Memorandum submitted by the Fitness Industry Association (FIA) (E 55)

 

1.1 The FIA is the non-profit making representative body of the UK health and fitness sector. Its membership includes the full spectrum of the industry from multi-site to single-site facilities in both the public and private sectors.

1.2 Private sector giants such as David Lloyd Leisure, Virgin Active, Fitness First and LA Fitness are joined by operators of public sector facilities such as DC Leisure (over 100 local authority facilities), Leisure Connection (over 80 local authority facilities) and SLM (over 50 local authority facilities), Local Authorities, Charitable Trusts and independent operators.

 

1.3 In partnership with Sport England, the National Sports Foundation, the Youth Sports Trust and, more recently, the Department of Health, the FIA has developed a number of community programmes aimed at helping people of all ages to get fitter, more active and change their views on sports and physical activity.

 

1.4 We are grateful for the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Equality Bill Committee in order to highlight a key issue of importance in promoting women's health and fitness and reducing health inequalities.

 

Summary of the FIA position

 

2.1 While wholeheartedly supporting the aims of the Bill to harmonise and strengthen existing equalities legislation, the FIA would like to see a more explicit recognition of the suitability of single-sex services and employment policies, in both the public and private sectors, when the aim is to safeguard protected groups or where prima facia unequal treatment actually promotes more equal outcomes (e.g. health outcomes.)

 

2.2 A strong case can be made in certain circumstances for the necessity of gender-specific fitness provision and facilities. For a variety of reasons woman, for instance, can greatly benefit from participating in single-sex activities, in single-sex fitness environments. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, for example, recognises the appropriateness of allowing facilities to be restricted by sex where the potential user-group would be seriously embarrassed by the presence of the opposite sex, or where the users are unlikely to be in a state of undress. However, the FIA believes that there are a broader range of considerations, besides acute embarrassment, that warrant legitimate separation, especially when the overall objective is to ensure more equitable outcomes.

 

2.3 The FIA therefore supports amending the Equality Bill to clarify the status of single-sex provision of services (viz. fitness provision), explicitly recognising the appropriateness of gender-specific services in narrow and well defined circumstances to achieve legitimate aims. Such an amendment would clear up long existing ambiguities in the law and would help to ensure greater equity in health and fitness outcomes.

 

Background[1]

 

3.1 Women's participation rates in sport and physical activity have been disproportionately low since at least the 1970s and 80s when fitness facilities began to appear in greater numbers and their usage began to be more rigorously monitored. Through research and consultation it was determined that the introduction of "women-only" sports and activity sessions could effectively reduce common barriers to participation and improve consistent under-representation.

 

3.2 Following Sports Council recognition (in 1982) of women as a target groups with relatively low participation in sporting activities, the English Sports Council, and then Sport England have promoted a number of campaigns and initiatives which have been enthusiastically followed by those organisations providing facilities. The creation of women-only sessions had been seen as particularly successful in promoting a range of sport/recreation activities among women who for reasons such as religion, culture, lack of confidence, had previously not been keen to participate. It is important, however, that women-only sessions are consistent with the provisions of the law so that all users understand the basis on which they have been introduced.

 

3.3 Provision of single-sex fitness activities and facilities is therefore nothing new. In some cases, however, such sessions have been challenged, raising legal questions about gender-specific service provision and the requirements for equal treatment of men and women in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA). The lack of clarity in the law has therefore resulted in uncertainty for both fitness providers and users in deciding when/if single-sex services are an appropriate method of encouraging participation.

 

The Current Law

 

4.1 Section 29 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA) requires equality in the provision of goods, facilities and services to the public, or a section of the public whether for payment or not. The SDA does, however, allow for a few exemptions to the equality requirement when certain specific conditions are met.

 

4.2 Most relevant to sport and leisure facilities and provision are the exemptions in section 35 (1)(c) which allows facilities to be restricted to one sex if it can be demonstrated that (a) the facilities or services are such that users of one sex are likely to suffer serious embarrassment at the presence of the opposite sex or (b) the facilities or services are such that a user is likely to be in a state of undress and might reasonably object to the presence of a user of the opposite sex. Section 35(2) of the SDA also permits single sex provision if physical contact is likely between users of the opposite sex and there might be a reasonable objection to this.

 

The Case for Single-Sex Fitness Provision

 

4.1 Surveys have consistently shown that a lack of confidence and/or personal security can be a major deterrent to women's and girls' participation in mixed-sex sport and fitness settings and activities. Fear of ridicule, looking 'unattractive' or sweaty, and in the worst case abuse, can all lead to acute levels of embarrassment and anxiety that discourage participation and reinforce negative perceptions of physical activity.

 

4.2 Moreover according to the Institute of Sports and Recreation Management (ISRM), 'Many women participants underestimate their levels of competency in sport and feel their lack of experience and expertise invalidates their right to participate in general open sessions.' This can be particularly true in gym settings where women can often be made to feel that they are 'in the way of "serious" male participants who resent their presence'.

 

4.3 In addition to confidence and personal security concerns, there are also a number of challenging issues regarding the participation of Muslim women in sport and physical activity. At present, Muslim women are among the least active members of British society and are therefore at a disproportionate risk of experiencing a range of serious health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and some cancers. This situation raises serious questions about how best to address the unequal physical activity participation rates - and therefore unequal health outcomes - for this segment of the population while recognising important cultural differences.

 

4.4 There are a number of misconceptions regarding Muslim women participating in sport and physical activity. In fact, Islam promotes good health and fitness for members of both sexes. However, there are guidelines in relation to personal conduct within which physical activity can be practiced. For example, modesty is an important principle in Islam, which has implications for what types of activities and what sort of dress is appropriate for Muslim women participating in physical activity. [2]

 

4.5 In effect, this means that while some Muslim women might engage in mixed fitness settings, others will see this as inappropriate. What is important is to acknowledge these concerns and view Muslim women as individuals with a diverse range of cultural needs that need to be catered to in order to break down barriers to participation and ensure more equitable health outcomes for this currently under-active portion of the population.

 

4.6 Women-only facilities and activities recognise the barriers to Muslim women's participation in sport and physical activity and allow women of all cultures to feel confident and secure in a safe and supportive fitness environment. While ensuring more accommodating mixed-sex facilities and activities is no doubt a longer term goal, demanding integration now in the current environment could actually be counterproductive to the goal of inclusion and equality by discouraging those who do not feel comfortable in traditional gym settings to simply give up.

 

4.7 Explicitly recognising the appropriateness of singe-sex provision of some services in specific well defined circumstances would go a long way toward reducing common barriers and promoting equity in women's health and fitness.

 

 

June 2009



[1] From the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management

[2] From the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation.