to ask you about breast protectors.
Having access to a place where they can see they are not the only ones will encourage them a lot.
10.- Never underestimate self defense: Not all clubs do wrestling and we don’t carry longswords and rapiers in our everyday lives, but HEMA are fighting arts fundamentally, many principles students will learn can be applied to real life situations… Self defense is a great empowering tool to a girl that will make her more likely to stay and improve her self-confidence. Try to find ways to incorporate it into your training.