General International Women's Day Sports

Irish women weightlifters snatch the spotlight

From boardroom to barbells: sexism in weightlifting is nothing unique. As part of our women in sports series for International Women's Day, Izzy Rowley investigates equality in weightlifting
The Women in Sport Initiative by Sport Ireland was supported by Weightlifting Ireland. Change is afoot? Front row: Ruth Deasy, Isla Hoe, Aoife Bradley, Sinead Ryan. Back row: Lucy Moore, Phil Brown, Freya Hammer, Kathy Boylan, Shauna Kane, Kate Meenan, Peter Carroll (General Secretary, Weightlifting Ireland). Photo courtesy of Harry Leech

There’s no doubt about it – weightlifting is a traditionally male dominated sport.

Women’s weightlifting didn’t even make it into the Olympics until 2000, while their male counterparts had been there since 1896.

Thankfully, times are changing. 

“We have a very high representation of women within the sport in Ireland. There are instances of people being sexist – there’s that underlying bias that exists in people, but I don’t think that’s inherent to the sport,” says Isla Hoe, an amateur weightlifter and self-described ‘casual competitor’.

“Within weightlifting in Ireland, the issues are wider systemic issues that have to be addressed by society as a whole, rather than just the sport,” Hoe explains. “Where I would see sexism appear is in how non-weight-training people perceive females within weight training sports.”

There are undoubtedly stereotypes held about women weightlifters – one only has to go to the more misogynistic corners of the internet to find people babbling about how weightlifting makes women ‘look like men’ – apparently a fate worse than death.

The instagram account You Look Like A Man is a wild read – each post chronicling typical sexist comments made to women in sports, including weightlifting.

“Certainly, for an older generation of women, there’s been a misconception that lifting weights is dangerous or it’s not feminine – all of these are very outdated ideas,” says Harry Leech, the head coach and co-founder of the Dublin-based weightlifting club, Capital Strength.

“There’s no reason why women shouldn’t do weightlifting, so we thought: what are the potential barriers going to be to them? It’s important that you have that welcoming environment and ethos, then the only other barrier is investing in equipment that’s suitable for men and for women,” he says.  

“Where I would see sexism appear is in how non-weight-training people perceive females within weight training sports”

Isla Hoe

Traditionally, 20-kilo bars were the standard in weightlifting clubs and gyms. These best suited men’s, on average, larger hands. Women are, on average, smaller, and have smaller hands than men, which required the introduction of the 15-kilo bar. It weighs less simply because it’s narrower – making it easier to grip for female weightlifters.

From left to right: Isla Hoe, Aoife Bradley, and Sorcha Brady at Capital Strength gym. Image courtesy of Harry Leech

Initially, these bars were very expensive and as the sport was so small in Ireland, clubs didn’t have enough money to invest in much equipment. As the sport was male dominated, it was more common for clubs to purchase 20-kilo bars than 15-kilo ones. However, now the market has opened up and the equipment is more affordable.

Currently, Leech reckons that Capital Strength owns more 15-kilo bars than 20-kilo ones.

“It’s always been important to have a very equal, very welcoming, very gender-neutral aspect to our club,” Leech says.

“I think some people have an image of a weightlifting gym in their head, and it’s guys in leotards, making crude, offensive jokes, and lifting heavy weights – but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he tells me.  

Clubs like Capital are a fantastic addition to weightlifting in Ireland, however, there are still issues that have to be dealt with.

“The sport needs to encourage more women’s coaches and women’s officials now. They are coming through, but it’s probably something that’s going to take time to get to the point where it should be,” Leech says.  

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” says Dr Lucy Moore, a masters athlete, and athletics and weightlifting coach who feels that positive representation for women is an important factor in creating equality.

“There are very few women coaches at senior level, and if you want to be it, you have to see it. It’s the same issues in the professional world, why don’t women go forward for promotion? Why are women underrepresented on boards?

“Women tend to hold themselves back – and that’s not just in weightlifting,” Dr Moore explains, suggesting that issues of imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence plague women in sport.

“I think some people have an image of a weightlifting gym in their head, and it’s guys in leotards, making crude, offensive jokes and lifting heavy weights – but that couldn’t be further from the truth”

Harry Leech

“Sport also tends to operate at very un-family friendly hours,” she continues.

“You’re expected to do things at weekends and the evenings, and to travel. That’s grand when you have a partner at home who will do anything that needs to be done, but traditionally, it’s the man who is going out while his [female] partner stays at home. You only have to look at the pressures people are under at the moment with Covid – who’s doing the lion’s share of the home schooling, trying to keep the house running, and working from home?” Dr Moore explains.

Fortunately, things are taking a turn for the better.

“It’s very recently in weightlifting that women came to be referees in any significant numbers, but it is improving, there has been a specific drive to get more women involved in these roles,” Dr Moore says, who has been involved in programs specifically intended to train female weightlifting referees.

“It’s going in the right direction, but it just needs to push on.”

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