Where are the Women?

Female coaches are vastly underrepresented at the highest level of competitive volleyball and other collegiate sports. But why?

ETSU Athletics
Lindsey Devine has been the coach at ETSU for 11 years and is one of only four females coaches in the ASUN conference.

Would it surprise you to learn that men coach 57 percent of women’s collegiate sports teams? Probably not. If you follow women’s sports, you’re used to seeing a male head coach or even an all-male coaching staff on the sidelines of women’s matches, from rec soccer to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Before the passage of Title IX in 1972, women coached 90 percent of women’s collegiate sports teams. Often these coaches were teachers or physical education instructors who took on the additional coaching duties. By 1978, a mere six years later, only 58.2 percent of women’s teams had female head coaches. During that time, colleges and universities added an average of three women’s sports programs, and the growth of teams and interested athletes far outpaced the supply of female candidates for coaching positions. Men began to fill those spaces. At the same time, athletic departments that had often been completely separate for men and women merged, usually with a male athletic director taking over leadership of both the men’s and women’s teams. Since the ’70s, the percentage of women coaching women’s college teams has continued to fall, despite more and more girls participating in sports at all levels.

Division Disparity

Even volleyball, a sport that has been dominated by female participation for much of its recent history, has a large number of male coaches. Today, across all three NCAA divisions, 53.3 percent of volleyball programs have a female head coach, but if you continue to break down that number, you’ll see that only 45.8 percent of Division I programs have a female head coach, and then the percentage grows slightly to 51.9 in DII and 60 in DIII.

Lindsey Devine, head coach at East Tennessee State University, took a stab at explaining the larger number of women coaches at the DIII level. “I don’t know this for sure,” she said, “but people do say you can essentially have a family, have a life, as opposed to being in Division I.”

Amber Warners, head coach at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., certainly factored that benefit into her decision to coach Division III. “I really believe in the philosophy of doing something you’re passionate about, but also having time in your life to be a student first and to have a part-time job and a social life as a college student,” she explained. “I want to have a life for other things, and I want my players to have that as well.”

Mick Haley, head coach of the USC women’s volleyball team, acknowledged the constraints the time commitment of a Division I coaching job puts on women with families, but he doesn’t think the downward trend that began in the ’70s will continue in the volleyball coaching ranks. “I have a lot of my former players who are out there coaching, and coaching Division I, so I think it’s on the upswing.”

He also made the point that a lot depends on the attitude of your team, your family, and particularly, your spouse. “If my wife didn’t support me 200 percent and like this as much, if not more, than I do, I don’t know if I could be doing this . . . It takes pretty special people to do this, male or female.”

Despite the hurdles a coaching career may present, many of the most successful female volleyball coaches competing now have families they raised while coaching. Mary Wise, head coach at Florida, has two sons, as does Cathy George at Michigan State. Devine, the mother of two kids, described raising children while coaching as, “rewarding, but challenging.” Warners, in her 13th year at Calvin, the 2010 Division III national champs, has three sons who grew up in and out of the gym in Grand Rapids.

“I will never forget when I started coaching volleyball at Calvin,” Warners said. “I went to a tournament and I saw a woman head coach breastfeeding her baby in the locker room, and she had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old running around the gym. They were a very highly successful program and I was just thinking about having kids at the time. I remember thinking, if she can do it, I can do it.”

And she did.

Where’s Our National Championship

More surprising even than the low percentage of female coaches at the Division I level is that since the first NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championship in 1981, no female coach has ever taken her team to the DI title. Wise is the only one to make it to the national championship match, which she did in 2003. (For a full story on Wise, see p. 26). George, the only other woman besides Wise to take a team to the national semifinals, did so in 1989 after her first season at UT Arlington.

In last year’s NCAA tournament draw, only 21 out of the 64 teams had a woman head coach, a puny 32.8 percent. None of those 21 teams made it past the regional semifinals.

Researchers cite various reasons for the lack of female representation in the coaching ranks. One of the most popular theories is that long, sporadic hours make it challenging to have a family, as Warners, Devine, and Haley acknowledge. Another is that male ADs mostly hire male coaches.

“I think it’s [partly] who’s doing the hiring,” said Warners. “Most [athletic departments] are male dominated and therefore their network is [mostly male]. There’s also a perception of power and gender that I really think needs to be addressed.”

Again, Haley provides an alternate view. “Smart athletic directors like Oliver Luck at West Virginia look for dynamic women,” he said. “The new young athletic directors want women.”

Only 10.6 percent of Division I programs have a female athletic director. In DII, that number rises to 15.7, and DIII boasts the largest representation of female ADs with 30.7 percent.

The relative lack of men’s volleyball programs also affects the women’s coaching ranks. Men who might otherwise coach men’s or boys’ volleyball will have a tough time getting a job in one of the 23 DI men’s volleyball programs (there are only 113 men’s programs across all three NCAA divisions). Even at the club and high school level, the opportunities in boys’ volleyball are much less numerous than those in girls’ programs. And if you buy into the idea that male ADs mostly hire male employees, then if these men are applying for the same jobs that women are, the men usually get those open positions.

Haley also sees a job market that offers many other opportunities to qualified women as another hurdle to getting them to choose a coaching career or stick with coaching long enough to reach the head coach level.

“The sky is the limit for these young women because they have a résumé that says, ‘Hire me because I know how to work hard,’” he said. “Some of them will stay in coaching if that’s their love, but some of them will do other things. Everybody wants our quality women. Fox, ESPN, they’d die to get our kids. Katie Fuller worked for ESPN for an internship; Kendall Bateman graduated and got a six-figure offer from Fox in marketing. I’m not sure you want to coach when that’s going on.”

Talented female coaches also thrive at the club level. Women direct and coach for clubs across the country, especially in regions that don’t have men’s college programs creating potential young male coaches.

Haley sees it as a choice to remain in the club ranks instead of moving to a college program.

“They’re all potential Division I coaches,” he said of the top women’s club directors and coaches. “They choose to do club because they can do more with their kids and their family. But if they want to go Division I, they’ll kick everybody’s fanny. They’re good. These women are dynamic. They’re well-spoken, they’re organized, they’re knowledgeable. If they want to do this, they can do it. It’s just their choice right now.”

A Problem of Preference

Even as women manage to balance a family and a coaching career—bringing their kids on the bus, letting them run around the gym, or having a spouse who takes on the majority of household duties—there is yet another obstacle in the way of having more women coach collegiate sports.

According to a study conducted by the NCAA in 2008, out of the 8,900 female student athletes surveyed, 52 percent agreed with the statement, “I prefer my coach to be male.” In a separate study by Nancy Jo Greenawalt from 2012, 81 percent of the 144 Division I female athletes Greenawalt surveyed indicated a preference for a male coach. Both studies found a correlation between athletes who have only had male coaches or are currently coached by a male coach and the probability that they would indicate a preference for being coached by men.

In Greenawalt’s study, participants made comments such as, “[My female coach] let her emotions get too much involved, and kind of just was very snippy, too girly, catty . . . I feel like it’s almost already enough girl drama happening with being on a women’s team . . . a male coach kind of evens the playing field.” And, “Part of having a successful team is having the head coach be kind of the enforcer where if you need him, you can fall back on him as a support system, but you also need him to be a force where you don’t feel like you can take advantage of him, whereas the female coaches . . . are sort of pushovers.” Participants indicated these preferences and made these comments despite some of them also voicing their aspirations to enter the coaching profession themselves.

These studies could be used to better understand the necessity of having more women enter the coaching profession at all levels. Experiencing a wide range of coaching styles from a number of qualified female coaches may help athletes discard their prejudices against being coached by women.

After all, having a female coach as a role model in club, high school, college, and beyond, can be transformative for a young woman.

“I’m really in tune to their needs,” said Warners of the young women she coaches. “I’m a role model as we go through this whole season together. That’s important for them to experience a female in that role as opposed to a male.”

We can also see the role of female coaches in inspiring the next generation by looking at Devine’s daughter, Megan, a senior outside hitter at ETSU who was 9 years old when her mother began her stint as a DI head coach. When asked if Megan aspired to coach after graduating, Devine replied, “Absolutely.”

“She wants that path so much. Like I said, growing up in sports and being in the gym, I really don’t think she knows anything else,” Devine said. “She has a deep respect for the profession and the time and energy and the passion that our staff has put into this program, and she’s been a part of that process, so that’s been a really positive experience for her, for our family, and for me.”

What’s to be Done

Despite inspiring stories such as Megan’s, underrepresentation and apathy are very real problems within the field. Turning the imbalance around is surely within the power of athletic directors, who can prove Haley’s assertion that they’re actively looking for female coaches to hire.

“In the hiring process, if there are two people who are equally qualified, administrators need to choose the female,” said Warners, who is currently the only female head coach on staff at Calvin.

Coaches too must encourage their players to consider the career opportunities in coaching. They’ll have to make a point to tap former players for paid assistant positions (not just grad and volunteer assistant positions), and all coaches have the responsibility to face and eliminate inequities so that women can find the same support systems, opportunities, and training as their male counterparts to be successful leaders in athletics.

Percentage of female coaches in women’s sports*

Sport19772012
Basketball79.459.5
Cross Country35.221.2
Golf54.641.6
Field Hockey99.193.8
Lacrosse90.785.1
Rowing/Crew11.936.9
Soccer29.432.2
Swimming/Diving53.626.2
Tennis72.929.9
Track & Field52.319.2
Volleyball86.653.3

*Source: “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” by Linda Jean Carpenter
and R. Vivian Acosta

Percentages of women in other professions**

According to the article “Women Coaches in Division I Women’s Sports” published in Social Science Quarterly in 2007, no other occupation besides women’s athletics coach has made the transition from being primarily female to primarily male. See how the percentages of women in other professions have changed over the years.

Profession19722012
Construction7.212.7
Education and Health Services75.976.7
Government42.756.8
Leisure and Hospitality38.852.2
Manufacturing27.427.3
Media and Telecommunications45.840.4
Retail38.143.6

**Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Originally published in January 2014

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