Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why Aren't More Women In Advanced Classes

Kathy Jackson asked a question on her Cornered Cat Facebook Page. The conversation and subsequent question went like this:
"Sitting at dinner last night with several other well-known defensive firearm instructors, the conversation came around to women & firearms training. ... The instructors each had their own theories about why more gun-owning, gun-carrying women don't want to learn more about how to use a gun more effectively. After all, having better skills would be safer for them, their families, and any bystanders.

If you had been sitting there, what would you have told these guys? Why do you think more women don't sign up for the intermediate to advanced handgun classes?"
That's a pretty hard question and she got a lot of possible answers. Some suspected that it was because the classes weren't feminine enough or didn't cater to women enough or that there weren't pairs of women to make the other women feel more accepted in class, that it was a matter of finances, etc.

There certainly could be validity to those claims and many more. Just because I am a woman doesn't mean I have special insight into what motivates every woman out there (as I said in my blog I Can't Help Your Wife.)

I strongly believe that what might stop one women from attending an advanced class might not be what stops another. One might find money her tether to hold her back while for another it is lack female friendly (whatever that means) instructors or not having a girl friend to go with her.

Personally, I love advanced training and I keep going back for more. And, to share my dirty little secret, I don't mind that I'm the only woman in class. In fact, I avoid women-only classes and do not generally invite other women to come with me to trainings unless they feel they are ready.

Kathy asking this question made me ask myself, "Why?"

Starting a Shoot from Surrender
I had to think back to my own experiences. What has made me willing to do advanced classes? What makes me okay with being the only woman? Why don't I actively encourage women to come to classes with me?

After weeding through a few theories that didn't seem to logically pan out I fell on one experience that I think was a pivotal key to my breaking out in both my training and my mindset: my first time going to the range by myself. One of the most nerve-racking things I'd done to that date. It was the day I not only decided but actually took the step to take an individual responsibility for my training and to not let anything (including my fear, lack of confidence, appearance or lack of support or sexism) stand in the way of my training goals. 

I would ask other women with mindsets like my own to confirm if they felt the same way, but, unfortunately, there seems to be relatively few of us around (as evidenced by our numbers in advanced trainings).

I believe the problem may be confidence or the lack thereof.

1) Some women lack the confidence to step out on their own and try and even fail. 

Men and women can both have this same hangup but it seems to be more prevalent in women. We can tend to take it pretty personally when we make a mistake. When we take that shot and miss it's not just that we took a shot and missed it's that we are failures. We aren't good at this. It was a mistake to come here. He's looking at me like I'm a total idiot. He's probably wondering why I even bothered coming to this class. I'll never get this right. I shouldn't have even gotten out of bed this morning. My life is over!

Brushing off the small stuff and carrying on can be very hard, especially if you feel you are being scrutinized to a greater degree. It's very easy to feel an added scrutiny if you are an anomaly in the class--the only woman, perhaps? Being in a class of all women can make women feel like they can blend in and mistakes won't be so closely scrutinized because the woman does not feel singled out. Sometimes having only one other woman there can lessen that feeling of a spotlight being on your back.

2) They lack the confidence to be okay in an all male environment and let any perceived sexism go.

Another little secret: there isn't a single class I have attended where I am the only woman that I haven't felt that spotlight I talked about above. And it's not as though I can say it doesn't make me nervous or feel some kind of perceived added scrutiny. But the fact of the matter is that most of the time it's total bull crap. The guys don't care a VAST majority of the time and in a matter of minutes we're all laughing together and training together like there is no gender gap. Sometimes they even like having a woman because it gives them a chance to get used to sparring with or fighting a woman. Sometimes, when it comes to sparring I'm still treated like a little doll or I get the guy who says, "I can't hit a woman" or he's afraid he's going to hurt me because I'm so small. But when I start hitting him he eventually gets the clue or I just keep hitting him harder until he does. Yep.. I'm THAT mean.

Sometimes there's some sexism though. I've been in classes where men have made it very clear that they are upset that a woman is there. I've had men tell me some very sexist things that have made me very angry or embarrassed. Most of the time, if the instructor is worth his salt, he or she will put a stop to that before it even starts. But, unfortunately I've even had instructors say some very sexist things and it certainly has made me doubt myself. But what has kept me moving forward and going back is the fact that I am not doing this to get any kind of approval from men or any given instructor. I am doing this to learn how to fight. Period. Instead of letting my feelings get hurt I take what I can learn and I run with it. I leave the crap and am better for it.

3) They lack the confidence to be okay with getting dirty, ugly and having messy hair.

I bet there will be a few people who will scoff at that. Does it really matter to some women that they might get their makeup smudged while in an advanced class?

Girly going out the window

Without going into a lengthy explanation of why, the truth of the matter is there are women who care more about their hair than their training and no amount of discounts or female support or accommodation by the instructors is going to get them to risk smudged mascara and a broken nail. Sure, you can get these women into basic classes where there is little risk of getting roughed up, but until they are willing to smudge some makeup for sake of training you won't have much success in getting them to turn out.

Does that mean a lady shouldn't care about her appearance? Of course not. I do my hair and makeup before almost every class I attend. That being said, of late, there hasn't been a class I have come out of where my hair hadn't gone through 100 different renditions after being tossed, pulled, rained on or stepped on. I lose most of my makeup on the shirts of people I am sparring with, sweat it off or, yes, get it rained off. I like going into the class feeling pretty because, yep, I am that girl. But I'm not there to look pretty. I'm there to learn and train and once the class starts pretty goes out the door. And I actually get a big kick out of how alerted my appearance can be at the end of a particularly good training. If I don't have a black eye, it's a good day!

And what happens when a woman (or man) who lacks confidence attends a class? She needs more time and attention. People and instructors spend more time trying to build her confidence than training.

Shooting along side the guys
There's nothing wrong with this. Anyone who has taught any kind of class from Yoga to firearms to basket weaving knows that there are those who need more attention and support. There are students who are genuinely frightened of a firearm who need to literally have you there and talking them through every single step of the firing process.

Men seem to get over that fear a little faster than women and can leave a basic class feeling pretty confident in their ability and ready to go try something new and a little more challenging. A woman, on the other hand, may not feel ready. She may feel better but she might never describe herself as being confident in her new skill. The idea of going on to more advanced training makes her protest that she's not ready for it. She's afraid she's going to hold back the rest of the class and be looked at negatively because she's going to be the one who's going to take time and attention away from other students. Especially if she was that student (or felt like she was that student) in a basic class. What she may not realize is that most instructors (if they are good) are prepared for all types of students and will help push them forward in a safe manner.

A woman who determines that she is confident in her ability to handle herself and her firearm is unstoppable. If she's determined to learn there should be nothing that can keep her back.

So, how do we get women to attend more advanced trainings? I don't know. I don't know what it takes to convince a woman she can do something she may not feel confident in doing. I know it wasn't easy for me to take that first step either but the first step was the hardest and they keep getting easier the more confidence I build.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of walking through a door and facing a group of men made primarily of police officers or military personnel and thinking, "I belong here. Me, the housewife and mother, I belong RIGHT HERE! Kicking the shit out of and out-shooting these guys." I may not always out-shoot or out-fight the guys, but one thing is always true... I belong there.

And, ladies, you do too!

Join Me


  1. A comment on those last photos: Poor shooting posture! You don't have the size/weight to properly handle heavy long guns/heavy recoiling types. Yes, you might be able to get away with it with an AR in a light caliber, but it is poor training. You need to lean into it. If your shoulders are in line vertically with your hips, you have a problem.

    To the subject: I've seen the same problem with motorcycles. Many times I recommended that men and women I rode with should consider getting some track time. Either classes or actually going racing. These were people who exhibited a good level of skill on the street, and in some cases tended to ride too fast for general road conditions. Most would not even consider it. Some had the mistaken idea that it was more dangerous to ride on the track. Some (mostly the women) felt that their level of skill was not anywhere close to being adequate for such advanced riding. The conclusion I came to was that they had an unrealistic perception of their own skill level. And, that that was the case due to a general lack of self-confidence. ( I made the recommendation because I could see they were very good on a bike, but they didn't think so.) Frankly, I think this might be a very wide spread problem with women in this country. Partly, I suspect it to be due to being raised improperly (poor parenting), but beyond that, I'm stumped. Well, other than bad schools, whose culture would tend to reinforce this type of thinking.

    The other observation is that part of the problem might be the labeling of "advanced". It might work better if the trainers/schools stopped labeling courses this way, and go with a simple "level 1,2,3, etc. Drop the "tactical-" label, too. Yes, some students might be turned off by not seeing the buzzword label for the class, but that might be offset by an increase of students that are not looking for "operator" type training, even if it is all the same. Words have meaning, and this needs to be addressed, I think.

    1. Will, the point of the photos was not to show me as any kind of expert or anything. I've never taken a long gun class... ever. I was at a shoot with a bunch of guys, one of them handed me an AR and I said, "Okay." One day I'll probably take a carbine class and laugh my head off at what I don't know about carbines, but in the mean time I won't stay away from them or touch them or be afraid to shoot them or even show pictures of me shooting them because of the criticism I'll get.

      And believe you me, I get a lot of criticism. Oh well.

    2. I seem to have come across as being overly critical on your photo. My bad. It was only supposed to be a minor tip on your shooting technique. I assumed that you hadn't had any professional training, or direct instruction, by the photo. Unfortunately, your stance is a very common mistake, and usually what I see is that the heavier the long gun, the more the person leans back, actually arching their back to counterbalance the weight. This provides no stability, so the sights wander around on the target, and recoil can land you on your butt, or have you staggering backwards to catch yourself. Sometimes the gun is dropped in the process. And, it's painful.

      I can personally recommend the Rifle class at FrontSight. If you can get enough ammo together for the four day class, you will be amazed with your level of ability. I did that class back in '96, after shooting since a little kid, and the result was remarkable.

  2. I think this a very well thought-out post. Ever since I saw that question, I've been thinking about it, too, and I came to about the same conclusions you did.

    It's funny that Will suggested dropping the "tactical" label, because I made that suggestion to the gentleman I co-instruct with when I got back from SHOT Show. While I would take a "tactical eating" course if it was offered, not everyone is that "hard core", or that comfortable. We've since revised the course names; hopefully we'll see in increase in the higher-than-basic-level classes.