Friday, March 27, 2015

Recruiting and retaining women in jiu jitsu

What do jiu jitsu women want?

The question of "what do women want" has puzzled men since about the time they became bipeds. And it's never had an easy answer. We women are a complex, heterogeneous lot, difficult to lump together in broad, blanket statements.

But what I am interested in here is "what do women want in a jiu jitsu school?" Specifically, what is it that got women's feet in the door at their first academies? What made them choose that academy over other options?  And if they one day move on, what will jiu jitsu women look for in their future schools?

Women are a fast-growing segment of jiu jitsu, but we remain a stark minority. I'm going to offer you some best-estimate, completely made up statistics here. When I started training 4.5 years ago, women appeared to make up less than 10% of total jiu jitsu students. Now, in my estimate, they make up 15-20%. This is progress, for sure! But the fact is, women are still grossly under-represented in jiu jitsu. 

Why should academies care about recruiting more female students? The way I see it, the reasons are three-fold. Whatever drives your instructor, increasing the female membership is a benefit:

  • Financial: Let's say that your academy falls in the high range of my estimate and is 20% female. That's pretty good, right? Not if you consider the missing 30% lost revenue. How much more money would be brought in if female numbers were brought up to the level of males? More women = more dues paying members = more money for the academy.
  • Self defense: If the mission of your school is to empower students with Gracie self defense, women should be a major part of your targeted student base. Jiu jitsu self defense is about using technique and leverage to defend oneself against bigger, stronger opponents, which makes it perfect for women. The unfortunate reality is that women are disproportionately victims of violent attacks and therefore need self defense skills even more than men do. 
  • Competition: If your school is competition oriented, recruiting women makes good sense too. More students means there are more opportunities to score points for your school. Also, since fewer women train than men do, their divisions are often less dense, affording them more opportunities to place in tournaments. (This isn't always the case, though, since women have fewer divisions than men do).

Schools benefit from recruiting women, but for some this is easier said than done. To find out what women are looking for in their jiu jitsu schools, I used Facebook to poll 45 women from across the country. Here's what I found:

What attracts women to their first jiu jitsu academies?

For women who have never trained before, what got their feet in the door at their first schools?  A significant number of women whom I polled had backgrounds in other martial arts - boxing, Aikido, muay thai, judo, and Krav Maga - and looked to jiu jitsu to expand their martial arts practice. A few had survived some type of violent attack and turned to jiu jitsu for self defense training. The vast majority, however, walked into their first jiu jitsu school via referral from someone they knew - usually a friend or significant other. Personal invitations from current students was the most common method of bringing women into schools.

Location and convenience were also huge factors. Online media played a role as well. A couple of the women reported that they would not have tried jiu jitsu if not for the inexpensive Groupon deals that brought them in. Interestingly, more than one reported that they chose their school because there were pictures of women on its website but not on those of neighboring schools.

For other ladies, the presence of a women's only class was the clincher:

"Having a women's only class was just a way to get my foot in. After I was comfortable I took all the regular classes with the guys." - Cimonnett Guilbeau
"I started with a women's class, because it seemed like a good way to ease in. Some people roll their eyes at women's-only classes, but I think they're important. I know a lot of sexual assault survivors who do BJJ and women's classes can go a long way towards making them feel safe." Megan Katsaounis


What do experienced jiu jitsu women look for when choosing a school?

As for women who have trained for a while, what do they value in their jiu jitsu schools? What would they look for when searching for a new place to train?


First and foremost, women want to feel safe when they are training.

"Of course as a female in a male dominated sport, I want to make sure that I feel safe. BJJ is a very intimate sport and I have to trust my partners won't take advantage of that. " -Lebecca Rekim

"Although my training partners are predominantly male, they all feel like my big brothers. We joke around and play a lot, but I feel that if someone were to walk in and harass me in any way, it would be taken care of by my training partners and instructors in a heartbeat."- Beverly Huang

"The first time I met my instructor, he told me that if anyone at the school made me feel uncomfortable, I should tell him so he could take care of it. That meant a lot to me. It showed that having women in the school was a priority for him and that he understood how intimidating it could be." -Megan Katsaounis


This was a huge factor that was mentioned a lot. On the mats, cleanliness and safety are 2 sides of the same coin. No one wants her health put at risk due to poor hygiene. 

"Facility has to have clean bathrooms and mats." Lynn Ferri

"Clean mats, of course!" Elizabeth Cates 


Lots of women stated that if they had to find a new school, they would first look within their affiliation. If that were not available, they would find another affiliation of good reputation.

"A lineage I can be proud to be part of [is important]. If I don't respect the person that promoted you, I don't want them promoting me. This means no 'hilarious' stories about beating people up in bars, rape rumors (naturally), and just generally not being a d-bag." -Chrissy Linzy


"Respect. No to any kind of bigotry. If the teacher makes misogynist, racist, homophobic comments or allows them from students this is a BAD sign." - Josefina Lozano


The vibe within the school means a lot - community and partnership were common themes mentioned.

"I see almost all of my teammates as comrades rather than rivals. They've pushed me on the mat and also have been my support as my friends." - Lebecca Rekim

"The other thing that made a big difference was the enthusiasm of the other women at the school. It was clear that they love jiu-jitsu and see other women as partners not rivals. They went out of their way to be welcoming: instructing me, lending me gis, inviting me to events, etc. I've followed their example and tried to be extra accommodating to new women." -Megan Katsaounis 

"I am not sure I would have seriously continued to stick with it...if not for the other women who really took the time to work with me and made me feel wanted and welcome...Strong community goes a long long way for me." - Chelsea Kurtzman 

Open door policy 

"I travel a lot, so I won't train with an instructor that doesn't have the 'train with everyone' attitude. On top of that, I am an adult. I don't need my instructor's 'permission' to visit another gym." - Chrissy Linzy 

"My ability to train other places is important. Women's Grappling Camp and open mats are non-negotiable." - Jen Whitcomb   

The presence of other women...?

While a strong female community is a definite plus, it is not a deal breaker for most women who have trained a while. Also, forced segregation due to sex is a big no-no.   
"My instructor thinks that what recruits women to BJJ is other women who do BJJ. Where there are women others follow and that's true I think. I would love to train at a school where there are other women aside from one."- Geeta Bhat    

"As far as training with women, that's totally optional for me. I would rather have zero women than be expected to train with the same woman night after night." - Chrissy Linzy 

Josefina Lozano sums the issue up wonderfully. "No FORCED pairing according to gender. You are paying money and have a limited time to train, is a no when the teacher always pairs women with women...regardless of height, weight, rank." She continues, "but the fact that there are other women is usually a good sign, that there are higher belt women is a better sign. And if the group is composed of women of different ages and athletic backgrounds AND THEY HAVE STUCK AROUND [that] is definitely a sign of a school that has found the right formula to promote a good environment for women that can bring more female students to BJJ and KEEP THEM. Ergo, is a school I definitely would consider trying." 

Different women have different priorities, of course. But these were the most common qualities mentioned that attracted those I polled to their jiu jitsu schools. How does your academy stack up?