Why women coaches matter in sport
Nicole M LaVoi is co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. Part of the University of Minnesota, the Tucker Center examines how sport and physical activity affect the lives of girls and women, their families, and communities. Their strapline runs “A world that is good for women is good for everyone”.
LaVoi recently undertook research on the lack of women head coaches in swimming and diving at collegiate level in the US. She found that less than 1 in 4 collegiate female swimmers were coached by a same-sex role model and fewer men got cross-sex coaching. She contrasted that with the statistic that 96-98% of all men’s collegiate teams across all sports are coached by men.
Writing for swimming website SwimSwam recently, LaVoi says she gets asked if women coaches matter often. She offers up some evidence-based reasons why women in sport leadership positions matter and although LaVoi is specifically discussing the swimming, women in head coaching positions are even rarer in the rowing world.
Whilst in the USA Title 9, a federal civil rights law, ensures parity between the sexes in federal and educational programs, it does not specify parity in the supervision or administration of those programs. LaVoi’s research in 2016 revealed that in collegiate rowing only 35% of head coaches were female. However, LaVoi points out that in the wider sports community outside the scope of Title 9, the situation is likely to be much worse.
Rowing coach Lauren Fisher at Henley Royal Regatta with Lucy Glover, Saskia Budgett, Kyra Edwards and Anna Thornton
So why do women coaches matter? According to LaVoi:-
First, sport is one of the most visible and powerful social institutions in the world. Who is seen and known in the world of sports, like head coaches, communicates who is important, relevant and valued (and who is not).
Second, girls and young women want and need female role models, like former female athletes who become coaches, who have experienced many of the same issues in their sport. Same-sex role models provide emulation, aspiration, self-esteem, and valuation of abilities. Many girls grow up NEVER having had a female coach, whereas 100% of their male peers have had a male coach.
Third, when boys and men experience women as competent leaders in a context that matters greatly to them (i.e., sport), they are more likely to respect women, see females as equal colleagues, friends, and intimate partners, and are less likely to sexually objectify women.
Fourth, when girls and young women see females in coaching roles they will more likely think about coaching as a legitimate and viable career and may aspire to become a coach. Women coached by women are more likely to go into and stay in coaching!
Fifth, sports organizations with more women coaches on staff will likely have different perspectives at the decision-making table, which, according to the data, is positive for any workplace.
Sixth, women coaches need to see and interact with other women coaches for friendship, networking, support, career advice, mentorship, counselling and help in navigating a male-dominated workplace.
Seventh, when women are tokens in the workplace (<24%) it is often detrimental to mental and physical health outcomes. Female swimming & diving coaches often endure and experience alienation, feeling highly visible and subjected to scrutiny, having to overperform to gain credibility, feeling pressure to conform to organizational norms and endure increased risk for gender discrimination in the forms of sexual harassment, wage inequities, and limited opportunities for promotion; all caused by their minority status in the workplace. Over time, this takes its toll and many women coaches burn out and leave the profession.
Eighth, decades of data indicate 99% of sexual abusers and molesters of all athletes (female and male) at all levels of sport are male (see Brackenridge, 2001). With increased concerns of athlete health, wellbeing and safety, increasing the number of women coaches and gender diversity in the workplace might expedite advancement and achievement of these important goals.
In summary, women love to coach and are competent coaches. Women love to coach just as much as men, but due to the system and culture of swimming and diving they are often denied the opportunity afforded to male peers or face such an inhospitable workplace (and that means at the national, organizational, athletic department or club level) that they quit something they are passionate about and good at!
LaVoi says women coaches matter, and swimming and diving has some work to do to make this a reality. Rowers know there is way more to be done in our own sport.
Nicole M. LaVoi, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in the area of social and behavioural sciences in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota where she is also the Co-Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.