We all know the story. A qualified hopeful applies for a head coaching position for a promising women’s athletic team. She’s coached at the college level before, and has the know-how, confidence, and ability to guide the team to its highest potential. Cognitively, she knows that her resume speaks for itself – but as she leaves the interview, she worries. Amidst questions about coaching strategies and past experiences, her interviewers had asked her about her marital status, her family, and her level of confidence. She answered, of course, but the queries left her uneasy. Later, she finds out from a colleague that the position had been awarded to a less qualified male coach with fewer years of experience.
This situation is a hypothetical one, but the experience it suggests is unfortunately all too real for many women seeking to make a career in college sports administration. According to statistics provided by the New York Times, about 60% of coaches for women’s teams are male, while only 3% of coaches for men’s teams are women. The gender disparity is nothing new; in fact, the rate of female coaches in women’s sports has been steadily declining since the implementation of Title IX in 1972.
This may seem surprising to some; after all, Title IX mandated that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This legislation stipulates athletic teams must be treated equally regardless of gender; in historical context, its passing meant that women’s athletics could no longer be treated as less worthy of attention than men’s athletics. In the decade after Title IX passed, participation in women’s sports boomed, leading to the development of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which functioned similarly to how the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) did for male teams. Unlike the NCAA, which prioritized competition and commercial success, the AIAW focused on fostering academic achievement and athletic development in its players; under its purview, nearly 90% of the coaches for women’s teams were female.
However, the growth stimulated by Title IX came with a catch. Eventually, colleges opted to withdraw their women’s teams from the AIAW and register both male and female teams with the NCAA, which was seen as a more legitimate organization. In the transition, women who had preferred the athlete-centric work of the AIAW and disliked the competition focus of the NCAA left their positions. Other women found themselves pushed out in favor of male coaches during the shift. Since then, the number of women in sports administration has gradually declined, leaving us with our current gender-skewed statistics.
Moreover, women in sports administration still face archaic gender stereotypes and obstacles that other fields ousted years ago. As Dr. Heidi Grappendorf noted in her reflections on a survey she led on hiring bias in sports,
The assumption has been that masculine attributes like aggressiveness and competitiveness are needed for management-level positions, yet women who display those attributes are still not given the same opportunities as men. Even worse, if they do happen to be hired, women are often looked down upon by colleagues for having those masculine qualities.
Women face a catch-22; the very qualities they need to display in order to achieve a position in a male-dominated profession leave them vulnerable to disrespect in the role. The situation is even worse for women of color, who, according to a study published by the Western New England University School of Law, are often pointed to as tokens for diversity while hiring practices continue to favor white male candidates. Another study conducted in 2011 revealed that even if male and female candidates were perceived as having similar capabilities and potential for success, the male would be significantly more likely to receive a high-powered directorial role in sports administration.
Where, then, does this leave us? The statistics speak for themselves; our situation is untenable. We need to speak up against unfair hiring practices by bringing them to light, and fighting for a greater female and minority representation in female and male sports administration. We need to encourage our girls to step confidently forward and make the effort to follow careers in athletics. It’s frustrating and unfair that women have to face barriers in sports administration, but the only way for us to remove them is to continue to fight against their commonality. We do so in the hope that one day, an interviewer will show more interest in a woman’s experience on the field than for her obligations at home.