Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0 Part II: Supporting Women in Leadership Roles in BJJ

In a previous article, I observed that the jiu-jitsu community is moving into what I refer to as Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0, where women not only train but also take on leadership roles in increasing numbers. This is happening as a matter of course in the development of the sport, but those of us who want to show our support may wonder how we can do so. This article provides some suggestions.

If we want to promote the growth of women as leaders in jiu-jitsu, we must make the following assumptions:

First, women are capable of being leaders in jiu-jitsu. Some women are not great leaders, just as some men are not. Some women are fantastic leaders, just as some men are. The point is, a person’s capacity to be a good leader has nothing to do with where his/her private parts are situated or with the gender with which s/he identifies. Therefore, if we want to support women as leaders in jiu-jitsu, the first step is to withhold judgment about any person’s leadership abilities until we have seen them in action.

Second, women’s jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu. There may be some truth to the idea that women and men learn and apply jiu-jitsu differently. However, at its heart, the jiu-jitsu women learn is no different from the jiu-jitsu men learn, even in gender-segregated classes. It is jiu-jitsu. A competent female leader in jiu-jitsu, then, will teach, referee, coach, and train jiu-jitsu, not some watered-down version.

Third, and here is the heart of the matter, even if we have no women or few women in our own academies, each of us can promote the growth of women as leaders in jiu-jitsu. Here is how:

If we are jiu-jitsu instructors, academy owners, and/or coaches:

  • We can groom interested women in our classes to be leaders. This does not mean throwing a female blue belt into teaching a women’s class by herself while we take a break. Instead, it means apprenticing and mentoring interested lower-belt women just as we do interested lower-belt men.
  • We can model desired behavior. If we believe everyone can learn from women in jiu-jitsu, then we can seek out opportunities ourselves to do so. As above, note this does not mean suggesting to a female student that she attend a co-ed seminar hosted by a woman while we do something else. It means encouraging male and female students to attend—and going with them.
  • If we do not have higher belt women at our academy, we can expand our search. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen female brown and black belt women who are great instructors, accomplished competitors, and otherwise eminently qualified to assume leadership roles in our community, and who are available to be brought in for seminars or guest instructing. Chances are there are a few in our geographic area, and if there are not, we can consider investing in a visit from someone who is farther away.
  • If we leave the academy in charge of upper belt students for some reason, we can choose the best people for various roles, regardless of gender. Maybe the right person to staff the front desk and/or teach the women’s and kids’ classes happens to be female, and maybe the right person to teach the “regular” classes happens to be male. The question is whether we thought about this before we assigned tasks, or whether we automatically reverted to stereotypical gender roles.

If we are students (which all of us are, even if we are also instructors, academy owners, and/or coaches):

  • We can search ourselves for bias. Do we ask higher-ranked women for technical advice, or even lower-ranked women who are particularly good at a finish or escape we want to improve at? Do we look to them for clues about proper behavior in the academy? Or do we assume a man will know better, even one who has not been around as long?
  • We can practice our poker faces. Even if we are used to mostly male instructors and academy owners, when we encounter their female counterparts do we support that by training as if everything is normal? Because it is.
  • We can police ourselves and each other. Ideally, the message at any academy is that good leadership is good leadership regardless of the package it comes in, but as evidenced by my own experience, that may not entirely convince some people. If we know the powers that be in our academy are dedicated to good leadership and we see or hear someone saying or doing something that runs counter to that, we can call it out.

If we are men:

  • We can consider our language. Phrases like “Don’t be a p*ssy,” “Use the rape choke,” and “What’s the matter, Mike? Got your period?” all have implications. I am not the PC police, but I do try to make sure that my actions and my words are consistent with one another. To my mind, acting in support of women in positions of leadership while simultaneously feeling comfortable saying things like, “Dude, Jeff has sand in his vagina” is a bit dissonant. Ultimately, our immediate training community decides what is appropriate for our immediate training context. I encourage all of us to make sure our decisions are conscious ones.
  • We can consider the odds. Women are making strides in BJJ, but the proportion of women to men in the sport is still small. Many of us are used to being the only woman on the mat, or one of very few, but not as many of us are as used to overseeing situations featuring that kind of gender breakdown. It can be intimidating, so positive energy and enthusiasm go a long way.
  • We can be evangelical. It would be odd if I did not believe that women can be leaders in the jiu-jitsu community. I obviously have a vested interest in the idea. While this does not lessen the validity of the argument, the weight of other voices can support it.

If we are women:

  • We can educate ourselves about what being a leader in jiu-jitsu entails. Coaching, teaching, refereeing, running an academy, simply being in this world in the most productive and positive ways possible, are all options we have for demonstrating leadership. There are resources available for us to ask questions and educate ourselves. We can embrace the need to develop our own leadership skills as part and parcel of our commitment to developing as grapplers.
  • We can value our own skill and experience. Sometimes more experienced female grapplers believe we know less than we do, devaluing our skills and experience in the process. We can teach others how to treat us by respecting ourselves and our knowhow.
  • We can celebrate the skill and experience of other women. Men are not the only ones who can be sexist. Sometimes, when we are the highest-ranked woman in an academy, even if we are a blue or purple belt, we can forget that just as there are always men better than we are, there are also always women who are better than we are. Women are also frequently stereotyped as catty, in jiu-jitsu and in general. If we are tired of this stereotype, we can prove it wrong by supporting women who are leaders in the jiu-jitsu community.

To paraphrase Kent Brockman, I, for one, welcome our new female overlords, because I believe increased female leadership can benefit the jiu-jitsu community. If you agree, give some thought to how you personally can support its growth, in your academy and in general.

If you do not agree, I would love to hear from you. Not to harangue or yell or belittle, but to learn more about your perspective.

Photo credit to Stafford Sports Media.