I didn’t know that I needed her until it was too late.
Ciara McCormack became the new assistant soccer coach of the varsity team when I was a senior at Yale University. We had never had a female coach before and I thought she was all sorts of cool. Whenever it got cold, for example, she often walked into the locker room wearing a beanie and low-rise sweatpants that screamed soccer swagger.
But Ciara’s résumé was what really caught my eye. She had played professional soccer all over the world, learned multiple languages, wrote a blog called Life as a Female Soccer Player and had been an editor of Our Game Magazine, an online publication solely about women’s soccer. In other words, she had successfully combined my love for language with all things soccer, and when she became my coach, I decided that I wanted to become a professional soccer player.
But that season, unfortunately, I ended up tearing my ACL—an injury that quickly ended the beginnings of my professional soccer career. I had surgery to repair the damage, but the “six-month recovery” meant I would miss my tryout for the U-23 national team that winter. None of my doctors told me my knee would hurt for the next two years.
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When it was clear that I wouldn’t return to play for Yale, Ciara gave me a book about finding one’s calling through soccer. On the inside cover, she had left me a note:
“Hope you enjoy,” she wrote. “It’s a good reminder to blaze your own trail and do what you love.”
I remember one night after surgery how I held that book as I lay on my dorm room futon—knee throbbing, hair disheveled after a restless nap—and wondered whom I might have been had I met someone like Ciara earlier in my life. I probably would have been more ambitious and actually sought out national team opportunities while I was still in top soccer form. But as a young girl, I never saw the possibilities—no one really showed me the way. On my futon at that point, I felt like Ciara was the female role model I wished I had a long time ago.
That’s also when I realized that I’ve had only two female head coaches in my 12 years as a soccer player—a fact that I found entirely odd. Sports for me had been a pursuit that should work to develop female leaders, but this whole time I had been mainly led by men. After doing some research, I discovered that my experience was not the anomaly. At the college level, only 40 percent of female athletes are coached by women—and that number is only decreasing. In 1971, 90 percent of collegiate female athletes were coached by women. So what has caused the 50 percent decline? Believe it or not: Title IX.
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a legislation aimed at gender discrimination at all levels in areas of education, but is particularly remembered for its effect on athletics. The legislation mandated that schools provide female athletes the same opportunities to play sports as male students. Since then, women’s sports teams at the secondary and collegiate level have increased in number and popularity, in turn helping to develop more professional women’s teams. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, women athletes made up only a fifth of Team USA and won 23 medals. This past summer at the Olympics in Rio, there were more women representing the USA than men: Fifty-five percent of Team USA in total were women and they brought home 61 medals compared to 55 garnered by American men.
Although the rise of women’s sports is certainly something to celebrate, it masks a question that almost nobody seems to be asking: If we now have a legacy of women athletes that has ostensibly existed since the creation of Title IX in 1972, where are all the female coaches? No doubt, many of women athletes who have come out of Title IX have chosen careers outside of sports. But the sports industry does not make it easy for women to win head coaching positions, particularly on a collegiate level. According to a study published by the Women’s Sports Foundation last June, gender bias significantly affects hiring practices.
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Since Title IX, participation in and overall popularity of women’s sports have both grown tremendously, thanks largely to athletic programs in grade schools and colleges across the country. The growth of the women’s market has certainly created more coaching jobs, but when new opportunities open up in colleges, more male coaches tend to fill the positions. The sports industry is an “old boys’ network” in which college athletic departments are still dominated by men. In turn, this means that there is a lack of gender diversity on hiring committees that choose coaches.
If women are underrepresented in the decision-making process at the recruiting level, hiring becomes subject to gender bias. Numerous sociological studies have showed that people tend to hire people who look or think like them, a phenomenon known as “cultural matching.” In other words, men are more likely to hire men, whether they realize it or not. While it may be human nature, cultural matching works to preserve the “old boys’ network” in athletic departments, making it more challenging for women to reach the highest ranks in collegiate coaching.
In 2015, the Women’s Sports Foundation surveyed over 2,500 collegiate coaches, both men and women, across different sports, conferences and divisions, and discovered that 80 percent of female coaches believe that it’s easier for men to get top-level jobs. Most female coaches also said that it was more difficult for women to negotiate salary increases, earn promotions and secure multi-year contracts than men. At the same time, though, women coaches said they were afraid of voicing concerns over gender bias to school or university administrations due to potential backlash that could stunt their careers. We need better support for women coaches not only for the sake of gender equity, but because young women need to see more examples of female leadership in sports.
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All of this is not to say that male coaches are not capable of mentoring women. Take, for example, Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. Not only has he helped to create a dynasty squad that’s been undefeated for the past two years, he has also been recognized repeatedly by athletes and staff members as a great mentor. For example, former UConn assistant coach Tonya Cardoza attributed some of her current success to Auriemma’s guidance in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. She worked under Auriemma for 14 years before she became the head coach at Temple University. Since then, her team at Temple has made three NCAA appearances and she readily acknowledges Auriemma’s positive influence on her career.
There are plenty of other examples of successful women’s teams with male coaches. But none compensates for the gender disparities that still exist in the NCAA.
There is also something undeniably powerful about the opportunity for a young woman to picture herself in her coach’s shoes. When that coach is a man, the picture isn’t the same. Female coaches provide young women athletes with someone they can fully identify with, can confide in, can emulate and can talk with as they work toward their own goals, whether that’s becoming an elite athlete, a coach or a strong leader in business, community or their own families. Sure, young women athletes can look up to other athletes like Serena Williams or Alex Morgan. But would these stars ever come down to talk with a young girl, take the time to listen to her dreams and fears, give her individual advice or hand her a book with a handwritten message after she tears her ACL?
It’s funny: Gender disparity in coaching is never something I thought about as a kid. I just strapped on my cleats, put my head down, ran onto the field and listened to whatever my coaches told me. But in hindsight, I realize I lacked vision and someone who could really take me by the hand and show me the ropes as a female soccer player. That person could have been a man. But Ciara was the only one who really looked out for me. But by then, it was too late.