School of Geography

Inspiring People - Stephanie Coen

Stephanie Coen

Stephanie Coen

Exploring gender disparities in physical activity


Stephanie Coen is an Assistant Professor and critical health geographer with an overarching concern for how everyday social and material contexts matter for health and health equity.

The ultimate goal of my work is to generate evidence that can help us to create more inclusive places for physical activity and improve equity in physical activity participation.

How would you explain your research?

I am interested in how taken-for-granted and seemingly unremarkable places in our everyday lives matter for health. Most of my recent work has focused on the gym and gender disparities in physical activity.

Women and girls are less likely than men and boys to meet the minimum recommended amounts of physical activity, meaning they often miss out on important health benefits. My research seeks to understand how everyday environments, such as the gym, contribute to the gendered context of physical activity participation.

The ultimate goal of my work is to generate evidence that can help us to create more inclusive places for physical activity and improve equity in physical activity participation.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

Literally, spending a lot of time in the gym! Back in 2010, I was training to compete in powerlifting (a type of weightlifting that tests maximum strength) at the same time I was working at the Institute of Gender and Health in Canada (one of the 13 Institutes that comprise Canada’s federal health research funding agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research).

My time at the Institute really changed how I saw the world – I couldn’t help but see things through a gender lens, including the gym. This where I started thinking about physical activity as both a gendered and a geographical issue. In 2012, I decided to go back to school to pursue my PhD at Queen’s University focusing on the geographies of gender and the gym. (I won the powerlifting competition, by the way). 

How will your research affect the average person?

One of the most important outcomes of my research is simply to make people aware of how the gym contributes to normalising gender differences in physical activity. Some of the gendered processes happening in the gym are things we just take-for-granted or accept about “how the gym is”—but if we can identify and name them, we can actually be better positioned to say “it doesn’t have to be like that, and we can change it.” It’s been really exciting to see how my research has sparked these conversations, including in Glamour Magazine.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

During my time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (the HEAL) in Canada, I had the absolute privilege of collaborating with three local high school students to develop and launch a Youth Advisory Council (YAC) for the lab.

This was a youth-led process in which adult researchers supported the capacity of the high school students to develop the model for the YAC, including carrying out original research to inform their decisions. This work took us over 10 months – from concept development to recruiting members and launching the council. It was a monumental day to participate in the first YAC meeting and see it come to life. We learned so much through the process that we decided to write a paper about the experience, jointly with the high school students and adult research team, published here.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Collaboration is more fun than competition. 

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

Advancing a health equity agenda. Evidence shows us time and again that if we don’t consider how policies, programs, or medical interventions affect different groups of people (whether it’s gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status) we run the risk of doing harm. Take, for example, the 10 drugs withdrawn from the US market since 1997 – eight of these were removed because of adverse effects in women. When translating health geography research into practice and policy we need to likewise consider to whom the evidence does (or does not) apply. I see part of my work as continuing to advocate for systematic consideration of equity considerations in our field.



School of Geography

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