Centre for Social Justice in Sport

Levelling the playing field for women football coaches

Levelling the playing field for women football coaches

the challenge

Women coaches form a minority globally in almost all sports and football is no exception. This situation applies to women coaching women as well as women coaching men. Moreover, this minority position tends to increase in higher levels of competition, where unequal representation of women in coaching is found to be worst. The importance of having women role models and representation in crucial positions in sports organisations is unmistakable: self-perceptions, valuing of abilities and potential, coach well-being, organisational performance and success, career aspirations and challenging stereotypes depend on it. Same-sex role models provide and inspire insights and advice as to how to navigate the various challenges a woman will encounter when pursuing a career in sports where she tends to be in the minority. More tangibly and urgently, women coaches themselves experience poorer mental and physical health effects as well as negative career implications as a consequence of their minority status. Alienation, feeling highly visible and scrutinised, a pressure to over-perform to gain credibility and conform to organisational norms, as well as consistent gender discrimination in the form of wage inequalities, limited opportunities and even sexual harassment, all are routine, common issues experienced by women coaches. In short, women football coaches exist in a system where they lack power, often do not feel supported or valued, and leads them to experience many negative occupational, social and psychological outcomes.

the approach

The research team were approached by a gatekeeper working at the highest level of world football with the purpose of collating and sharing the stories of a sample of high-performance women coaches as to their experiences, challenges, and successes within their role in professional football. All participants had prior or current experience of either working in a national head coach role or as a head coach in the highest tiers of club football. Fourteen coaches, representing nine different nations, consented to being part of the research. Semi-structured interviews were then conducted with each participant.

the impact

The research study, completed in 2020, will inform the highest levels of European football approaches towards challenging the absence of women from national football executive committees and decision-making roles. The research team have shared their recommendations with UEFA around taking a more national and local level approach to gender equity in order to contextualise gender equity and thus, increase the efficacy of UEFA’s interventions. These recommendations will feed into UEFA strategic objectives and priorities towards supporting women IN football.

Many women coaches, at the senior levels of the coaching pathway, have ‘the responsibility, but none of the autonomy’. They are often placed in public and prominent roles and have the responsibility of creating teams that achieve more and play better than if they were coached by a man (due to the burden of representation and surveillance). But they often do this in isolation with little organisational support or sponsorship. Yet, the weight of expectation and responsibility is high, but FA, European, and international governing body support is poor, and they are subject to oppressive powers above them (e.g. football association boards). In short, women football coaches exist in a system where they lack power, often do not feel supported or valued, and leads them to experience many negative occupational, social and psychological outcomes. The women who have navigated this system to the highest level of coaching are resilient, highly competent exemplars from which much can be learned

A link to the recording of the webinar launching the evidence-based infographic designed to support organisations in improving gender equity:

  • Knoppers, A., DeHaan, D., Norman, L., & LaVoi, N. (accepted). Elite women coaches negotiating and resisting power in football. Gender, Work, & Organization.

A link to the episode of TuckerCenter talks in collaboration with WiSPsports in which the research team talk all things research & the culture of sport & elite women coaches:

The link to the executive summary which details the research underpinning the infographic in more depth (including method, findings, and recommendations) is as follows:

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