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Entering the masculine terrain: Let’s talk about the gendering of space

Tilly reflects on how women interact with 'male spaces' and gains a personal insight into the lives of many women through a series of interviews, exclusively for Matriarch.

The concept of space is much more complex than you may imagine. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, space is “an empty area that is available to be used”. However, in a social sense, space is not always available to everyone as it can actually prevent people from using certain spaces and thus neglects the freedom of movement. Society allots people into particular spaces based on aspects such as race, religion, class, and gender. This blog explores the gendering of space.

Traditionally men and women have been separated into opposing spaces with men being allocated the public sphere (stereotypically going to work and providing for their families) and women being forced into the private sphere (remaining indoors and taking care of the home). These stereotypes, thankfully, are now starting to gradually disintegrate within certain communities as more women go to work than they did in the 1800s, and more men are becoming stay-at-home fathers. However, there are still numerous spaces that are considered gendered, most noticeably, gyms and certain career sectors such as tech and engineering.

"there are still numerous spaces that are considered gendered"

Writing for Feminism in India, Nayonika Sen, a self-proclaimed weightlifter, explains how men and women are often separated into different parts of the gym. She explains that“[t]here a few women who do dare to venture into [weight sections] of the gym, but they quickly lose motivation or find themselves discouraged, and retreat to the comfort of other women in the cardio section.” As a gym goer myself, I’ve noticed that women dominate my legs, bums, and tums class whereas I’m often the only woman in my boxing class. So why does this happen? According to Sen, women’s bodies “are meant to be petite, small, slightly curvy; a definite non-threat to men,” so they tend to avoid doing weights so as not to gain muscles in the way men do and thus appear less feminine.

"As a consequence, women are often deterred from doing stereotypically masculine things."

21-year-old Katie notes that her gym has purposefully turned its weights area into a masculine space by only including 50kg weights which are, due to biology, often difficult for women to carry. This may also deter women from entering the space due to the stigma of female weightlifters appearing masculine. Katie also notes how women are often sexualised when going to the gym.

She says, “I love to lift to feel strong, but I found when there’s lots of men about, I avoid it because I feel like I’m being looked at or judged for my appearance.” “I’ve actually swapped cute workout gear for oversized tops to make myself feel less anxious about it,” she continues.

She’ll even hide away and remain on the treadmill in a further part of the gym when she’s the only woman so as not to tread into the weights section alone.

According to Stylist, Katie isn’t the only woman to avoid the exposed areas of the gym or “cover up to avoid the risk of exciting men who are using the same exercise space.”

Moreover, 86% of women aged 18-24 have said that they have been sexually harassed in the gym. Stylist suggests that this isn’t just because men who are “hopped up on testosterone from doing bicep curls” can’t help themselves from sexualising women doing squats or because they’re turned on by women intruding into a traditionally masculine space, but because, given that gyms are public spaces and that public spaces are traditionally given to men, men feel they have the right and power to sexualise women entering them. In fact, 71% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This statistic proves that some people still believe in the stereotype of women belonging to the private sphere as it implies that women are safer staying at home.

"Olivia, 24, has also experienced isolation and sexualisation in a stereotypically male space."

After avoiding skate parks because she “was always put off by the fact [she] didn’t know any girl skaters and never saw any girls at skate parks” despite wanting to skateboard for years, she finally “bit the bullet” following a bad breakup; it was time she did something for herself, she explains.

“I knew I was gonna be a minority being a girl but had also seen girls-only skate groups popping up on social media, and I think TikTok brought girls skating more to my attention,” she says.

But the upsurge in female skateboarders hasn’t prevented skate parks from being predominately masculine spaces:

“The female/minority gender skating scene has blown up in the last couple of years and there’s definitely more of us now, but the attitudes from certain parts of skating (e.g. middle-aged men/men who’ve been skating since they were 6) are definitely still very exclusive and gatekeep-y,” Olivia explains.

“I’ve also had a lot of dm’s on my Insta where I post my skating content, always from men, giving unsolicited advice or even making fun of me, and I just know for a fact that wouldn’t be the same if I was a guy.”

Olivia has even received flirty Insta dms from men fantasising about her as a woman performing in a stereotypically “masculine” space.

However, this hasn’t stopped Olivia, who is now trying to break the boundaries of gendered spaces by joining a female-only skateboarding collective. “They helped me so so much to be more confident and claim my space at the park,” she says about the collective.

Alternatively, Izzy, 24, tends to feel isolated as an employee in a stereotypically masculine working space. Izzy is a painting and decorating apprentice, working in a company where she’s the only woman, and she goes “ to college one day a week in a section of “construction”” which includes carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and painters. She’s also the only woman in her class.

She told Matriarch, “When I joined my apprenticeship, I knew it would be a male-dominated industry, but I didn’t realise it would be so male-dominated. I didn’t get put off by having male colleagues because there’s laws that protect employees from any harassment. However, working for male clients can be more intimidating because you can often be left alone with a stranger. I am often not left alone on site anymore as I had an incident with one colleague where I felt in danger, which is a shame.”

“Why should there be particular treatment for a woman to keep her safe when we are all just trying to do the same job?” She asks. “It can be extremely frustrating.”

When a woman enters a masculine space, she is often either defeminised, sexualised, or isolated. Izzy says, “I feel as though I don’t belong at all, but I want to, so I almost make myself less feminine to fit in and in turn, people do construe me as less feminine.”

“As a very literal example, it’s hard to find uniforms for women; there’s only a male uniform, and in portaloos on construction sites, there’s no sanitary bin for females.”

Thus, the concept of space is still very gendered, and women who enter stereotypically masculine spaces are considered abnormal to men and as invading such spaces. In her novel Lady Oracle, bestselling author Margaret Atwood explores the theme of defeminising women who enter masculine territories through the character of the “fat lady” who is defeminised due to her large figure which quite literally spills out into masculine terrain. This image has always stuck with me as it implies that society’s obsession with women being thin might not actually have anything to do with what they look like but is instead about men wanting women to take up less space. While a woman’s navigation through masculine terrains may lead to isolation, sexualisation, and defeminisation, we should all stand our ground and assert our rights to be in that space, and hopefully one day the world will become a space where everyone feels as though they belong.


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