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Females Talent and Performance Self-care and development Inspiring Stories

Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner! The Mother of All Coaching Journeys

Director of Rugby at Ealing Trailfinders, Giselle Mather has made a habit of breaking through glass ceilings. She is a champion of change for gender equality in coaching and building a more diverse workforce. She spoke to UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson about meeting the challenge of unconscious bias and gender stereotypes head on, and says she hopes that by blazing a trail of firsts in rugby union, she has “prepared the path” for other female sports coaches to create and grasp opportunities to advance their careers

When Rugby World Cup winner Giselle Mather hung up her boots and made the transition into coaching, she came in like a wrecking ball, approaching coaching with the same fearlessness and determination as she did playing. And she has been smashing it ever since!

It is a fitting metaphor to describe the titanic impact she made when seamlessly swapping an illustrious playing career at Wasps – that included being capped 34 times by England – for a career directing from the dugout and the boardroom.

A role model for aspiring female coaches everywhere, she has compiled a long list of female firsts. They include being the first female rugby union coach to earn her Level 4 coaching badge, and the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position at a Premiership club men’s side, as London Irish AASE Manager.

When we spoke to Giselle for this feature in March she was was combining her coaching duties with a senior position in the management hierarchy at Wasps, having been appointed Wasps Women's Director of Rugby in 2016. She has since joined Ealing Trailfinders as Director of Women’s Rugby.

Her ground-breaking career and her bold determination to succeed is perhaps best encapsulated by the story of how she left RFU executives dumbfounded by asking if she could bring her six-week-old daughter to a Level 3 coaching course.

They were somewhat aghast, and you could hear the coughing and spluttering on the other end of the phone.”

Giselle was the only woman in a room of 100 male coaches and had to juggle listening and presenting with discreetly breastfeeding, carrying her daughter in a papoose, and rocking her to sleep in a Rock-a-Tot.

It is one example of many that illustrates her no-nonsense attitude towards successfully combining coaching with pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood that has earned plaudits from her male and female counterparts and culminated in her being offered a coaching opportunity she couldn’t refuse. But more of that later.

The Question & Answer below chronicles the story of how an ambitious female coach fighting for equality succeeded in gaining the respect of her peers in an industry that remains stubbornly male dominated. And it showcases women’s empowerment at its finest by shining a light on the progress, and the challenges that remain, in the drive for gender equality in coaching.

Question & Answer

Do you think the coaching industry – its leaders, workforce managers and policy makers – fully appreciate the strength of a diverse coaching workforce? Or is there still much work to be done?

“Or do the people who hire appreciate and notice it. That would be how I would look at that question.

“Yes, I think there is a big drive from organisations who are responsible for coaching, but when you look at the actual clubs and the workforces within those clubs, are they a diverse coaching team? The answer is, no, the majority are not.

Female coaches can bring something different and that should be seen positively. People need to understand the strength of a diverse coaching staff and employ people based solely on their skills and experience. By doing that, we can create more opportunities for women and girls to get into coaching and the cycle will continue.”

Are the attempts that are being made to break down gender barriers that prevent us from fully embracing diversity working, do you think?

“I think the awareness is now there. But it is stereotypical to think, ‘if we have a woman on this coaching team, she will bring such and such’. Will she? Or ‘if we have a man, they will bring this and that’. And this is where it all becomes so complicated because we are individuals, and our gender doesn’t define us. Although, in a job advert or interview, it does! It shouldn’t, because whether I’m male or female, when I stand up in front of my athlete, I am their coach, my gender is irrelevant.

“There are some females who will bring different characteristics than what you will stereotypically expect a female to bring, and likewise with my male counterparts.

“What we need is a diverse coaching team to reach all our athletes.

“So, I work with three or four coaches in my environment, and they are all different, which is why it’s brilliant for my athletes. Why? Because I am responsible directly for 40 athletes and, indirectly, more beyond that, and if I believed that I was the person to unlock the potential of all those athletes, then I am very naïve.

So, I think that the more diverse the coaching team, the more chance we’ve got of having someone on that coaching team being able to unlock every one of my athletes and help them drive to their full potential. Yes, I can add something to each of them, but can I really unlock all 40? No, I can’t.

“So, some of my athletes, the main person they might go to is the strength and conditioner, others might go to the forwards coach or my defence coach, it might be me, or they might relate best to my chief medic.

“At the moment I have two male coaches and two female coaches and between us we are able to connect with everyone.

Does the coaching industry really understand why we need to have that diversity? I’m not quite sure it has fully grasped that yet.”

Diversity within the workforce – and that includes greater diversity in senior coaching positions and at boardroom level – will encourage and enable diversity of thinking too. How important is it to ensure that different perspectives are encouraged, listened to, and acted upon?

“It’s so important, because different genders, races, sexual orientations, backgrounds, we have all had different experiences as we have travelled our journey. Therefore, bringing that to a coaching environment means we will be able to tap into the wants, needs and desires of everyone we coach to help them thrive.

If we are all clones of each other, all of the same ilk and all travelled the same journey, how can we have the necessary diversity of knowledge, skills and experience to help and support athletes effectively?” 

Have you faced challenges based on your gender?

“At the beginning of my career definitely. I would be met with questions like ‘are you the physio?’ But I learnt to have complete confidence in my coaching ability and to respond clearly when being challenged. I’d like to think that now, on the whole, I am respected for my work and the fact that I’m a woman is no longer a factor.”

Have you found yourself in the situation where you are a woman in a room full of men at a coaching course or conference? If so, was it intimidating?

“Every one of my coaching badges I was the only female in the room. On my Level 3 in 2002 there were 100 men and me on the course.

“Six weeks previously I had given birth to my second child, Roxy, who I brought with me on the course.

“I contacted the RFU out of courtesy to say that I would need to bring my daughter because I was feeding her.

“They were somewhat aghast, and you could hear the coughing and spluttering on the other end of the phone. They said, ‘we’ll get back to you’. They’d never had that request at the time, and I’m not sure if they’ve had it since.

I got a reply back saying, ‘as long as you’re discreet’. Well, I was thinking, ‘I’m hardly likely to be indiscreet in front of a hundred guys!’

“I said, ‘look, if she screams and I have to take her out and I fail because of that, then so be it, but I’m ready to take the course, so let’s get on with it’.”

For the record, Roxy slept in the Rock-a-Tot, Giselle fed her when she was hungry, talked rugby coaching for a day and a half, and ended up passing the course.

She continues: “To answer the other part of the question, I wouldn’t say it was intimidating for me. You obviously stick out like a sore thumb, but while I know a lot of women prefer women-only courses, I have never experienced that daunting feeling because I believe in what I’m about and I’m comfortable in what I might have to say.”

What about those people who don’t perhaps possess your self-confidence and strength of character? They may still have the qualities needed to thrive in a particular coaching role but never grasp the opportunity.

A lack of confidence is often cited as a barrier preventing women fulfilling their desire to be a coach or striving to climb the coaching ladder. Do you believe the ‘confidence gap’ is an inhibiting factor in terms of female progression?

“I think that means we have to put them in the environment with support around them, and then they will find out for themselves that, actually, they’re fine. Other people might see it differently, but for me I would want to give those people the opportunity but with the safety net around them, to start with.

There are always hiccups but ultimately, you learn from the things that go well and, the things that don’t go well, you learn from too.

“That’s one of the reasons I love what I do: you are growing all the time. It’s a group of humans trying to be the best it can be, as a team, which is so rich in variety and difference and no one day is ever the same. My job is never dull, because I am dealing with people, and likeminded people who want to be the best that they can be.”

You are an example to all young female coaches who are embarking on a career in coaching that you can dream big and reach the top of the coaching ladder. What advice would you give to other girls and women who may be contemplating getting into coaching?

“It’s interesting you say the coaching ladder, because for me, coaching is about the people who are in front of you at any given moment.

“When you start out you are often working with little ones, and you don’t know if they are going to be a future star. Who knows how that seed grows? That’s why I believe, whenever you coach, you are at the top of the ladder, because the people in front of you are the most important people on that particular day, that particular season, that particular month.

It is about investing in those people, finding out what their driving force and motivation is, and then giving them what they want and what they need. If you can do that, the coaching ladder takes care of itself.”

Do you see yourself as a role model?

“I think that’s for other people to decide, but I do feel that because I have been responsible for a lot of firsts, I feel a responsibility to do it well – in fact, twice as well as my male counterparts.

“It may not be the case, but I feel that, if I don’t, it could block the opportunity for another female to do something similar in the future. I’ve got to prove that my gender is irrelevant. If I didn’t succeed it would bother me that people might then say, ‘we wouldn’t employ another woman because she wouldn’t cope in this environment’.

If I can break down the glass ceilings that still exist then I will do, but if I can’t do that then I will do my level best to prepare the path for the next person, so they can.”

The ultimate goal is to get to a time where women will simply be regarded as excellent coaches, without the qualification ‘female coach’, ‘black coach’, or ‘disabled coach’. Is that how you see it?

“Absolutely correct. And there is a hell of a lot of good female coaches now. As women’s sport is being treated with more respect and getting lots more coverage, this is the perfect time to start your coaching career.

If you are passionate about helping people achieve their potential and you enjoy the competitive atmosphere, then there will be opportunities now, for sure. But take the opportunity seriously, because you are carrying the can for the next group who come through after you.

“And the other very important thing is that we need male advocates. Because it is highly likely, in 95 per cent of situations, that it will be a male who hires a female. And then the female who benefits from that decision has to reward that person’s bravery.

“So, for me in my story, it was Toby Booth, who at the time was at London Irish. Toby was in my group when I was on my Level 3 course with my daughter, when I had to present with her in a little papoose. He listened to me, and I listened to him, and he obviously went away and thought that I knew what I was talking about, because he called me up five weeks later and said he would like me to coach their Elite Player Development Group. And I worked hard and took my opportunity. Toby didn’t care in the slightest that I was a woman.”

Studies have found that men overestimate their abilities and their performance on job adverts, while women underestimate both. Have you seen evidence of that?

“I’ll tell you now, there are hundreds of men who have taken jobs before they are really ready, and they have had to learn on the job. Well, women need to do that too.

“That other thing we always do as females: a job advert goes out and women think to themselves, ‘I can only do six out of the 10 essential requirements; I need to be able to tick eight or nine to apply’. Whereas our male counterparts have no qualms whatsoever putting themselves in the shop window.

“Yes, we need to get better at that, but equally, if a woman hasn’t yet worked in that environment, expose them to it. Support them to start with and then watch them fly and get on with it.”

Factfile

  • Wasps Women's Director of Rugby since 2016.
  • Rugby World Cup-winner with England in 1994.
  • First female rugby union coach to earn Level 4 coaching badge.
  • First woman to hold a full-time coaching position at a Premiership club men’s side, as London Irish AASE Manager.
  • In one spell, was coaching Teddington Antlers senior men, England under-20 women, and London Irish AASE (Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence), whilst juggling bringing up three children under the age of five.

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