By Anne Tuba

It’s an ordinary day on campus, and the Algonquin Recreation Centre is filled with students on all floors, running, lifting weights, and climbing. The weight section is packed with dozens of people — the majority of them men, but only a handful of women. 

Meaghan McNamara, a women’s varsity basketball player at Algonquin College, struggles when entering this section of the gym. Despite having graduated the previous year from the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Algonquin, she still faces barriers.

McNamara said she finds it hard to access machines such as the bench press and squat racks. When she’s in the weight section, men walk up to her telling her how to use the equipment or asking for her social media.

“I could be a personal trainer if I wanted to,” said McNamara. “So it’s insulting when men come over and try to tell me how to use a machine.” 

Students working out at the Jack Doyle Recreation Centre at Algonquin College
Source: Anne Tuba

This frustration is shared by others who try to use these spaces and are met with discomfort. According to McNamara, around 40% of the women on the varsity basketball team have memberships at off-campus gyms despite free access to Algonquin’s. 

McNamara said this is something she has thought about, too. Faith Wandji, a player on the basketball team, nods in agreement.

Their team, the Algonquin Wolves, has ended the season with only one loss, which was their first in two years. Despite being on one of the best sports teams at the school, McNamara said that when entering the basketball courts, there often isn’t space for her to play.

“We want to be as inclusive as possible”

“The gym is kind of taken over by men,” said McNamara. “They want to play five on five which takes over the entire gym… [and] I don’t really want to play with only guys.”

Both women said it can be unnerving when entering the gym — especially for Wandji, who is newer to working out.

“Going in and with all of these guys around, it can be really intimidating,” said Wandji. 

Gym culture 

In Ottawa, it’s not just an Algonquin College phenomenon. 

“Men take up a lot of space [in the gym],” said Abby Gardner, a second-year English student at Carleton University. “They’re very intimating and sometimes can even harass women.” 

According to a 2016 study conducted by IPSOS, 50% of Canadian women are intimidated by going to work out at a gym. 

Gym culture has been a popular topic on TikTok during the month of February when women started posting videos of men staring at them while working out. The hashtag “gym weirdos” has 3.1 million videos on the app. 

A video called “A girl can’t even stretch in peace” by the user Songetac, which gained thousands of views, showed her working out while a man watches her.

Within the TikTok, she shows two different cases of an older man watching her stretching while they use different machines. Within the caption she said, “it’s actually annoying, the last time I tried to expose this guy tiktok took it down.”

@songetac It’s actually annoying, the last time I tried to expose this guy tiktok took it down #gym #cantstretchinpeace #creepy #fyp #lafitness ♬ Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell

Campus responses

Three post-secondary schools in Ottawa — Carleton University, University of Ottawa and Algonquin College — all have resources for students to address issues of harassment or discomfort in the gym. Each school also has an equity and inclusion program. 

“When it comes to the gym culture, it’s up to everyone,” said Tim Lee, the senior manager of Athletics and Recreation at Algonquin College. “If we want to change it, it’s up to the community.” 

Dylan Tripp, a first-year student at Algonquin College disagreed. 

“I believe it’s up to the school to fix these issues,” he said. “Yeah, you can say it’s up to the students, but if you’re not putting anything in place, how are things going to change?”

Women’s only spaces 

Algonquin College is the only school amongst the three without women’s only hours. This has been met with complaints from the students. 

“I don’t feel comfortable at the gym,” said Tripp. “I can’t imagine how women must feel.” 

Official responses to these concerns leave something to be desired. “We don’t offer women’s only hours because we believe in equality,” said Allison Jordan, a manager at Algonquin College’s Athletic and Recreation Centre. 

Algonquin College said students should feel comfortable coming to the athletics centre staff if they have any complaints. 

Graph showing prevalence of harassment for men and women at gyms
Taken from RunRepeat with permission.

The University of Ottawa offers women’s only gym hours but they are limited. They are offered twice a week from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. 

“I actually didn’t know the school offered women’s only hours,” said Vanessa Pinto, a third-year student at the University of Ottawa. She said she attends the gym around three to four times per week. 

“I think for some people women’s only hours could be important, but for me it doesn’t matter too much,” said Pinto. “But I know for some people, it would make them feel more comfortable.” 

Carleton University implemented women’s only hours in 2020 during the pandemic. 

“We want everyone to feel comfortable,” said Mark Nadon, the assistant manager of Fitness and Wellness at Carleton University. “It’s as simple as that.”

Women's only fitness time sign in front of the gym at Carleton U
Taken on March 3, 2023 at the Carleton Fitness Centre by Anne Tuba.

“I wouldn’t go to the gym as much if Carleton stopped offering women’s only hours,” said Gardner. “I just feel a lot more comfortable during these hours.” 

Three years later, the gym now offers these hours seven days a week, for an hour and a half each day. 

Carleton sent out surveys during the 2021 school year to see what hours worked best for students attending these times. 

“We want everyone to feel comfortable. It’s as simple as that.”

“There is a barrier that the hours are so limited, since they’re only from 9 to 11:30 a.m.,” said Gardner. “I have class twice a week during those hours so I obviously can’t go then.” 

McNamara has been vocal in requesting women’s only hours to be implemented at Algonquin’s Recreation Centre. 

When it comes to going to the gym, “I don’t feel entirely comfortable,” she said. 

“I’ve talked to a lot of women about [women’s only hours]” said McNamara. “Since the school doesn’t have them, a lot of us just don’t go.” 

Lee said if students feel uncomfortable or intimidated at the gym, they are advised to get in contact with a gym staff member.

The gym has only had one inquiry about women’s only hours, said Lee. “If we got more, we would definitely look into something about it.” 

“I think women’s only hours is something the school should just implement,” said Tripp. “I mean every other school is doing it, why not just follow along?” 

Students using equipment at the Jack Doyle Recreation Centre on Feb. 23, 2023 (Source: Anne Tuba)

Further steps to make gyms safer and more comfortable 

Carleton University continues to look at how it can improve its athletic spaces in the future. It is currently working on installing one-way glass, said Nadon. At the moment, the gym closes the blinds during women’s hours. 

Earlier in the school year, Algonquin’s gym removed the majority of the mirrors in the facility. It was done after students complained about being looked at inappropriately.

This was done to make students feel more comfortable, said Jack Doyle, the general manager of the Students Association at Algonquin College. “We want to be as inclusive as possible,” he said. “A big chunk of our students are a part of a demographic that aren’t varsity athletes and are just interested in working out. We want to be able to reach everyone’s needs.” 

Sarah Davis, a non-binary student at Carleton University voiced their thoughts on the way the school can make LGBTQ+ students more comfortable. 

“I don’t go to the gym more than once a week, but it’s definitely scary sometimes hearing the stories on how people who present the way I do being harassed there,” said Davis. “The gym is a very vulnerable place so it can be scary sometimes going to normal hours. Even though I don’t identify as female, I find those hours to be a safe space.” 

Carleton University offers Trans and Ally hours three times a week — Tuesdays and Fridays from 8:30pm-10:00pm and Saturdays from 4:30pm-6:00pm — though Davis feels like the school needs to do a better job advertising it. 

“I honestly had no idea the school offered that,” said Davis. “The school needs to be doing more advertisement, but I think it’s a really good thing to offer as well.” 

Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa do not offer these hours.

“I read once that diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice,” Doyle said.

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