Goals are individual, not universal. Just because someone can run farther, lift heavier, go longer doesn't mean your effort isn't just as valid. So work hard for you and your own goals. Progress will come.
First of all, men and women can do the same workouts perfectly fine (if you are worried about getting bulky, read the next question). If you want results from lifting, you should be lifting heavy (=challenging).
Using the machines at the gym can be good enough, especially for beginners, but in the long run you should strive towards learning free-weight, mainly compound movements (deadlifts, squats etc). Remember to learn the correct form before you start adding too much weight. If you need inspiration or instructions for exercises, see above.
Today, upon walking into the gym, a trainer jokingly called out to me, “Man, we’re gonna make you take a vacation from coming here!”
I shot back, “Nah dude, I pay my dues here and I’m gonna make it worth my while!”
He kicked back in his chair, looked at me and said, “Now there’s motivation. Why isn’t everyone motivated like that? You’re in here every day, kicking ass.”
I said, “It’s actually my rest day. On my rest days all I do is paddle around in the pool and sit in the sauna until my DOMS are gone.”
He laughed and leaned forward. “It’s your rest day? And you’re still here! You’re fucking serious. Man, I wish my girl was motivated like that. I wish my girl would come work out with me every day. Why isn’t my girl like that?” I forced a grimacing smile and walked away.
I thought about his words through my entire swim and for the rest of my day. It’s true. As a whole, he’s right - the average girl doesn’t show a consistent, deep motivation to kick ass in the gym day after day, month after month, year after year. Apparently that makes him sad. And he doesn’t understand that he’s a tiny individual part of a huge problem.
On a cultural level, women are taught that the only reasons to work out, get in shape, etc. are to “look good” and/or impress others. Women are not taught to prize ability and athletic performance. Women are encouraged to hit the gym to change something they don’t like, but rarely are they encouraged to improve on something they already (should) like. If a woman complains that her thighs are big, she’s told to hit the endless cardio and slim them down, but never to lift weights or run sprints and put those amazing thighs to use!
Women are not urged to set ability-oriented goals. Women are raised to judge “progress” on appearance. Women are systematically taught to “work out and get hot”, but not to train to become healthy and powerful! Therefore, real progress is never truly gained and motivation withers. Body-hate and external motivation does not last. Teaching a woman that she is nothing more than an imperfection to be changed for the viewing pleasure of others is not the way to make her beautiful, healthy, and happy. Help her learn to become strong, fast, and proud - for herself! - and the motivation will last a lifetime.
The fitness industry is fully aware how much money there is to be made in selling “solutions” to those who have been taught they are obligated to change themselves. Media, advertising, nutritionists and dietitians, gyms and trainers - they are all guilty of perpetuating the cycle. When a woman visits a personal trainer the first time, she’s asked what her weight goals are and what she wants to “change about herself”. She’s bombarded and broken down under constant insinuation that she’s not good enough yet but maybe she can be good enough if she puts enough time, effort, and money into changing everything that’s wrong with her. A woman cannot enter a fitness setting without it being assumed that she’s there to “get hot” to attract a mate, or to impress someone else. She’s not conceptually allowed to be there just to feel good, get healthier, or get stronger for herself.
If this society wants to see a generation of women who are truly enthusiastic about fitness - help give women a real reason to train. Stop focusing on subjective appearance things that a woman has been conditioned to feel obligated to hide and change, and instead encourage her to find something she loves, something she wants to accomplish. Instead of “helping” a woman lose her “love handles”, ask her if there’s some physical feat she never thought she’d be able to do, and help her do it! Bros of the gym, if y’all want your ladies to come work out with you, help show her how powerful and proud she can be, instead of keeping her weak and bored with 3lb handweights while you bench 225.
For the human race to meet our true potential of health, strength, and wellbeing - this cycle needs to change on a cultural level. But first, it needs to change on an individual level. This goes out to everyone, every single one of you. Be all YOU can be, never let anyone tell you otherwise, and help encourage others to do the same.