1 August 2021, by Herman Rutgers

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion…the fitness sector is lagging behind; time to catch up!

There is still a lot to do when it comes to diversity in the fitness industry. Why we should focus on more gender and cultural diversity, and which companies are leading the way. A commentary by Herman Rutgers.

I am writing this article just after the opening of the 23rd Olympic games in Tokyo and it struck me that there was an emphasis on equality. For example, many countries had their flag carried by a male and female participant together. In a time where there is much discussion in society on gender issues it was good to see this. But what about the discourse in the fitness industry in particular? How high up is diversity on the agenda here?


Diversity on many levels

When we look at diversity, we have to consider very different aspects. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a term used to describe policies and programs that promote the representation and participation of different groups of individuals, including people of different ages, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, genders, religions, cultures and sexual orientations.

Because this is also a very important aspect for our sector, EuropeActive has embraced the principles of DEI in their manifesto and has established a DEI advisory group.


Female leadership

The most prominent aspect of diversity usually focusses on the male/female representation ratio. In politics we see some encouraging examples; for example, Germany, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand have a female prime minister and the USA is a prime example of diversity by having a female black American as Vice President for the first time in history.      In business this is to date not so common yet.

In the fitness sector we can count only a few female leaders among the top companies in Europe. The vast majority is still led by men. Here are a few of the exceptions ;

Neoness in France ( Celine Wisselink and Marie Anne Teissier) Urban Gym Group in The Netherlands ( Marjolein Meijer) Pure Gym UK (  Rebecca Passmore, UK managing director)  SATS ( CFO Cecilie Eide) Basic-Fit France ( Susanne de Schepper ) Bodystreet Germany                         ( Emma Lehner) ….and of course FIBO has a female Event Director ( Silke Frank).


The WIFA (Women in Fitness Association) shows that there is still a lot to be done in the field of gender equality. The organisation already networks 700 women from the fitness industry with a focus on the USA. Since this year, the number of members is now also growing in Europe, supported by many companies and associations such as EuropeActive, FIBO or Sport Alliance. We can look forward to further developments. Because the hard facts also speak for diversity.


Why it is good to have gender and cultural diversity

First of all, 50% of our members and potential customers are female and a significant portion of our membership have different – read non-western European – cultural backgrounds. Ideally the workforce at all levels should be a reflection of the clientele.


Success through diversity

McKinsey published a study in 2020, describing that companies with more than 30% woman executives were more likely to outperform companies with lower representation of females in management. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity McKinsey found equally compelling evidence that a more balanced management team will perform better.                              (high level examples on ethnic diversity in Europe are Jacob Fatih, the founder of the 2nd largest fitness chain in Germany FitX and Redouane Zekkri, the COO of the largest European chain Basic-Fit)


Setting the course in politics

In Norway it is required by law that stock market listed companies have a minimum of 30% female representation in their supervisory and management boards. In The Netherlands it is a strong recommendation and may become demanded by law next year as well. So we see some encouraging movement by government and corporations to move the needle in terms of equality.

Of course, the first consideration for selecting any person for any job is their inherent qualification and proven success. But we now see in some countries a bias towards leaning to choose a female candidate over a male by equal qualities in order to change the imbalance that currently exists. And this is a good thing!


Examples from fitness company statements on DEI

·         Basic-Fit is the largest fitness operator in Europe and here are some quotes from the Basic-Fit annual report 2020;

For employees; “We employ more than 5,600 employees in five countries with different nationalities, personal backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations or religions. We will hire employees of various backgrounds, gender, age, race or sexual orientation to create a diverse workforce.”

For management; “One of our focus points for the coming years is to strive for at least 30% women in our Supervisory and Management Boards. Women already represent one-third of our Executive Committee positions, while 40% of our Business Managers are women.”

For members; “At Basic-Fit, we believe that everyone deserves to be fit and feel great. No matter who you are or where you are from, fitness should be accessible when, where and how you want it. We are here for everyone and all cultures, no matter your fitness level, your race, convictions, beliefs or gender. At Basic-Fit, we celebrate difference and advocate equality; from our boardroom to our gyms. We offer different memberships and options to our members: mixed clubs, ladies clubs and express clubs. “

·         Another example is Planet Fitness, the largest fitness operator in the USA;

They have as slogan for the brand “No Judgement Zone”, indicating that all people are welcome and there should be no discrimination. The company also has a philanthropic initiative called the “Judgement Free Generation”®  designed to combat the judgement and bullying faced by today’s youth by creating a culture of kindness and encouragement. Their mission is to empower a generation to grow up contributing to a more judgement free planet– a place where everyone feels accepted and feel like they belong.

·        Another is Equinox, the premium brand operating in the USA and UK. They have taken a very strong stand in regards to the acceptance of all kinds of people regardless if handicapped or different sexual identity. They showed this in their advertising as well as in a short film called “LGBTQALPHABET: Six letters will never be enough” a video that expands the definition of “LGBTQA” into a full alphabet with 26 distinct opportunities to proudly communicate who you are and how you love. Conceived as a continuation of Equinox’s “Commit to Something” narrative, the work further explores the theme of identity addressed in the 2017 advertising campaign and reflects the incredible diversity of the LGBTQA community.


Diversity: Here's what happens next

The companies mentioned are making important statements for the fitness industry and - more importantly - concrete actions. It is also good to see that EuropeActive is taking some strong initiatives in cooperation with FIBO and that WIFA has recently established a European division.

Nevertheless, overall we still have a long way to go to improve in this area and the initiatives to address the imbalance need to come from the leadership of the organizations.

In an effort to combat gender inequality, the European Commission has launched an ambitious and progressive “Union for Equality” plan which incorporates action plans and strategies through an intersectional lens which will focus on gender equality, anti-racism, disability and LGBTQ+. This huge political commitment looks to mainstream equality into all policy areas. But it is up to each individual company and person in the fitness industry to embed these values.