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We all agree that gender equality is a good thing, but…..

If there is a ‘compelling business case’ for gender equality, why do we still have such distinct under representation of women in coaching? To mark International Women’s Day, 2016, I thought I would have a look at the arguments and try and provide some solutions which could help the aims of the Brighton Declaration, signed over 21 years ago, be realised a little quicker.

The current system works on a day to day basis

It’s a fair enough point. You have enough coaches, so why change it? You probably don’t have the spare time or resources to make any major changes: “If it ain’t broke……..” right?!

Well, think about a few things. The population is on the move, migration and immigration are now major factors in our society. We know that people feel the most comfortable with other ‘people like me’, that’s a natural instinct (otherwise known as ‘affinity bias’), and one that is reported within the I Will if You Will project in Bury and Sport England insight (Go Where Women Are, 2015) around women’s participation. So, putting these two factors together, doesn’t it make sense that we diversify the coaching workforce to provide more engaging experiences to a more diverse ‘customer base’ of participants. Put in business terms, better customer choice and satisfaction will lead to higher retention of your customers.

Greater diversity in the coaching workforce also creates wider personal development opportunities for your coaches as the current population of predominantly white, middle class, middle aged men have access to a wider range of opinions, approaches and values.

We don’t have enough money for another programme….

That’s great! No, really!! I am not arguing that having money obviously helps, but we are talking about long term, sustainable change here: Running an 18 month programme focussing on recruiting more women to coach your sport, or providing bursaries to pay for women to take their coaching qualifications is a great way of bringing more women into coaching and developing their careers, but what happens when that programme ends and the funding stops? Sure, you will have more women coaches, but will they stay? Is the environment in which they coach and your organisational culture one that supports, develops and values your coaching workforce? If not, what true difference has that money made?

Fix the system, not the women

Cultural change takes time. There are many changes you can make to evolve your current coaching system that will have a long term impact. For example:

  • The images you use to portray your players and coaches (all men?),
  • Who trains/educates your coaches (mainly male tutor workforce?),
  • Think about how you communicate with your coaches. Is it mainly one way – telling them about events, training, surveys to complete – or do you contact them and ask them how they are getting on? What they would change?

These are just a few ideas, but more can be found on the Reach website.

Plan when to make your changes, and make sure your entire organisation is bought in and supportive of these changes. It doesn’t all have to be done immediately – small changes made consistently at appropriate times - when you are reviewing elements of your coaching system, your coach education programmes, your marketing and comms strategy – will have the biggest impact.

Remember, culture is embedded over many years. It will take time to change that culture.

Our current women coaches aren’t complaining

This is a tough one to talk about as it does require us to ask some frank questions about our organisations. Recent research from Leeds Beckett University has highlighted some startling findings relating to the wellbeing of women coaches, particularly at the higher levels of coaching:

  • The potential for poor psychological and physical health, through lack of physical activity
  • disproportionate work-life balance
  • ageism as well as sexism (the research recognises poorer working conditions for older women coaches)
  • low job security combined with high job demands leading to burn out.

Added to this, further research from sports coach UK and UK Sport have recognised that women feel they must prove themselves, not only to the people they coach but also to parents and fellow male coaches, before they are considered to be a worthy coach.

Some women coaches also talk about being harassed and even bullied by parents of athletes and other coaches. I am not saying that this happens to every woman coach but it may be more widespread than you think. Unfortunately, it is the case in coaching, as it is in business that women are reluctant to make formal complaints to their employers or to the organisation for whom they coach. This may be due to them feeling as though they won’t have the support and it may affect their job if they start ‘rattling cages.’ Unless women report these issues, it would appear that nothing will have to change.

We should all by now recognise the wider health benefits that physical activity brings. People value coaches as a means to develop their skills and keep them motivated to stay active. We need to provide a diverse coaching workforce at all levels that can support, develop and motivate more participants from many different backgrounds - either just to play for the fun of it, or to develop and even win medals. By making sport and physical activity more appealing to more people you will grow the pool from which to select your elite athletes, players and coaches….

...but if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you have always got………Time for a change? Let’s crack on!

Join our Reach campaign
Reach is a national campaign, brought to you by sports coach UK, which aims to bring more women into coaching, help our partners to evolve their coaching system to support our existing women coaches and support the development of greater gender equality in our coaching workforce.

Coaches can sign up to learn more about how we are getting on, and be inspired with coaching tips and stories about other fabulous women coaches.

Organisations supporting sport and physical activity can register as partners to access resources and case studies to help them move towards gender equality in coaching.

Sarah Milner is the Inclusion and Diversity Lead for sports coach UK.


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