Did you know that since 2000, all but one football team in the Olympics, European Championships, and World Cup have been coached by a particular social group? Yet, this group routinely struggle to find club or national roles as heads of their profession, are routinely discriminated against, and have their competency, knowledge, or expertise questioned despite their achievements.
This group of coaches, who demonstrate extraordinary levels of motivation and engagement towards their job, are women. At this World Cup, over a third of nations are coached by a woman - a record for these championships. But do you view this positively? This number is growing in the right direction and is set to continue with the growth of women’s football. Or do you view this statistic with scepticism? Two-thirds of teams are coached by men as well as 100% of teams at previous men’s World Cups. Similarly, men coaches dominate at the Olympics across all sports. For example, for the last five Olympics the representation of women in accredited coaching roles has remained static at 10-11% (Norman, 2017). We find ourselves in a state of inertia at the highest levels of coaching globally when it comes to a more balanced representation amongst our coaching workforces.
Football is bucking that trend nevertheless, particularly in England. Here at the Carnegie School of Sport, as part of our research programme seeking to improve gender equity in sport coaching, we work alongside many national and international sport organisations and governing bodies. I am often asked who do I consider to be the most proactive in addressing gender imbalances within their coaching workforce? And I always reply, The English Football Association. One prominent research study that we are leading on behalf of The FA is a three-year project tracking the changing experiences of women football coaches. Within this, we are exploring individual coaches’ experiences, the cultural contexts in which coaches operate, and The FA’s support programmes for under-represented groups. Initial findings from the impact of club cultural climates have highlighted how women coaches are perceived by those in decision-making roles within the highest two tiers of women’s football in England – both in terms of capability and suitability for appointment to senior coaching roles.
The good news from the first phase of this project is that there was no perceived bias against appointing women coaches to positions in the top tiers of the women’s game. Yet, clubs are struggling to attract women coaches to apply for jobs. It would appear that women coaches face other challenges which makes it more difficult for them to compete with men for some head coach positions. The role of head coach is changing and expanding and it is likely that fewer women will have access to acquiring the breadth of experience that is required to secure a permanent head coach role in a scare and highly competitive market.
It is in this area - ensuring women coaches have access to the required development and experience so they are confident in their capability to compete against male coaches - where more needs to be done. Improving the chances for women coaches to compete successfully cannot be done in isolation. There are major considerations around the stage of maturity of the women’s game which has a direct impact on the breadth of available opportunities.
Whilst the women’s game has gained great momentum in recent years and is beginning to build a strong brand, clubs believe there remains a significant gap between the “public” face of the game and the reality that the women’s game is not yet viable commercially. The infrastructure supporting the development of the women’s game is still fragmented and needs investment.
Another important consideration is the need to ensure women coaches stay in the game. Statistics show that the recruitment and retention of women in football coaching roles is lower than men, and their progression is slower (UEFA, 2017). For women coaches who stay, passion for the game is their main motivation, not pay and other benefits. The return on investment in coaching qualifications is poor by comparison to other sectors. Women coaches need to be incentivised by seeing a future in the women’s game - to see evidence that the game is financially stable and growing with permanent opportunities available. In this regard, governing bodies must do more to provide women with opportunities to gain qualifications AND experiences, as well as providing (all) coaches in the women’s game with secure, well-rewarded, stable employment.
In a saturated coaching market that will grow as women’s football becomes more culturally visible and popular, we need to develop the game in all areas, not just in numbers of players or clubs. The emphasis should not be simply on flooding the coaching ranks with ‘more’ women coaches (a rhetoric often heard). Instead, we need a pipeline from playing to coaching, that identifies, nurtures and progresses talented women coaches from the start of the coaching ladder to wherever they want to be. In football, we need to focus on the most appropriate number and quality of coaches, not necessarily just on getting more women ‘through the door’.
- Norman, L. (2017). Presenting the 2016 Rio Olympics gender and coaching report card. International Council for Coaching Excellence global conference. Liverpool, UK.
- UEFA. (2017) Women’s football across the national associations 2016/17. Nyon: UEFA.