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Link to the original post on LinkedIn: HERE
In England, 43% of coaching is conducted by women[i]. Yet, only 38% of these women have a formal qualification[ii] and they are much less likely than men to identify with the title of “coach”. We know that 30% of coaches within talent pathways are female and that only 11% of the coaches at the Rio Olympics were women[iii]. So where are all the female coaches?
This isn’t a new problem, and it isn’t unique to us. In fact, it is stated objective for the sporting federations of many countries in the world and has been for some time.
I have been privileged in the last few months to be party to many conversations on this topic. And for me, the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to some quite philosophical reflections about the future of sport and physical activity. Many of which hit me when I least expect it!
So I figured, what if I put something out into the wild and see what came back...
This brainwave, I hope, captures some thoughts and demonstrates the interwoven nature of the issue, in anticipation that it might inspire some collective action and new ways of thinking. A call to arms really. A request for more eyes and brains on this conundrum.
Targeting interventions at the women doesn’t really work…
There, I said it.
Investment into programmes of upskilling for cohorts of female coaches is not the solution. Why? Because a lack of female representation is a symptom not the problem. You could make the women the best coaches in the world, and it still wouldn’t fix it.
The women are not the problem. We need to stop approaching them as such.
Don’t get me wrong, targeting underrepresented groups for positive action and additional opportunities is definitely a really, really, really important piece of the puzzle.
I’ll say it again, REALLY important. **Please don't stop doing them!**
Not least they are important as a means of the Establishment overtly reaching out to a broader range of people to let them know that these environments ARE for them, we want to meet them, help them get involved and that fundamentally we care because WE NEED THEM in order to make our offer better.
But it is not the entire puzzle.
Targeted interventions serve as important ways of breaking through the closed doors, and giving people access to environments and opportunities that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to be a part of. They are a means of succession planning and talent development outside of the established and traditional routes.
“Opportunity begets opportunity”. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.
We have all heard it before, right? Business leaders talk of the Matthew Effect, based on Christian parables, which essentially describes how those who are well recognised, are put in positions to get even more recognition, because they already have the recognition to get there in the first place. “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer”.
This is true in the coaching world also. Particularly where appointments are made either based on solely on CV or personal recommendation.
Yes. That happens.
Logistically, organising practical interviews for coaches is really challenging and particularly in voluntary organisations, we are lucky to have enough people, let alone an oversupply. So people with experience get access to more opportunities to gain more experience. When a paid role comes around, their CV stands out strongest and if there is a practical session, they may well be more confident and comfortable because they have had more practice. Job descriptions may even specify certain experiences or qualifications which inadvertently cut the pool of potential candidates unhelpfully. It is hard to take a punt on unproven potential, especially when your participant’s experiences are on the line. Layer in the preferences, relationships and unconscious biases of those people making the appointments and our challenge starts to look rather muddy.
What about quotas? They work for board diversity, right?
Quotas are really great tools to have. Especially when there are lots of people that could fulfil a role or a function, like the millions (not hyperbole) of people who would be great as a board member. But they need to be deployed with caution. Even without any quota system, female coaches often report feeling as if they are perceived as ‘the diversity hire’ or the ‘token’. They will feel compelled to justify and prove their place. When things don’t go well, their suitability will be questioned, because of who they are not because of what they do. Andy Murray recently wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian[iv] about how everyone seemed obsessed with his coach’s gender when he didn’t play so well. As if that was somehow relevant.
Quotas also kind of assume that there are lots of people who would want to do the role but can’t get the place because of societal or interpersonal barriers. For me that would be another missed opportunity to tackle the status quo. Fundamentally, if we want a broader range of people coaching, we need to look at how the roles are constructed. If we recognise that a more diverse workforce enhances the experience for everyone (participants and workforce alike), then we need to make efforts to include as many people as possible.
Where are the co-coaching roles? What are the guest coaching opportunities? What do we want this person to do? When do the sessions happen, and do they have to happen then? What are the unintended assumptions getting in our way? For example, in some sports it is customary for the coach to be the person driving a vehicle pulling a trailer, or in others where the coach is also the nominated life saver. These customs which have morphed over decades into requirements immediately discount people who might be amazing at the act of coaching but can’t or don’t want to do those other things. As you can imagine these hidden barriers significantly impact people with disabilities who may have exceptional coaching potential. We are losing out, and by accident. Our bucket is leaking.
Coaches typically are good folks, taking on too much, with good intentions but from a PR perspective the image of the lifer coach isn’t a hugely appealing representation of hobby/profession for lots of people, especially women.
“Hey Lucy, we are looking for a coach to take over from Geoff/Dave/Alan. He is a fantastic coach. He knows so much about our sport. He coaches every evening of the week and all-day Saturdays and now he’s retiring we need someone to take his groups otherwise they can’t run…”
It is commonly accepted that people fear volunteering in case they get overloaded. There exists a culture of almost martyrdom in coaching, and it is scarily common for me to meet coaches who openly talk about issues with personal relationships and poor mental health which they attribute to coaching. What’s more, these people are usually the volunteer coaches for whom it is a vocation, a calling. The people who do it for the love of what they do and have a burning need to help others. I regularly fall into this hole and have in the past felt the consequences of not checking myself. I think it is great progress that more coaches feel comfortable to speak about these issues and it is time to try to tackle them at the root too.
It needs to be acknowledged that our targeted interventions with female coaches over the years have taught us lots. Typically, projects targeting specific demographics of people have had more creative licence to deliver things differently, they are more person centred, more compassionate and often use a broader range of delivery mechanisms.
Through experimenting with targeted interventions, organisations have had to consider how coaches access support, development and learning. To think about what actually helps people to improve and progress in their coaching practice. We have had to consider what that learning looks like and understand our target audiences better.
For example, we have learned that many women prefer women only environments. We know coaches often feel isolated and relish the opportunity to meet and network with other coaches and that female coaches often don’t have the same kind of networks as male coaches. These are things which can be facilitated in person and virtually and really help people to improve.
We know that women still remain responsible for a large amount of domestic work, and also contribute more significantly to the gig economy and part time roles in society. So timing, location and pricing of learning opportunities may disproportionately disadvantage women especially in periods of economic austerity. We also know that many women struggle with confidence and Imposter Syndrome in their coaching and would like support to overcome these feelings.
These issues have been tackled creatively in many of the female coaching programmes and projects very successfully. Positive action has provided interesting, useful and meaningful development experiences for the women involved by creating environments which fit their wants and needs.
But if I’m honest, I feel like all of this is now just good customer service. None of these things are really women’s problems. They are people problems, and I’m sure there are other barriers not mentioned here that I need my awareness raising to. I believe we should be doing these things anyway, having these conversations, not just to increase accessibility for women, but for everyone. There’s still a long, long way to go.
We also have to recognise that a coach’s development is life long, and experiential. Yes, formal qualifications and training do add to your practice as does informal and social learning, but ultimately coaching is a practical, relational pursuit.
You can’t be a better baker just by reading cookery books just like you can’t get better abs by watching Joe Wicks do crunches.
The best way to get better is to get stuck in. Try some stuff. Fail. Reflect. Go again. Ideally with a coach developer or mentor and a network of peers to help you along the way. But that requires opportunity, trust, support and the psychological safety to make mistakes. You need to feel able to be yourself, and not to have to hide parts of who you are, be that faith, sexuality or anything else. That is quite a special environment. I’m not sure how many coaches (regardless of gender) have that.
That’s why we need to change the perception of what good sports coaching is. Of who coaches are, as fallible human beings, essential people, trying their best. We need to raise the profile of a more empathic, supportive, listening style of leadership. A more participant centred, self-aware, experience orientated coaching approach, to engage a wider range of people in sport and physical activity.
We also need to break the myth that these are ‘female’ qualities and stop using this as a reason for trying to include more women. Having more women in the coaching workforce and changing the perception of good practice in sports coaching are two interrelated but not synonymous problems. Not all women demonstrate a soft, stereotypically feminine style of being. Not all men are bulldozers.
This clumsy but common stereotyping not only feeds heteronormative gender roles (women as nurturing home makers) but also inadvertently plays into the idea that once the job is no longer one of nurturing (i.e. is now a performance role), a different, more ‘masculine’ skill set is required. It is just not that straightforward.
While we are at it, let’s not muddle coaches of women with women who are coaches. Again, these are two issues which are very much related but not the same thing.
We need more people who are able to deliver to women, in different ways, we need people who can connect with their audience and empathise with the experiences of their participants. Sometimes that person is a woman. Sometimes they are not. Reducing people to one of their protected characteristics is unhelpful and misses not only the impact of intersectionality but also a whole heap of other interpersonal factors.
Of course, we need more women in frontline roles supporting women and role modelling for future generations of coaches, but wouldn't it be brilliant if just as many women also worked with people who don’t have the same gender identity as them. Somehow it feels less remarkable for a man to be delivering a session to women, whether that be football session or a Zumba class, than the reverse. But why should that be the case?
The challenge is that perceptions of coaches and coaching are societal with a long and prestigious history. Likewise, conceptions of gender are socially constructed and contested. Maintained by media, movies and marketing.
How can we get the press to stop showing football managers kicking water bottles on TV? How do we challenge the Any Given Sunday style representation of coaching speeches? How do we mandate to the marketing team in every organisation that a whistle and a clipboard are no longer to be the symbols for coaching, especially when the alternative isn’t obvious?
Lucy: “I’m looking for an icon which says supportive yet challenging, togetherness but empowering, subservient leadership, engagement, trustworthiness, expertise; something which encompasses all ages, genders, ethnicities and is inclusive of people with disabilities (but not just visible ones). Oh and also it mustn’t be sport specific because coaching is coaching no matter the sportiness of the activity…do you have something like that?”
What if we flipped the suggestion? What if we started work on changing the perception of coaching, as part of our mission to attract and retain a greater diversity of people as coaches? What if we really showcased HOW elite performance coaching is done well? Because it is happening.
Can we train photographers and commission pictures of coaches, male and female, in the act of really, really, darn good coaching? Can we capture the magicalness of relationships?
Because that is what it is, magic. Just like the top hats and white rabbit kind, coaching happens in the subtle almost imperceptible moments. How a coach positions themselves. The inflection in their voice. A fist bump here or a nod there. The way they distil all the complexity of their activity into a single practice. The spontaneous yet carefully crafted questions. Remembering a birthday party happened or listening to someone talk about their crummy day at work. The bucketloads of knowledge, experience and skill it takes to adapt the session to help the people in front of them along their way to wherever they want to go.
The kind of people we are looking for are diamonds, and as in a regular treasure hunt it is our job to find them. They won’t land at our feet. We know women often don’t put themselves forward. So how can we ask them? At scale.
Just as a doctor needs to understand the whole person, we need to discover what the symptom of a dearth of female coaches represents for our sporting ecosystem. Of course, topical solutions will always part of the treatment, but my hope is that they will be delivered tandem with some more oblique but essential interventions and approaches.
This isn’t intended to criticise what has gone before, I wouldn’t be here now without these foundations. It is just time for a more sophisticated conversation and in truth it is way beyond the binary of male:female coach ratios. There won’t be a sliver bullet project, change won’t be easy. That’s ok. All the little bits of work, the direct iterventions, all the innovative ideas, all the genuine meaningful conversations; these are the way we change the zeitgeist. These are the way we change the world.
“Cumulatively small decisions, choices, actions, make a very big difference.” — Jane Goodall (anthropologist)
Does anyone want to help?
[i] UK Coaching (2019) Coaching in the UK, 2019, Coach Survey https://www.ukcoaching.org/resources/topics/research/coaching-in-the-uk
[ii] UK Coaching (2017) A Spotlight on Gender https://www.ukcoaching.org/UKCoaching/media/coaching-images/Entity%20base/Guides/coaching-in-the-uk-coaching-setting.pdf
[iii] Women at the Olympic Games Statistics https://www.olympic.org/women-in-sport/background/statistics
[iv] Why Shouldn’t Women Coach Men https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2020/mar/07/why-shouldnt-women-coach-men-tokyo-olympics-are-ideal-driver-for-equality
Really enjoyed this! As a female coach myself, I can identify with all of this.
Some thoughts after todays CD chat...
Is there something specific around the number of qualified coaches or is this about volunteers too? A lack of visible coaching role models. Blended learning opportunities that support more flexible learning. Is confidence an issue where the coach hasn't played the sport themselves? is credibility in that sense important? How much of the issue is the coaches themselves, creating barriers or a negative perception? NGB changes in coach education systems have helped in some sports where it has allowed and encouraged coaches to be be themselves. Males that can champion female coaches were seen as important. Giving experience to athletes of being coached by a female as well as giving females the opportunity and experience of coaching. Athlete to coach programmes may help. Mentoring programmes. Exploring childcare options where appropriate.
The shift in approaches to coach education is crucial - I think this is helping. The more radical NGBs can be, the better chance of encouraging a more diverse workforce.
I wonder if we would have more female coaches and females in sports leadership roles if we tried to apply the principle of "blind" applications, as per the famous study on gender bias in orchestra auditions?https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/orchestrating-impartiality-impact-%E2%80%9Cblind%E2%80%9D-auditions-female-musicians
Some issues discussed, thanks to Lee Ballard for collating in the chat:• Lack of (long-term) female participation, therefore less in the pool to move into coaching (traditional player to coach journey)• More dads attend grassroots team sports – higher likelihood of males getting into coaching• Coaching courses (L1-L2) therefore male dominated• Coaching courses focused on male sports (e.g. male examples)• Talent coaches use female sport to jump into male sport (stepping stone)• Societal issues (Male vs female athletes and male vs female coaches – how do we view them in society)• Societal issues – you need to have played to coach (impact on sports with lower traditional female participation)• Societal issues (stereotypical roles in community clubs for women – e.g. kitchen, first aider – males coach)
From Tom Hartley table:- Do we value the "relate-ability" of visible female coaches in our organisations? - Are potential female coaches able to see themselves in these positions? - Do "senior" coaches demonstrate pro-social behaviours - vulnerability & humility which could create an environment where more female coaches feel confident to take first steps?
It was great to connect with the group on this subject today. Some points from the notes I made in the first half of the discussion; - The challenge can be seen as both a systemic challenge and a cultural challenge. - To what extent is the problem sports specific as opposed to societal? Where are the cross over points? - Could more recognition of the work female coaches and coaches from other minority groups are already doing help the overall trend to move towards diversity? - In other fields sponsorship, mentoring and apprenticeship schemes have helped. - There have been cases where female coaches have felt isolated, marginalised or worse, have heard about discrimination or potentially abusive treatment of other female coaches and have had to think twice about speaking up for fear of negative implications for their own career, credibility or standing. - The above point highlighted that female coaches can, in some current circumstances, feel vulnerable. - Perceptions of gender roles and how this affects the big picture in the coaching landscape and also how difficult this subject can be to bring up due to nervousness about the reaction it may cause. - There is still a strong dominant narrative around what coaching is and how to 'be' as a coach in many areas of the coaching landscape. A move towards a wider more versatile view of what coaching is could help. - There were examples of aspiring female coaches who tended to be self critical and perfectionist in their approach, meaning they were reluctant to put themselves forward for any exams or awards but who have a lot of potential as coaches. - It was felt that more female role models throughout the pathway could help. - Strong leadership from the top down to support cultural change to support diversity has been shown to make a real positive difference. -
Thoughts from Table 6 (i think)... hope I’ve got everything, please do add what i have forgotten.We had mostly adventure/horse people for a lot of the chat, so a lot is based around that.One big barrier remains the 'invisible work' that still falls disproportionately to women, particularly around young families. It was also noted that deciding to have a family often comes at a time in life when you are just getting a coaching career up to the higher levels of coaching/guiding and/or into coach development. An example from the group of a high level mountaineer deciding to go into teaching - for reasons of steady income and work logistics - when she started a family illustrated this clearly for us. The horse world is lucky in that there are a lot of female coaches. One aspect that could be a learning point for other sports is that it's perfectly normal for a coach's children to be involved, hanging round the stables, riding etc, so there isn't the drop out that you get from other sports when families start. We also chatted about the volunteer/professional coach situation. It was noted that it's considerably easier to volunteer your time (and money) if you are male and affluent (for above reasons as well as others). For some women, being paid to coach is the only realistic way that it can justify the time it takes from other things in life. In shooting women were asked to volunteer as coaches to 'be a role model' but then aren't always given the same respect as the male (paid) coaches, which is then a barrier to entry for other women who see it as more stress than it's worth. There is a perception that women simply don't want to do things that are scary/cold/potentially dangerous, maybe even that we need protecting? While this may well be the case for some women (and plenty of men) it definitely isn't for all women, and examples of totally badass women in kayaking like Nouria Newman were brought up. Again, the horse world gives us examples of plenty of elite women competing on a level playing field with men and winning, particularly in eventing (which is definitely big and scary and dangerous). We tried to dissect why this might be, with ideas around children from a young age being encouraged/discouraged from doing stuff like getting muddy and climbing trees, to issues of confidence. Maybe the difference is that it's perfectly accepped that girls like ponies so nobody thinks to question them about wanting to do dangerous horse based things, in the way it's assumed that girls don't want to or shouldn't do dangerous mountain/water based things?? We even had an example of a highly competent woman in our group doing some big and scary sea kayaking, and being told "I'm surprised your husband lets you do that". Maybe it’s a case of trying not to ‘gender’ the way we speak to children (and adults) so that there’s less invisible barriers? We also had a bit of a chat about the military, but maybe Dan and Zoe would be better placed to talk about that (my notes are sketchy at best!)So, what can be done...One great idea was around making sure that all imagery we use on our course materials, slides etc are representative, so that on a subliminal level women being awesome was just being presented as perfectly normal. We talked a lot about women only events, both in paddlesport and football. Women's paddlesport symposia were able to bring together not only the paddlers but the coaches, who then formed strong networks that lasted long after the event. In football there have been some great women's coaching events, but it was noted that these don't always prepare you for the reality of coaching when you get back to a male dominated environment. There were a few examples of pretty horrific behaviour being seen as 'normal' in the more 'macho' ends of both sports that we discussed, and it seems pretty obvious that stamping that out, along with inappropriate language/behaviour and OTT 'banter' would make the atmosphere around training camps and trips much more palatable for not just women but the plenty of men that are put off by that behaviour too. We discussed being the 'token woman', particularly at higher level coach courses and tutor orientations/moderations, and what organisers can do to make it less daunting. One of the biggest bug bears was the (perfectly well meaning) idea of spreading out the women so there is 1 on each 'table', and whether it might be much better to actually group them together so that they can 'feed off' each other, contribute more, and form those strong networks that last. (as an aside there's some interesting thoughts here, which came up as a response to a discussion around Lucy's blog on a paddlesport facebook page... https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak/ )We also discussed ideas like ‘she paddles’ which British Canoeing has started up. There’s a women’s paddlers facebook page, as well as 10 women’s ambassadors chosen each year from across the spectrum of the sport. This can be seen as both very supportive, and a bit patronising depending on who you ask. The facebook group has turned out to be a much more psychologically safe space than some other groups, to ask questions and offer solutions without the worry of being shouted down or having to engage in conversation with people being difficult for the sake of it. The conversation concluded with ideas around ego – most of the women deliverers we could think of, and a good proportion on the men, did so in a way that was ‘ego free’ – is this the way forward? If the tutors and assessors we have are, regardless of gender, generally decent people that are more interested in the development of the people in front of them than in proving to everyone how great they are, then perhaps more of this sort of person will be encouraged to continue coaching and progress into coach development?
Thank you for sharing - some very good points, and that article was very helpful too.
For all those following this thread a session below which might be of interest:Levelling the playing field for female football coaches - 3 June, 9-10am https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/levelling-the-playing-field-for-women-football-coaches-seminar-infographic-tickets-104676799124
I missed the original discussion, but wanted to contribute. As the only female table tennis coach in my county, I feel somewhat up against it in terms of the traditional role and status of the coach. In part this stems from the fact that sport in general seems to be male dominated, but also there's decades of tradition of coaching in a set way and definitely a reluctance to change. I've started running women's only groups which have been successful, and I'm hoping to get a mixed session off the ground. I've done one-to-one coaching with males and females so individuals don't have a problem, but I find a few organisations do. But one of the main killers is that, as I've qualified to coach, have to pay for a coach licence and keep my skills up to date, I ask to be paid to coach - and some clubs object to that. I'm self-employed and am not asking for a fortune, but if clubs won't pay then I can't afford to coach. I think we need a sea change in attitude to improve the conditions for female coaches so how to we do that? I'd suggest that we need the support of clubs and leagues in providing opportunities to coach, making mentoring and coaching available to all (especially in the more far-flung areas of the country), and in helping attract sponsorship to cover expenses, equipment and attendance of training courses. And to ensure that women on a low income and with caring responsibilities will be able to take advantage of these opportunities . . . well, if we can sort that we'll be getting somewhere.
A link to some further debate in the hockey world: https://www.thehockeypaper.co.uk/articles/2020/05/15/hockey-on-a-mission-to-change-gender-imbalance
I really enjoyed reading this, Lucy. I think the macro socio-cultural environmental constraints (governments, historical events, education etc) play a huge part in influencing the deep-rooted biases that we have and experience as men and women. This also influences how the coaching industry views us and also determines what it expects of each of us, too. That's even before you begin to consider more macro layers of complexity such as how this changes/looks in different countries around the world.As you rightly say, the perception of what a good coach is needs to change; "not all women demonstrate a soft, stereotypically feminine style of being. Not all men are bulldozers."More work needs to be done in the coaching industry to create a positive ripple effect that starts to remove these deep-rooted biases and barriers to entry. I think that we need to start by putting the coach at the centre of the process. We then need to focus on and explore the micro level of the coaching industry (coach education, peers etc) by having more meaningful conversations and interactions between everyone involved so that we can establish a deeper understanding of the context of the situation as well as the context of each individual. This deeper understanding could create more psychological safety that helps us to be ourselves and gives us the confidence to make mistakes and learn from them so that we can continue to grow.We need to remove the echo chambers, actively listen and observe to get to know the environment we're in as well as possible. This will build trusting networks that understand the greater context. The hope is that this then encourages an approach of collaboration rather than one of isolation via bias. Hopefully the positive work on the micro level would lead to the ripples reaching and helping to change the macro level biases, too.
An awesome session this morning and enjoyed Remo :) Thanks AndySome 'barrier' summary points from our table -1. Are we taking a strategic approach to the intervention style programmes and is the purpose/drive really to cause a cultural change.?2. Different sports with different traditions, how do you move those rigid mindsets?3. It seems cyclical we have a surge of strong females and then a ‘lull’ how do we maintain the drive?4. Supporting female coaches to fill positions and not to become more confident coaches.5. Language and the way we promote and message. 6. The structure around coaches – Too difficult to manage times, locations, travel, - How can we work on the way the programme is delivered to support coaches and female coaches.7. Are we actually tackling the perception or just highlighting it ? Is it a gender issue? 8. Role models – A lot of the books written from a female coach perspective have a ‘self-help’ element to them (which may absolutely have been part of the journey for that coach) but where are the positive stories? Are they out there? Some supportive guidance and awareness to get the ball rolling1. We are lucky that we have a neutral word in our profession ‘coach’ we just need to start seeing females filling that role.2. Visibility - More females on the cover of sporting books and magazines inspiring and motivating3. Check our biases and do a health check in your environment/system and see what exists.4. Accessibility – let’s look at this movement from a multifaceted approach – Physical / Social / Financial and Perceptual – How can we make this the norm?5. Facilitating community-based interactions to support growth and accelerating confidence through informal interactions. 6. More opportunities to talk, share support and intervene and normalise this instead of it being isolated projects/interventions.7. A lot in all of those points and some overlap but all part of great conversations this morning.
Some listening to add to the discussion, our latest Coach Developer conversations podcast featuring Lucy Moore with Marianne Davies at the helm - https://www.ukcoaching.org/resources/topics/podcasts/coach-developer-conservations-(s2)-(ep-3)-lucy-moo
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