Unleashing Leadership Potential for Growth: Why the Fitness Industry Needs More Female Leaders

Tara Massouleh

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March 8, 2021

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minute read

PUblished

March 8, 2021

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Women make up around 70% of the global health and wellness workforce but hold only about 25% of its leadership positions. This statistic shows how much work we still have to do in the industry-wide mission to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in health and fitness businesses and organizations. In this case, even though women constitute a massive segment of the industry both as employees and consumers, their voices are sorely underrepresented in upper-level management, executive-level roles, and other decision-making positions.

At Motionsoft and Club Automation’s Fitness Technology Summit in December 2020, top female executives gathered for the “Unleashing Leadership Potential for Growth” session. During the panel, they discussed their experience in the industry, how they’re working to build stronger teams by diversifying leadership, and why they believe the future of fitness is dependent on greater inclusivity. Here, we share some of their thoughts on why when it comes to fitness, gender diversity is an absolute must.

The Evolution of Women in Fitness

Women as major players in the fitness industry is no new concept. From dance aerobics with Jacki Sorenson and Jazzercise with Judi Shepherd Missett in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, to Jane Fonda’s mass popularization of fitness videos and Gin Miller’s creation of step aerobics in the ‘80s, women have always been trailblazers in the industry. In fact, they’re largely to thank for fitness being such a large part of our culture. Today, women have diversified their interests and now dominate much more than just the group fitness space. For example, the fastest-growing race distance is the half-marathon, and 61% of all half-marathon finishers are women.

As employees in the fitness industry, women have surpassed men in almost every category of work. In a study to determine the breakdown of male versus female instructors and trainers, several certifying organizations gave the results of their fitness certifications by gender. Women received an average of 64% of personal training certifications given by the American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, and National Academy of Sports Medicine. For group fitness or exercise instructor certifications that number jumped to an average of 90%.  

So, if women are the biggest drivers of fitness trends and they make up the majority of all fitness employees, why is it men not women who hold the majority of leadership positions in the industry?

For one, the health and wellness industry follows the long-seated societal distribution of power. Though women have certainly made strides toward achieving workplace equality, there will always be thousands of years of history stacked against them. As such, only 7.4% of all Fortune 500 companies are led by women.

President of DMB Sports Clubs Carol Nalevenko says in the fitness industry in particular, women often are held back by typecasting. Because women have dominated the group exercise space for so long, hiring managers often (either consciously or unconsciously) fail to consider women for roles outside of that realm. It’s a vicious cycle in which the more women aren’t hired for leadership positions, the less other women can see themselves in those roles.

“Women need to understand that they don’t need to stop at being a group exercise director,” Nalevenko says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it’s a stepping pail. You have to be ready to put yourself out there and have the confidence that you’re going to make it.”

Why Diversify?

For Francesca Schuler, CEO of In-Shape Health Clubs, diversifying leadership is all about the “why.” Why does having different perspectives and leadership styles at the table matter? She says at its heart the discussion isn’t just about adding more female or more minority leaders to fill a quota. Rather, it’s about creating a diverse leadership team that reflects the community you serve.

“Most of us serve really diverse communities in terms of age, size, genders, etc.,” Schuler says. “We spend a lot of time saying we’re member focused, but what does that look like? If the conversation can always be in the context of serving the members, which drives the business, it becomes a business conversation not a gender conversation. That’s how I try to reframe the conversation to not make it about the gender, but about the ‘why’.”

Ultimately, organizations led by homogenous staffs do a disservice to their members who come from all walks of life. Without diverse perspectives and backgrounds informing decisions being made for your members, you can’t properly account for and accommodate their needs.

Schuler says for organizations who don’t make a conscious effort to diversify leadership, the problem perpetuates. Because your current leadership team plays such a pivotal role in attracting future leaders, it’s likely future leadership candidates will be similar to the ones you already have. “People opt out early in terms of where they see themselves because they don’t see people who look like them,” she says.

After you’ve put diverse leaders in place, you can maximize the positive effect on your organization by showcasing the diverse journeys your new leaders took to earning their positions. Whether they graduated top of their college class or whether they worked their way up from a front desk attendant to general manager, it’s important for future leaders to see that there is more than one path to success.

Tips for Diversifying Leadership

To unleash leadership potential in your employee community, company culture is of the utmost importance. Creating an open and inclusive culture where employees feel safe to speak their minds, voice concerns, and give suggestions starts with your leadership and trickles down. Nalevenko says she champions an open-door policy, where all are invited to contribute ideas or constructive criticism, no matter their role or position. But being inclusive goes beyond just lip service. At DMB Sports Club, all department managers are invited to senior team meetings so they can contribute to larger conversations and make themselves known.

“A lot of times leadership is about being heard and being recognized for your skill level, Nalevenko says. “People who are making the decisions on who they want to develop as leaders might not know about you if you don’t come up and show yourself off a little bit. So many women are afraid of speaking up if they have a good idea because they are afraid they’ll sound stupid. If you have a good idea at our company, I don’t care what position you’re in or what department you’re in, you come and talk to me and I’m going to listen.”

Outside of creating and nurturing a culture of openness, one of the best things you can do to diversify your leadership is to prioritize mentorship. Amanda Sinkler, director of operations at Newtown Athletic Club in Pennsylvania, says mentorship has been invaluable in getting her where she is today.

Implementing a structured mentorship program could be an end goal for your organization, but Sinkler says simpler efforts can be just as effective. The important thing is to give mentees permission and encouragement to take risks and make mistakes.

“I just needed to be there with them to walk the walk with them—to get involved with their department, to help guide them, and encourage them to make mistakes and try,” she says.

Outside of internal mentorship, encourage women in your organization to seek external groups aimed at building up women in the fitness industry. Furthermore, give them the support they need in order to seize opportunities to grow. Whether that be monetary support through paying membership fees or temporal support by giving them dedicated time to attend educational seminars or networking meetups.

Founded in 2017, the Women in Fitness Association (WIFA) serves as a resource to women in the industry through mentoring, education, and community building. The group’s founder and president Lindsey Rainwater says she started the group after spending years in the industry not knowing where to find other industry women to connect with. The goal of WIFA is to make sure every woman in the industry who has a desire to be in a leadership role or wants to progress her career has a community of people she can partner with and gain support from to reach her goals.

No meaningful change happens without effort. Making the effort now to include more women in the leadership at your organization means you’ll see positive returns for years to come with a diverse leadership team that’s best equipped to serve your members.

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