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Stephanie Yang | June 27, 2017

Soccer’s ugly sexism is keeping women from coaching the beautiful game

by Stephanie Yang | June 27, 2017

Amanda Cromwell is one of the most well-known names in women’s collegiate soccer. But, she says, you wouldn’t know it from the way male NCAA referees have treated her.

“The refs go to my male assistant coach before the game assuming he’s the head coach,” Cromwell says. “Still now. Last year. After winning a national championship and everything, the refs will go to the male assistant or go to the male on the staff.”

At 47 years old, Cromwell has been a head coach longer than some of her UCLA women’s soccer players have been alive. She’s got 14 NCAA tournament appearances and a D-I championship under her belt.

“I had a game in Memphis years ago,” Cromwell went on. “Fifteen minutes into the game there was a bad call, and I dropped the F-bomb and the ref came over. The center ref didn’t even hear it. The sideline guy was going crazy ... The center comes over and gives me a straight red 15 minutes into the game. Meanwhile the other coach ... he’s like Mister F-bomb. My players afterwards told me, that coach was cussing the whole game and didn’t even get a yellow. It’s like oh, ‘Don’t yell at me missy,’ and come over with their card or something. It’s like a blow to their ego that a female coach is yelling at them.”

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

The soccer landscape in the United States is expanding for female players. There’s a burgeoning youth system, including a new U.S. Soccer developmental academy, a top-flight women’s professional league that finally beat the three-year lifespan of its predecessors, the growing prominence of NCAA soccer, and of course, the ballooning popularity of the senior national program. But that growth is not equally reflected in coaching opportunities for women. Although the U.S. Women’s National Team has a female head coach, men dominate the coaching ranks at every other level of the sport.

Of the 10 teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), only one team — the Seattle Reign — has a female head coach. Out of the top 50 ranked D-I women’s programs in 2016, 14 had female head coaches. In 2015, across all divisions, 338 women’s soccer programs out of 1,047 had female head coaches. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America has a membership of over 30,000, but only 15 percent are female. In USSF’s recent pro A license course, this picture from its pilot course of all men, mostly white, pretty much speaks for itself. The sequel wasn’t much better; out of 17 participants, only one was a woman: USWNT head coach Jill Ellis.

Participation rates of girls in soccer from youth to college level have been robust for the past 10 years, showing that a large pool of interested, talented players who are educated on the basics does exist. According to U.S. Youth Soccer, the gender breakdown of 3.14 million registered players in 2008 was 52 percent boys and 48 percent girls. That same year, 23,357 women and 21,601 men participated in NCAA soccer across all divisions.

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

Soccer is growing, but not for everyone, and that’s a problem. The ugly truth of the beautiful game is that bias, cultural expectation, and lack of opportunity keep it out of the hands of women who want to help it flourish.

“Nothing’s going to change unless we keep talking about it,” Cromwell says. “That’s how years and years of inequality and social injustice happen and people are silent. You’ve got to talk about it. You have to bring things to the forefront.”

Long before Lori Chalupny was a gold medalist and a two-time World Cup participant for the USWNT, she started out as a 5-year-old whose abject shyness disappeared on the pitch playing against boys. Chalupny rose through the U.S. Soccer system to earn 106 caps and seven years of professional playing experience. Now the soccer lifer says her coaching career, unlike her playing days, has been mostly self-guided.

 Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Chalupny is currently an assistant coach at D-II Maryville University, where she will assume head coach duties after the 2017 season. But even with a USSF class B license, the path she has taken toward becoming a head coach has been crawled at a measured pace, dictated in part by her limited resources.

“[The USSF] B license itself was pretty costly,” Chalupny says. “And it’s a 10-day course, so you have to get a hotel for 10 days and fly out to California. It was a pretty costly endeavor, but definitely worth it.”

Most coaches get certified through the National Soccer Coaches Association of America or U.S. Soccer, which develops coaches through an eight-level training progression from USSF F license (which anyone over 16 can complete online for $25) all the way up to the Pro license (only open to current MLS, NWSL, NASL, USL, or U.S. National Team coaching staff). At every stop, the requirements expand into clinics with rising costs — $1,000 for a Class C license; $4,000 for Class A — both in terms of time and money.

 Photo by Kim Klement/Getty Images

Any player with five years’ playing experience “on a FIFA recognized 1st Division professional team,” can go straight to the Class B, but not all players are aware of that option. Chalupny says she didn’t know about the option until she began researching it herself. “Nobody ever told me that when I was researching getting my license,” she says. “I stumbled across a little asterisk that said that was the case. I think we have to make sure that people know that.”

Non-pros pour thousands of dollars in fees, travel costs, and missed work into getting licensed. “Very few of us can afford to be a club coach full time, and so you’re taking time off your own work schedule and doing vacation to go do this,” says Angela Harrison, who has been coaching club soccer in Portland for 20 years and is licensed through the NSCAA.

Sharolta Nonen is the new head coach of women’s soccer at Florida International University and a former Canadian international with 10 years of national team experience. She has a USSF C license. “I was actually in a class that had quite a few females,” says Nonen, but “quite a few” women wasn’t very many at all. “I believe there were five of us. Which, for us, we were amazed that there were that many and super excited. So it was probably five out of 40 or 50 men ... and we were all amazed that there were that many of us.”

“That was without doubt the hardest thing, the most uncomfortable thing about the B license,” Chalupny says. “Now I did it, fortunately, with two other friends of mine that I played with, so there were three of us in the course with, what, 25 guys. It is a little bit intimidating.”

It wasn’t always this hard for women to break into soccer coaching. Perhaps one of the factors that most impacted the number of female coaches was Title IX, the landmark 1972 education amendment that decreed that federally funded institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. Athletic programs had to provide equitable opportunities for athletic participation to their male and female students, including funding coaching staffs equally. The infusion of money into women’s sports caused a boom. According to The New York Times, in the year before Title IX was enacted, about 310,000 female athletes played high school and college sports. By 2012, there were more than 3.37 million.

As women’s programs began to grow in support and prestige after Title IX, men found coaching jobs more and more attractive. In 1972, women coached 90 percent of women’s teams. By 2012, that figure was down to 43 percent and hasn’t budged much since. Women didn’t cross over in equal measure: Only 3 percent of men’s teams are coached by women.

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

Dr. Nicole LaVoi, Co-Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, gave a presentation on women coaches in soccer at the 2017 NSCAA convention, in which she discussed several of the reasons for bias in hiring.

Sparse media coverage conditions the public to associate sports with men. People in charge of hiring tend to hire people like themselves in what Dr. LaVoi calls “homologous reproduction.” And someone may simply have preconceived ideas about hiring women (or, just as problematic, no ideas about hiring women because the concept has not occurred to them).

Many women are simply made to feel like outsiders in their sport by the men in charge. “I can’t tell you how many situations I’ve been in,” Harrison says, “that have been super uncomfortable, where as a woman I’m with maybe one other woman but like 10 guys, and you feel like ‘I got to kind of keep up with these guys’ and you’re going out and you feel like you have to drink or you feel like you have to listen to these terrible misogynistic jokes and things like that because you have to be part of a network.”

Who are the federation board members, the college athletic directors, the team managers and owners, the club directors? Those responsible for hiring head coaches overwhelmingly tend to be men, and men tend to hire other men.

Nonen says she has definitely seen men get jobs she knew she was qualified for. “I’m fortunate because of my playing days I know a lot of not only former and current great players, but also great coaches,” she says. “So I’d ask my friends that were head coaches, what are the administrators looking for? What do they want? If they don’t want [me], what I see as professionalism and experience and all this kind of stuff, what do they want? And they all had the same answer: Nobody knows.

“One of the things that I believe is just that we don’t have enough representation at the administrative side,” Nonen says. “And there aren’t as many women that are ADs and therefore we’re not hiring as many female coaches.”

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

Men have better, more established networks in other male coaches, giving them the edge in mentoring and job placement. Without an obvious route in, aspiring female coaches have difficulty picturing themselves being able to break into the boys’ club, even when they’re as qualified as male applicants, as U.S. Soccer Women’s Technical Director April Heinrichs can attest.

Heinrichs was a two-time National Player of the Year at North Carolina and one of the first USWNT members. She captained the team that won the first-ever women’s World Cup in 1991 and coached the USWNT to silver (in 2000) and gold (2004) Olympic medals. When she scans the candidates for jobs within the U.S. program, she sees this discrepancy play out.

“[Women are] more confident on the surface, but when you scratch sort of a little bit below, there’s a lot of self-doubt,” Heinrichs says. “Men don’t have that doubt. They’re missing four qualifications; they still think they’re the best applicant for the job. I don’t try to be funny there; I literally have read applications where a guy has not coached one day in women’s soccer and they feel like he can translate and coach women easily. Or he’s never coached internationally, ever, at any level, and he feels like he could coach a youth national team program.”

Once women get their foot in the door, advancement can be just as difficult, at any level, as entry.

“What tends to happen [in youth clubs],” Harrison says, “is either they give up control and let a woman coach a team and maybe the results aren’t there right away, and so they get impatient and pull them off, or a woman starts to have a little bit of success with a team and pushes them up into a little bit of a higher level, and now the men in the club come in and take the team, because there’s a little bit more prestige in that team.”

The prestige that Harrison mentions is especially prevalent in the U15 and U16 age groups — kids who are getting scouted for college. Coaches in these age groups want to both impress scouts and make their own connections for future jobs.

At the pro level, women get yanked when the results aren’t there, while male coaches get more leeway. Lisa Cole was head coach of the Boston Breakers in 2013 but was unceremoniously fired after about eight months on the job. The Breakers finished fifth that year, one spot out of playoff contention. Yet her replacement, Tom Durkin, spent two years with the Breakers. His team finished eighth out of nine teams in his first year, then dead last in his second. Randy Waldrum of the Houston Dash finished ninth, fifth, and eighth out of 10 over three seasons. Waldrum was only fired when he went 2-5-0 in 2017.

“I know women who have gotten out of coaching because they can see that all they’re going to be given are the younger teams or the very oldest teams and not given the chance to develop a team through the middle part of the age groups,” Harrison says, meaning the prestigious college-scouted teams. Women simply aren’t given the same chances to succeed or fail as men.

Family is a career hurdle for women more often than men because the expectation of child-rearing is largely placed on mothers in American society. In a 2008 NCAA survey, 73 percent of female coaches agreed with the statement that “careers in athletics conflict with family duties,” and 58 percent of them said family commitments were the main reason women decide to leave careers in coaching.

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

Female head coaches with young children are not the norm, but former USWNT player Marci Jobson has four children under 7 years old. She was head coach at Baylor but transitioned to volunteer assistant coach to spend more time with her children, with her husband assuming the head coach role in her place. For Jobson, the extreme time commitment of being a head coach forced her into tough choices. “You have to make the decision of traveling all the time,” Jobson says. ”If you’re not traveling, somebody else is traveling. Some other program is going to get that recruit.”

According to Jobson, Baylor’s support allowed her to keep working in the program. “My children have come on the road at different times ... they’ve allowed me that freedom at times to do that. It’s not a big deal if I have a sick kid and I have to bring them up to the office for a day or I maybe can’t get a babysitter or something like that. They’re very flexible and supportive in that facet.”

Heinrichs mentioned another problem with coach retention that ties into family: fatigue. “I have found unfortunately that a lot of women step away from coaching around 40 years of age,” she says. “I think that 40 years of age is kind of a threshold for a lot of women. If they decide to have children, they’ve done it up until they actually have kids and now their kids are starting to play soccer and starting to be that soccer mom. I think if you decide to not have kids, then it’s just fatigue from saying yes to everything because you felt like you had to say yes to everything.”

Jobson was aware that what was provided at Baylor isn’t necessarily the case for all universities, and that, depending on the timing of a pregnancy, it can be logistically difficult to take a true maternity leave. “You got to keep getting your team better, you got to keep improving things, you got to keep your recruiting, all those things. So it’s really hard to just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to take two months off and kick back,’” she points out.

For all the problems that exist in the hiring and promotion of female coaches, they’re worse for black female coaches. There aren’t many women in the game at the highest levels as players, coaches, owners, or administrators, and that problem is even more acute for women of color. A 2015 NCAA report said that “ethnic minority females,” not just black women, accounted for less than 7 percent of administrators and coaches across all three divisions. According to NCAA demographic data, in the 2015-16 season, 4.5 percent of all NCAA female soccer players were black, making low minority participation in the sport a continuing problem across all levels.

The high price point of participating in elite soccer contributes to the dearth. But as players are more likely to grow up to be volunteers, assistant coaches, or grad assistants before they become head coaches themselves, that scarcity means the pool for black female coaches is quite limited.

Former USWNT starting goalkeeper Briana Scurry was the most visible black player during the ’90s runs, which ignited grassroots soccer participation. She made the save before that Brandi Chastain penalty kick that won the 1999 World Cup and was a founding player in WUSA, America’s first professional women’s soccer league.

 Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

The seeds that Scurry herself planted during her playing career from 1994 to 2008 have only now come to fruition, as the girls who saw her play are now professional players in their own right. Scurry helped lead the way for increased numbers of black women in the national team pool, among them Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh, Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald, and Casey Short.

“I’m disappointed at how long it took for more African-American young women to feel like soccer was an option for them,” Scurry says. “These things do take time, and right now you’re taking a snapshot and you’re seeing some change occur right before your eyes, but you’re not going to see a whole lot of African-American women coaching soccer at the highest collegiate levels for another five or 10 years, maybe longer.”

The lack of access for black women is compounded by a lack of outreach. “I don’t think that USSF or high-level programs are particularly trying to increase diversity within the game,” says Kia McNeill, head coach of women’s soccer at Brown. “I have seen no real evidence of that, and I continue to see a lack of diversity in soccer at the highest level. I think that you are starting to see more minorities in the game these days because the game itself is growing and there is a lot more exposure around it.”

That 2015 NCAA study reinforces the importance of visibility. The No. 1 response when asked why more “ethnic minority women” weren’t in leadership positions: “lack of ethnic minority women in leadership roles.” You cannot be what you cannot see.

“I think that right now there are just so few of us that are even looking at this as a possible career path,” Nonen says, emphasizing the importance of visible diversity. “When I’m recruiting kids now, if they’re black kids, they say, ‘Oh, Sydney Leroux.’ That’s their favorite player. They know Sydney Leroux. She’s the only one. Older players might remember Bri Scurry still. But younger players, they see Sydney Leroux and decide they want to be like Sydney Leroux.”

The rise of future Lerouxs might be more attributable to the growing black middle class than to soccer programs making their ranks easier to access, a fact that Scurry also noted. But with the attrition rate for female coaching candidates already high, the list of high-level black female coaches who make it from player to coach is embarrassingly short.

The women surveyed in that 2015 NCAA report agreed that perceived bias in hiring prevents some women of color from applying to jobs in the first place. Only 19 percent of “ethnic female respondents” agreed with the statement: “The most qualified applicants are being hired in athletics regardless of race/ethnicity”; 18 percent agreed with “the most qualified applicants are being hired in athletics regardless of gender.”

Nonen described attending a Alliance of Women’s Coaches meeting, with roughly 100 women present. “It was a sort of the same makeup in the coaches as it was in the administrators, where of those hundred, there were maybe 10 of us that are black.”

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

As Scurry has pointed out, many of the problems with hiring and promotion will take time because they stem from ingrained cultural attitudes toward women and people of color. Cultural shifts don’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, there are actionable steps toward improving the pipeline for female coaches. The women are there, getting licensed and learning despite the barriers inherent to the licensing system. FC Kansas City’s Yael Averbuch is doing her best to start up a licensing program through NWSL, where players can take a course that works with their schedule. With the league’s help, they were able to set up an E license course open to all FC Kansas City players who came to their field and spread out the course requirements over a longer period based on their in-season schedule.

“There may have been one or two [players] in the room who didn’t necessarily think, ‘I want to be a coach,’ but after going through the license realized, ‘Oh wow, I see how this works now; it’s something I’d be interested in continuing to learn about,’” Averbuch says.

That improved access is important for female players, who are the best resource for growing the coaching pool but don’t always have the time during their playing careers to devote to long coaching courses. It’s also critically important that players are made aware of their resources. U.S. Soccer needs to be especially proactive in reaching out to women of color. It’s telling that neither Scurry nor McNeill perceive U.S. Soccer as particularly working toward more diversity.

 Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

“[They] don’t make us aware of what we can do,” Scurry says about Chalupny having to figure out the shortcut to the B license on her own. “It’s sad that she didn’t know that because she’s a brilliant soccer mind, too. ... U.S. Soccer needs to be more proactive with stuff like that because having players like Chalupny and [Averbuch] and all these women who played on the national team being active in the soccer community after they’re playing is a good PR thing.”

U.S. Soccer may want to consider flexibility in its licensing, as well. Both Cromwell and Harrison were dissatisfied with USSF not accepting equivalency from NSCAA coaching courses as they once did. Some coaches find NSCAA more accessible than U.S. Soccer in terms of both time and money. U.S. Soccer wants to maintain certain standards, and it’s understandable that it wants a particular style of coaching to maintain consistency across all its teams. But there must be some aspects of coaching that translate between courses, and a little bit of flexibility helps ease the burden on coaches who have finite resources.

What many female coaches really need is for people in hiring positions to expand their job searches beyond the usual pool of white male candidates. Could that mean a Rooney Rule or something similar for hiring in some circle of women’s soccer? “A lot of these clubs are private [or] non-profit organizations,” Harrison says. “The ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) can’t necessarily mandate when a coaching director position comes open in their club. They have to interview just as many qualified female candidates as they do men. I don’t know that legally they can do that.”

But as she pointed out, they can encourage it, and NWSL, the NCAA, and USSF can certainly mandate that coaching searches must include diverse candidates. Right now, that doesn’t always happen. “When there’s a male in charge of the search, they often don’t do that,” Heinrichs says. “If you really want to find a woman, all you have to do is commit to it.”

USSF Technical Director April Heinrichs Photo by Robert Cianflone/ALLSPORT
Above: USSF Technical Director April Heinrichs

Heinrichs also encourages women to ask their employers for the resources they need to better themselves as coaches, including having their clubs or colleges pay for their coaching licenses. “They’re going to be an investment,” she says. “So it’s paying for the license is an investment that will give back to their club, their team.”

Dr. LaVoi suggests several other methods of keeping women in the hiring loop, including using gender-neutral language for coaching positions of both boys’ and girls’ teams and a “succession planning list,” an organized plan for when a coach moves on, which includes women in the queue.

“I have a few coaches around the country, I’d say they know they can reach out to me and give them some insight and advice and I love that,” Cromwell says. “In the end, the women have to help the women and encourage them and promote them and try to hire them as much as we can, and in situations recommend them for jobs and all that.” Her former assistant coach, Louise Lieberman, is now head coach at San Diego.

It’s an uphill battle to push the people in charge of hiring to become more inclusive of women in their job searches and promotion decisions. But many of the women interviewed for this piece heavily emphasized the power of mentoring and being examples for the next generation. Dr. LaVoi says that a commitment to hiring diverse coaches as role models would lead to tangible benefits to players, including increased self-perception, positive self-esteem, and insight and advice from someone who knows their background. And of course, diverse coaches are role models, showing players like them that coaching is a possibility.

Nonen was looking for a way to remain close to the game when she decided to retire, but she didn’t feel confident about coaching. “I didn’t feel that I was anything like even the good male coaches that I had. I just didn’t see myself in them,” she says.

However, she encountered her only female head coach during a stint in Denmark — Eli Landsem, head coach of the Norwegian women’s team from 2009 to 2012 — who “ended up being one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.” Landsem’s advice and example helped put Nonen on the path to becoming a head coach.

The visibility and presence of women can help influence attitudes toward their place in sports and how their work intersects with their personal lives. Between men taking on more equal shares of responsibility in child-rearing and more child-friendly attitudes in the workplace like the one Jobson described at Baylor, it’s possible that the 40-year wall that Heinrichs described will start to come down.

Changes can be built from both the bottom up and the top down to help make a real, pervasive, and lasting difference. But people in positions of power have to want it, too. Women are already trying to get over, around, and through the barriers in their way. Clubs, schools, and federations should be doing their best to tear down the walls. They are, after all, the ones who put them there in the first place.

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