Is Gender Balance in Sports Coaching Attainable?

Is Gender Balance in Sports Coaching Attainable?
04 Nov 2021

Earlier this month, Helen Nkwocha was named the new manager of Faroese football club, Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag.

It was a watershed moment in European football as Nkowcha became the first female head coach of a topflight European football team.

In December 2020, after San Antonio Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, assistant coach Becky Hammon stepped in to become the NBA’s first ever acting female head coach.

That came after Hammon became only the second ever female coach of any description in the league’s history, after Lisa Boyer in 2001.

Two high profile appointments of female coaches on men’s professional sports team, a feat that should rightly be celebrated. But does it raise more questions than it answers?

One of the questions that springs to mind is whether or not the prevalence of female coaches for female sports team should be a priority first?

In the WNBA, the female counterpart to the NBA, seven of the twelve teams in the league have male coaches.

The same number in the Women’s Super League, the premier women's football league in the United Kingdom. And domestically, all ten of the Women’s National League here in Ireland are headed up by male coaches.

However, Dr. Susan Giblin, Programme Coordinator for Sports Science and Psychology at Portobello Institute, believes that the prevalence of female coaches can be improved simultaneously across male and female teams.

“No, I think that the prevalence of female coaches does not necessarily need to increase in female sports before representation can increase in male sports.

“The appointment of coaches, particularly head coach positions is usually based on a track record in the field, qualification and often prior playing experience.

“I think that increasing representation of females in assistant coaching positions in both male and female sports is a positive step towards mentoring and preparing females to be successful in head coach positions," she said.

Dr. Giblin has both a MSc in Performance Psychology (University of Edinburgh) and a PhD from the Institute of Coaching and Performance (University of Central Lancaster).

She believes there are a number of reasons why sports coaching is still such a male dominated industry.

“Unfortunately, many of the reasons are related to archaic stereotypes of ‘leadership’.

“Notably, the proportion of male coaches in female sport increased when financial support of women’s sport increased, thus with financial incentive, male coaches became interested in applying for positions that they may have otherwise avoided.”

An example of this increase in male coaching for female teams was seen after Title IX in the United States of America. Title IX was a federal civil rights law passed in 1972. Its aim was to eradicate gender-based discrimination in federally funded schools.

One of the actions taken to bring this about was an increase in funding for female teams. While intentions were good-natured, the influx of funding for female teams resulted in increased interest from male coaches to take the helm of female teams.

Before the law came into effect, 90% of female sports teams were coached by women. More up to date figures suggest that number now sits at around 40%.

However, increased male interest in female teams is not the only reason for a lack of female coaches, according to Dr. Giblin.

Coaching is a non-guaranteed and often unstable career path and female coaches tend to be scrutinised a lot more than their male counterparts, particularly when they are hired by male teams.

This is not exclusive to coaching either. Need we only cast our minds back to when Sian Massey-Ellis first took up the sidelines of the Premier League as an assistant referee and the intense scrutiny she faced then, least of all the conduct of former Sky Sports pundits Richard Keys and Andy Gray.

And it is the unprofessionalism shown by Keys, Gray and the wider sport culture that Dr. Giblin believes is one of the key barriers to increased visibility of female coaches.

“I think in many instances the lack of professionalism in the sports culture can be a barrier.

“For example as the only female member of the backroom team for a male sport, you are likely going to have to be present in the male changing rooms, there may not be separate female facilities for you.

This is something that isn’t spoken about, particularly in lower-level sports teams.”

It’s likely these barriers will be in place for a while as it seems an overall attitude change towards women in coaching roles is needed across the sports industry for change to happen.

When asked what success for increased representation of women in coaching roles would look like in five years time, Dr. Giblin said:

“Ultimately, increased female representation in both male and female sports across all levels of sport, from participation/recreation to elite level is required to move beyond the traditional male stereotype.

“I think that removing gender from our discussion of coach success will have to happen.

I also think it is important to consider female representation amongst backroom team members such as strength and conditioning coaches or sports scientists and also to highlight professional roles in sport that have more of a gender balance such as physiotherapy and psychology.

“I believe that appropriate organisation support structures are required to ensure that females have the opportunities to progress in coaching careers," she said.

Dr. Giblin is a leading member of Portobello Institute’s sports department and you can find the courses offered within the department here.

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