Gender Inequality in University Level Coaching

Michelle de Leon, Rebecca Lawrence, Tiana Mohebi, Niqhil Velji, Zara Vanwynsberghe / Dec 6, 2019

Young women need role models and leaders to imagine their own future

A whistle is blown. “Girls, keep on running! Faster!” As Poonam Sandu’s voice sounds across the sports field, UBC’s women’s field hockey team players are warming up during their training. “It’s great to have a female coach, she understands what we’re going through and knows what’s it like to be a girl in sports. I think that’s really important.”

However, having a female coach at the University of British Columbia is unusual. Where women make up almost half of the athletes, only 2 of 25 coaches are female at this campus. UBC isn’t the only school struggling with this large discrepancy.  It’s a common in many other top Canadian universities. According to a gender equality report from the University of Toronto, only 17 percent of head coaches in Canadian universities are women.

“We can’t accept that. We can’t just say: ‘Well, that’s just an effect or a byproduct of women censoring themselves out of the competition for those roles.’”

– Becki Ross, UBC Professor in the department of sociology and the institute for gender race, sexuality and social justice

History behind it

According to Ross, there is a long and ugly history of barriers to women’s involvement in sports at all levels; from the recreational to the most elite, from playground to the Olympics.

“The industry of sports has always been male dominated and deeply conservative.”

– Becki Ross, UBC Professor

For years, there has been a perception widely shared in societies all over the world that sports should be a male activity. This culture of sports might be one of the biggest socio-cultural barriers. They are not even socially licensed to make sports a central part of their own identity. 

Many young girls are introduced to sports by their fathers. They grow up seeing their fathers and brothers doing sports-related work, including coaching, while their mothers are on the sidelines or in the van. It’s a part of the process of hetero gender socialization.

Despite those traditional gender stereotypes, Canada knows a few women pioneers who challenged this idea. Bobbie Rosenfeld is one of Canada’s first female athletes who participated at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928. She won two medals and was named Canada’s Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950. Retired Canadian ice hockey goaltender Manon Rhéaume was the first woman to play in any of the major North American pro-sports leagues in 1992. 

Why is this happening?

According to Becki Ross women have never been supported with the necessary resources. They are told they don’t have the drive, the commitment, nor the fast nature to promote winning at all cost. “They just don’t possess ‘the balls’.” But how do we know anything about women as coaches if they’ve almost never been given a chance to lead and inspire, wonders Ross.

“It still feels like we should be so much further along in 2019 then we are.”

– Becki Ross, UBC Professor

Poonam Sandhu is one of the two female coaches at UBC. This year, she’s the head coach of UBC’s women’s field hockey team. “I really wasn’t expecting to be the coach this year. The position is really competitive and the application progress was really tedious. But I felt it would be a good learning opportunity.” 

Sandhu has been playing field hockey since she was 9 years old. After she graduated from UBC in 2015, she was always volunteering and helping out the club teams.

Because it’s such a male dominated world, female athletes don’t seem to see coaching as an available option for them. As indicated by Sandhu, too little women are represented in professional sports and media. She emphasizes it’s really important to tackle this lack of female representation and to change the way how females are presented in the media.

“Instead of focusing on the way women look, we should put their athletic ability in the spotlights.”

– Margaret Pham, UBC Student Athlete

Body image and a lack of self-confidence are the most common personal barriers to women’s participation in sports. “The more self-conscious they feel about their bodies, the less likely they are to take part in sport.” Female hockey player Pham confirms this theory.  “A big part of it has to do with how girls see themselves; body image. On top of that, having positive female role models in sports is really hard to come across.”

How it affects them in real life

There seem to be two different views about having a female coach.

“I think sometimes when you have a female coach, we as girls can get away with things a little bit more. When we had a male coach, we would snap into place a bit quicker.”

– Margaret Pham, Student Athlete

The team had a male coach before Sandu, but they all agree that female coaches are more approachable. “Sandu is more understanding, it makes it easier to go talk to her about things,” shares Jillian Walace, member of the team. According to the athlete, people could be more leary to go to a male coach with worries, concerns or even just thoughts. “She can relate to us on a different level in terms of lifestyle,” adds Alex Vanri, another player of the team. 

Head coach Sandu has been playing field hockey for almost 20 years. For her, the biggest advantage in her coaching career is her personal experience. “I’ve been in the same position as these girls, they can understand and resonate with my level of experience.” But no matter the gender, she believes a coach has to be effective, irrespective of gender.

Female players sometimes feel the need to perform better with women coaches. “I feel like you want to respect them and give them your attention and dedication because you know they’re working hard and supporting you, so you should give it back to them.”

– Alix Vanri, Student Athlete

Toxic Masculinity?

Becki Ross said over the past 20 years a number of stories have surfaced of men abusing their authority in sport by violating their players; verbally, physically and sexually.

The male dominant sport of hockey is currently facing backlash and facing a culture crisis. Former players like Dan Carcillo are claiming the root of the problem stems at minor hockey levels as coaches “win-at-all costs culture is pervading the sport.”

The “win-at-all costs” mantra is what Ross believes has hindered women’s ability to enter the field of coaching. She says females are passed over and ridiculed because they’re told they don’t have the commitment, the drive or the passion to promote winning at all costs.

Comprehensively breaking down the obligations of a coach, it’s multi-faceted. Ross said you’re not just a coach but often also a therapist, nurse, psychotherapist, social worker and parent, all roles that have historically been played well by women.

Carcillo has advocated for more females in positions of power at the NHL level, including management and coaching.

A quick timeline of events that have come to light in recent weeks range from the NHL, includes former Flames coach Bill Peters being relieved of his duties due to racial comments towards Akim Aliu along with alleged physical abuse towards Michal Jordan.

Johan Franzen said former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock verbally assaulted him on the bench, causing a nervous breakdown. Mark Crawford currently under investigation as former players Brent Sopel and Sean Avery alleged being “kicked” and “choked” during NHL games.

In other events in the sporting world, male coaches have a precedence of sexual assault.

Grahm James was a junior hockey coach who in 1989 was named Man of The Year by The Hockey News.

In 1996 former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and another unnamed player came forward making claims about sexual assault towards James. Which lead to a subsequent arrest. In 1997 James pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

In 2010 NHL retired NHL star Theon Fleury also filed a criminal complaint towards James. In his auto-biography Fleury said the sexual abuse by James he endured at the age of 14 as a member of the Saskatoon Blades drove him to alcohol and drugs during his illustrious 16 year NHL career. James pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to two more years in prison.

Jerry Sandusky was an assistant football coach at Penn’s State University, where he worked under legendary football coach Joe Paterno. For more than 15 years. Sandusky sexually assaulted young men on the team in showers and locker rooms. He was finally convicted in 2012 as a serial sex offender on 45 counts of sexual abuse.

These stories are a few brief examples of the large number of instances of physical, sexual and mental abuse that happen under the leadership of male coaches.

From an early age, Ross says men are taught through contact sport that aggression, toughness, playing with injury and winning at all costs are goals to strive for on playing fields and in real life. Implementing more women in coaching can help break this cycle of toxic masculinity in sport.

“But how do we know anything about woman as coaches or women’s coaching? Women have almost never been given a chance to coach, to lead, to mentor, to inspire.”

– Becki Ross, UBC Professor

Hope for the future

The number of female coaches at UBC is extremely low at 14 percent. Put there is possibility for change.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late. I mean if I felt that, we should all throw in the towel now, right?”

Becki Ross, UBC Professor 

In order to really push for this shift in culture, action needs be taken by just about everyone involved in the sports community. 

According to Sandhu, it’s important to start encouraging girls to get involved in coaching at a younger age. This way, the idea of a female coach doesn’t seem so unfamiliar or distant when the time comes to actually apply for the position.

Also within the sports community, Sandhu recommends there be more mentorship so that valuable discussions about roles and opportunities are shared among coaching/admin staff and players.

Becki Ross agrees.

“We need to see women at all levels of sports, as athletes and coaches, referees and officials, as athletic directors, administrators and promoters, equipment designers, journalists and commentators, storytellers and news makers.”

– Becki Ross, UBC Professor

With this increase in representation, the idea of females in leading sports positions can slowly be normalized with time.