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Where are all the female coaches?

More females are playing sport but the number of elite female coaches is very low.
Photo: Flying Cloud / flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Amber Allen has a Level 1 AFL coaching accreditation, she coaches the ACT under 15s girls team, captains her division 1 women’s team and is heavily involved in many of the ACT representative teams.

She has clearly established some credentials as a leader and mentor. Yet, when Allen applied for the head coach role for the ACT under 15s girls school sport team last year, she was overlooked for a male with far less coaching experience.

“It felt like we were kind of pushed away and what we were bringing to the table wasn’t really recognised,” Allen said.

Amber Allen’s frustration tells a story about the acceptance of women in sport.

Female participation is on the rise in Australia but coaching and, in particular, coaching women’s teams, is still a man’s world.

You only need to look at the elite level of sport in Australia to see how women are under-represented.

There will be 10 teams in the 2019 AFLW season and none of them will have female head coaches.

At the Rio Olympics, only nine per cent of Australia’s accredited high-performance coaches were female.

In Australian soccer, there are 2,934 accredited football coaches and just 137 of them women.

“Everyone sees it as a problem but no one has a solution and there’s been a problem for well over 40 years,” Dr Julia Walsh said.

Dr Walsh is a senior lecturer in sports coaching at Deakin University. She believes the problem lies with sporting organisations and clubs in failing to create opportunities at an early stage for women to be involved in coaching roles.

She says while the under-representation of women is an issue, the focus shouldn’t be that females are not good enough, rather that they haven’t been given the opportunity to become better.

“I think we do need to be really careful we’re not problematising women and that women is what we go in and we fix. We do need to make pathways explicit and we need to provide opportunities for women to move down those pathways.”

Currently in Australia, there are a number of different associations advocating for change by developing programs to improve females as coaches. One of these is the ‘She Can Coach’ initiative brought in by AFL Victoria.

Seventeen female coaches have been selected, from retired players to current senior and assistant coaches to take part in the program. Each coach will be paired with a mentor to experience the environment of elite level coaching.

While Dr Walsh agrees these programs help women to develop their skills, she believes it’s vital to not just change the females, but change the perception within society.

“We need to make sure we’re not just accommodating women. We need to be aiming to create a transformational organisation where there is a number of changes that have to happen in that process to enable women to do the job.”

For women to participate in these programs and to give up their time to develop their skills as coaches often means a lot of unpaid time and effort.

Carrie Graf believes one of the reasons there are so few females coaches is because there are not enough full-time roles. Graf is a former Olympic and seven-time WNBL (Women’s National Basketball League) championship-winning coach and Basketball Australia Hall of Fame inductee. She spent nearly 15 seasons coaching the Canberra Capitals where she led them to win six WNBL championships.

Graf believes there is this conflict that women find between caring for a family and having a career, especially when a lot of the coaching roles for women are part-time.

“Coaching at the high performance level is hugely taxing on your time and for a lot of women that choose to have a family it does impact on your family fuel,” Graf said.

Graf believes women know the game just as well as men do, and even if they haven’t had the same opportunities, this shouldn’t hinder their chances at becoming coaches.

She says the evolution of the game is well underway but women are not being taken seriously as coaches.

“Women and girls have been active in playing all these sports for a long time. They understand the strategy, they understand the rules, they’ve got the same skill sets to be able to coach it.”

Graf has noticed in her own sporting journey that there is still such an old-fashion stereotype when it comes to sport and coaching. People still see female sport as inferior and not requiring coaches of the same level of expertise and knowledge.

“Those arguments don’t wash with me that the game’s not evolved. Please. So a subpar coach in the men’s is perceived as a great coach in the women’s? Doesn’t make sense to me.

“To me Bec Goddard was the glaring obvious. She’s female, she refereed the game, played the game, wins the title in the inaugural year (of the AFLW) with a team that was meant to come at the bottom of the ladder and the next year she doesn’t have a job?

“She’s clearly a high standard elite coach that our system is not yet built to maximise someone’s talent like that.”

Bec Goddard was the head coach of the Adelaide Football Club in the AFLW between 2017 and 2018. She was the inaugural premiership coach but left after the 2018 season to resume full-time work with the Australian Federal Police.

A study about coaches of professional women’s basketball in the US in 2017 found the gender of coaches had little-to-no effect on the performance of players.

Jodie Hicks has played cricket with the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash League and is on the GWS Giants roster for the 2019 AFLW season. She has had a wide range of coaches as an athlete and believes gender does not define you as a coach.

Hicks said gender can make a difference in the way coaches operate. But as an athlete, she relates to a certain style and has experienced this in both genders.

“I think men have two ways. One way they go about it is my way or the highway. With women they sometimes get treated as a pushover. It’s not their own fault but I just think they’re not confident in what they’re saying.

“I think you got to give credit where it’s due. There’s no point putting a female coach in because they’re a female. They’ve also got to be good at their job.”

Hicks said the growing popularity of women’s sport is starting to change the public’s perceptions that these aren’t just games that men play and coach.

“I think with young kids especially these days, there’s a lot of unidentified genders and a lot of them can’t just relate to men, they need guidance from women.

“A lot of girls aren’t comfortable in an environment if there is a male coaching whereas I also think some people believe it’s good having a male teacher too. So, it all depends with the playing group.

“Because we [females] play a different style of footy and I think it doesn’t matter if you are male or female you should be able to do anything anyone else can.”

Amber Allen hopes one day very soon it won’t be an excuse not to appoint a coach just because she is female.

“We do know what we’re talking about and we can do it just as well as the men can.”

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