Stepping up to get more women into the game: What organizations can do to support women in coaching

Where are all the women coaches?

Tokyo 2020 was a summer of triumph for Canadian women athletes. Over 60 percent of the 371 Canadian Olympians and 75 percent of the Canadian medal winners in Tokyo identified as women or gender diverse.1 However, women made up only 16 percent of the 131 Canadian coaches that participated.2 Although Canadian women athletes are being represented on the world stage, women coaches are still being left out of play.

At the college and university level, women are not fairing much better with only 26 percent of women head coaches leading women’s teams and a dismal three percent of women head coaches leading men’s teams in the Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association (CCAA) and U SPORTS.7 At the grassroots level in Canada, it is estimated only 34 percent of coaches are women.3 The data is clear – women are underrepresented in coaching at all levels of sport in Canada. An important question to consider is why?

Barriers to coaching

Societal and institutional systems are at the root of the barriers women experience in coaching. There are multiple intersecting and complex factors that can impede women’s coaching careers. Women coaches are impacted personally and professionally by stereotypes, discrimination and gendered organizational cultures that favour advancement opportunities for men. These barriers increase when leaders and organizations believe women must take responsibility for navigating and overcoming these barriers rather than recognizing the system is broken and must change.

For example, blame-the-women narratives focus on the individual rather than the very real social and organizational barriers that deter or exclude women from coaching.4 The following table provides common examples.

Blame-the women-narratives 4What organizations should considerQuestions organizations should ask
“Women don’t apply
for open positions”
There are multiple barriers women face in applying for positions including not being part of sports’ old boys’ network, perceiving organizations as unwelcoming or unsupportive, and untransparent hiring processes.Have we actively recruited women to apply for the position? How can we reach more women with our communications and marketing? What women are in our network (or beyond) that we can actively approach to apply?
“Women aren’t as
interested in coaching
as men”
Men are socialized to see themselves as athletes and coaches whereas women constantly fight against this societal narrative. This creates an unfortunate cycle where women don’t see other women coaching and therefore can’t “see it to be it.”How are we helping women see themselves as coaches in our organization? (I.e., in our marketing material, representation in leadership positions, etc.)
“Women aren’t as
qualified as men”
Modern sport was created by and for men and leadership positions were exclusively held by men (Anderson, 2009). As a result, what we deem to have value or how we define “qualified” is often from this one male-dominated and privileged viewpoint. This viewpoint also privileges boys and men to receive greater advantages as athletes and coaches.Have we actively mentored and sponsored women for coaching roles? What proactive steps are we taking to encourage women in our organization to build their coaching skills? What gendered assumptions are we making when we talk about what abilities a qualified coach possesses?
“Women with
children are less
Women have been socialized to take on caretaking and household responsibilities. Processes within organizations have also favoured and taken into consideration what men need in order to be successful. Women aren’t less committed; organizations may just not have considered what women need to be successful.How can we provide a more supportive environment for parent coaches? What structures in our organization present hurdles for women with children? Do we have paid, on-site childcare services?

Compounded with double standards (i.e., holding women coaches to a higher or different standard than men, paying women less than men with comparable experience, providing less resources and support to women coaches, etc.) blame-the-women narratives continue to entrench and uphold an inequitable sport system.4

Changing the system to change the game

Although helping women navigate the system is a crucial step in increasing representation in coaching, more work needs to be focused on improving organizations and the sport system to ensure sustainable change. The onus needs to be on organizations to oppose the status quo, check assumptions and biases and actively advance gender equity in coaching. A foundation for this work to be successful is having organizations cultivate a culture where diversity and inclusion are valued and lived every day compared to having one-off diversity and inclusion initiatives.5

Five actions organizations can take:

  1. Create and promote clear credible coaching pathways with support for women at each career stage. 5

For women to progress within coaching, pathways need to be visible with clear coach development opportunities. These opportunities should reflect learning cultures and not just series of qualifications used to assess the current competence of coaches. Coaching courses should not just be assessments and gatekeeping to coach at the next level but rather should be learning and development opportunities.5 Support must also extend beyond completing coach education courses and qualifications. Organizations should map out their own processes for supporting coaches through their NSO or PSO coach development streams.

2. Implement recruitment, hiring and retention policies that explicitly seek out women

Organizations can take the lead by committing to hiring and promoting women coaches by setting clear targets for the number of women coaching at every level within the organization. Make sure to include timelines and check-ins to achieve the defined goals. Build and reach out to diverse networks and develop a succession list of talented women to fill coaching roles. 6 Involve women coaches and leaders in the recruiting and hiring process and commit to building a diverse candidate pool. To retain coaches, organizations should be flexible to meet the diverse needs of women coaches and ensure coaches are being compensated commensurate with skill level.4 Offering long-term contracts can also help create stable work conditions.

3. Challenge and remove stereotypes and bias that discriminate against women

Our brains group people based on things we know or assume about them, like age, gender, skin colour, income, ability or education. Our brains use these groupings to make judgements without us even knowing it. This is called unconscious bias. If we don’t intentionally identify our unconscious bias, we run the risk that our biases impact our decision making, which could lead to unfairness against groups of individuals and harm our pursuits to improve inclusion. A first step to counter our unconscious bias is to learn more about different types so that you can actively counter your unconscious bias. For example, unconscious gender bias that associates men with leadership can influence decision makers to choose men over women or other gender diverse individuals for coaching roles. Here are some types of bias and how you can counteract them:

4. Actively help women build relationships within your organization and the sport system through mentorship and sponsorship

Organizations need to move beyond getting more women coaches in the door and make sure once arrived, the organization is providing active support and guidance for coaches to develop and progress. As women are not often part of the “boys’ club” that continues to be pervasive throughout the Canadian

sport system, mentorship and sponsorship are key processes to ensure women gain a valuable and supportive network of colleagues and opportunities.

“It must extend to a culture of sponsorship within daily interactions and a positive management style by those who manage coaches and tutors. Sponsorship has an explicit aim of advancement through exposure to opportunities and relationships to improve the promotion and capability of coaches and tutors. It is again, grounded in a basic assumption of the value of women in these roles rather than just simply another strategy or initiative.” 5 – Norman, Rankin-Wright & Allison (2018)

5. Complete the Gender Equity in Coaching Self-Assessment Tool to identify areas of best-practice and growth in your organization

The Gender Equity in Coaching Framework focuses on key factors within an organization’s control, guiding sport leaders to meaningful and sustainable changes that will improve the outcome for women in coaching. These include:

Complete the Gender Equity in Coaching Self-Assessment Tool to determine your organization’s areas of strength and potential areas of improvement to advance gender equity in coaching.

We’re here to help! To work with Canadian Women & Sport to improve support for women coaches and build better gender equity in your organization, contact us at [email protected].