From youth to pros, the lack of female coaches in U.S. soccer is staggering

ISI Photos-Jane Gershovich

The women's game has come a long way, but there's a lot to be done to reach gender equality in coaching.

Three weekends ago, I witnessed first-hand the discourse that takes place when a room full of older white men sit down to address one of the many facets of women’s health.

I was at the opening weekend of a United States Soccer Federation D-license course, the third in a series of nationally recognized coaching licenses offered by USSF, ranging from F to A.

Earning a D License is no joke. I like to think of it as the transition point in coaching licenses where U.S. Soccer switches from an ‘everybody gets a medal,’ mentality, to a ‘prove your worth, and you will succeed,’ mindset.

In 2015, 709 men were in charge of approximately 18,500 female student-athletes

So, there I was, a 21-year-old woman in a room full of other D-license candidates and instructors, discussing the psychosocial aspects of coaching 14-year-old girls, when one coach raised his hand to offer a suggestion. He said one thing that coaches might consider when working with this age group, was that most of the female athletes will have likely started their periods. He speculated that this was something that might play a role in how we coach them.

The other coaches nodded their heads in agreement, offering comments of their own. The other coaches were white men.

Every. Single. One of them.

Out of a group that was made up of 21 candidates, two instructors and one administrator, 23 of the 24 were men. Not only was I the only female, but I was the youngest in the group by a considerable margin, and for the first time in my life, I felt the implications attached to a lack of gender representation.

I go to a tech school where the majority of the student body is male. Many of my closest friends are men. I play pick-up soccer with a group that is made up of mostly men.

While I have been the minority in many situations, the lack of gender diversity in my life has never carried the weight that it did three weeks ago, because being a coach, unlike being a friend, is holding a position of authority.

Coaching is a position of leadership, dominance and expertise. It’s having the confidence to be assertive and demand accountability, and the humility to continue to learn and grow from your fellow coaches, your players and the game. It is to hold a position of power and respect. This is why the lack of gender representation in higher-level coaching staffs within the United States is troubling, particularly in a sport that is so deeply engaged by female athletes.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Just look at the collegiate level.

According to data provided by the NCAA for the 2015 season, out of the 1,047 women’s soccer teams, only 338 programs had women for head coaches, compared to the 709 that had men. In that same season, there were 27,358 athletes enrolled across all divisions, which means that 709 men were in charge of approximately 18,500 female athletes. The gender disparity is made most evident at the Division I level, in which over 70 percent of head coaches are men.

Out of the 839 NCAA men’s programs, there is one female head coach – Kim Wyant at New York University.

That. Is. Crazy.

The lack of gender diversity in coaching staffs extends beyond college soccer, too. The National Women's Soccer League, home to many of the best women's players in the world, is again lacking female representation in leadership positions. Nine of the 10 teams are coached by white men.

Of the NSCAA’s 30,000-plus member coaches, just over 15 percent are women. The NSCAA has had a women's committee since 1991 to promote the women's game and female coaches at all levels.

I didn’t feel like I was being looked down upon or taken less seriously because I was a woman. I didn’t find any of the actions taken that weekend to be bothersome; it was the situation. More specifically, it was the lack of social reinforcement that women receive when they consider the possibility of taking on leadership positions in sports.

As a child, my dad was always my coach. He was the only male head coach that I had, and in 2010 at the age of 14, I watched him give up his position to a significantly more qualified female coach. She would become one of my greatest role models.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I was lucky enough to have strong female coaches during my entire soccer career. I grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia., idolizing the West Virginia University women’s soccer program, which was founded by Nikki Izzo-Brown in 1996. This past fall, she led the team to a NCAA Division I national championship game, where the Mountaineers finished as runners-up. Two of my former teammates were on that team.

When I made the decision to extend my career to the collegiate level, I committed to play for a program that was led by a young female coach. She would become yet another strong female figure in my life, and after an entire career of looking up to women in coaching, no wonder I felt compelled to follow in their footsteps and take up coaching.

The problem, however, is that not all girls have had the same exposure to women in coaching that I have had. In fact, a majority of girls have not. The numbers at the collegiate level have shown that this sport is dominated by female athletes, but by male figures of authority. That lack of gender diversity reaches from the youth ranks right up to the professional game. It’s cyclical.

Breaking that cycle will require more women to step up and take on positions of leadership, particularly those within U.S. soccer.

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