This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Concepts and Methods.”
In my research on gender diversity at open gyms, my primary research question was “do gyms at U of T serve as a safe space, and for whom?”. And with that question written in capital letters on a white paper glued to a gift box with a rectangular hole to collect responses I headed to the Strength and Conditioning room at the Athletic Center. Based on the plan negotiated with the administration of the gym, I would be standing beside the high table just in front of the exit door from the room, offering pens and printed out questionnaires with the afore mentioned question alongside a question on gender identification to answer. Thus, I spent three hours in the room, which means that I had a chance to observe three different sessions and two transitions from regular hour session (when all genders are welcome to the space) to women-only hour session (when only women and women-identifying individuals are allowed to the space).
It was 11 in the morning when I put the survey box on the assigned table and waited for people to fill out my survey. Considering the sensitivity of the space to any human interactions, I was first hesitant to reach out to people and ask them to participate in my research. The first session fell in the regular hour when there was a mix of genders in the space. Observing the reactions of those entering the space to my presence, I quickly realized that I would need to wait till the end of the session for people to show interest in my work. I felt like an alien, and, in fact, I was one, so people needed time to accept me, standing in the area with a big survey box, clearly waiting for their actions.
It is 11:45 and people started leaving the room. I thought: “Finally! I have to prepare to give out the surveys!”. Standing there and smiling behind my mask, for some reason, I was very confident people would be interested in participating. That was until the first five people, trying not to make eye contact with me, quickly escaped from the room. Still, I could not force myself to stop people. It was a staff member (I will call him Matthew), who had been standing near the table with me while supervising the room, who helped me encourage participation.
“Hey, would you like to fill out the survey about your experiences in the open gym?”
As if by magic, my box began to fill up with completed questionnaires. There was not a single person who we reached out to who refused our request. Supported by Matthew, I quickly gained confidence in encouraging participation by myself. It was not a problem for me to reach out to women leaving the space after their workout. However, when I addressed the same question to some men exiting the open gym, I noticed a sort of a ritual in making eye contact with Matthew before giving me their agreement to participate. Was it a quick, hidden form of reassurance? Was it about emotional support? Was it a form of expressing their respect to a fellow? Why was it needed? What if Matthew was not standing there, would they still fill out the questionnaire or refuse it? Looking ahead, I will try to answer this last question in a couple of paragraphs. Meanwhile, it was interesting to note that, compared to Matthew asking the question to the men and women in the gym, neither men nor women sought this emotional support in the establishment of eye contact with me, and thus, all simply agreed to participate.
I collected around 20 responses in the first session. It was already a success and now I had to prepare the box for the women-only hours. Matthew left and I was introduced to a female staff member who I will call Emma.
Emma did not express significant interest in my survey box, but it did not matter as with the increased confidence after the first regular-hour session, I was calmly waiting for the end of the current one. I used the time to observe the space and see how it was transformed by the people occupying it. When men left, women started moving around, trying to use the equipment that they clearly did not use before. Women took frequent breaks between their sets and surprisingly, during those breaks, they expressed curiosity about my survey box. I did not have to wait for the end of the session to catch people and encourage them to participate. I noticed a special interest among women in sharing their experiences after two men, a male staff and a male construction worker entered the space during the women-only-hour session. Several women commented on this. By the end of the session, I collected around 36 completed questionnaires.
Finally, it was around 1:40 pm and people started leaving from the last regular-hour session. Emma’s shift ended around 10 minutes ago, in the middle of the current session, and I was introduced to Lucas, another supervisor. Like Emma, Lucas was more focused on performing his duties rather than my survey box, so while I was standing in front of the exit doors observing the people in the rectangular room of the open gym area, he was actively participating in supporting the participants by giving instructions and talking to the people. That scenario created a perfect setting for answering my question about whether people would still fill out my survey if a male supervisor was not near me. The answer is – no. In the last session, without support from the staff, while women were still happy to support my research, I was refused, or explicitly ignored or avoided by some of the men. Thus, although I do not want to draw any conclusions as I feel that I am lacking the data, it would be interesting to study the spotted tendency in men seeking emotional support from the same-gender individuals in those scenarios.