April 25, 2017

Would you call me sweetheart?

Written by:
Scott Searle

The Prejudice towards Female Sports Coaches

Would you call me sweetheart? I am 6’1 a a very svelte 264 pounds. I am a softball coach and over the past 18 years have coached men and women, boys and girls, High Performance and House League.  I have never been called sweetheart during a game, practice or competition by any teammate, coach official or athlete.  This probably doesn’t surprise you.  Yet, my experience working with female coaches taught me that this not always a privilege that they enjoy.

I have been involved with the University of Ottawa Women’s Softball team since its inception in 2001.  In that time, I have worn many hats, from a lowly assistant to Head Coach.  In 2016, I was extremely proud to step back as 4 alumni from our program took over active coaching roles. I remained involved with the program as a practice coach and as a chauffeur on road trips.  This experience, working as an assistant coach with 4 female coaches gave me new insight and perspective into the barriers faced by women in sport.

I have worked in women’s sport before, and read statistics that indicated women did not have equal opportunities to men, but this experience showed me concrete examples of advantages in sport that I have, that I did not earn, that my female colleagues do not have.

I count myself extremely lucky to have worked with strong, female role models who have made me more conscious of my own privilege.  This season, there were many instances where opposing coaches, umpires and other stakeholders treated me very differently than my coaching colleagues.

Some examples

In a 22 game season, I witnessed opposing coaches walk by our new Head Coach to shake my hand; totally ignoring the person in charge in favour of someone who looked more like them. During a conversation about a rain delay, another coach asked one of our female staff to take them to “The person that is in charge”?  Ironically, he already was already talking to the boss, but seemed to have difficulty imagining that the boss was not a man. Several times I was introduced as the Head Coach, even though my name was not listed on the lineup card or the official roster.

In another instance, one of the umpires went out of his way to explain a relatively simple rule to one of our female coaches, and advised her to “Ask Scott if she didn’t understand it.” This might have been okay, but our coach did not seek clarification, and in fact, it was the opposing, male coach who made an error on the rule. This was my introduction to the word “mansplaining”.

Perhaps we can forgive this umpire for his indiscretion. The role of an umpire is to enforce the rules of the game and in softball, the rules are explained in the rulebook.  If you consult the Softball Canada rulebook you will very clearly see that the Coach is the “person who is responsible for the team’s actions on the field” . On the surface this seems simple enough. However, the very next sentence in the rulebook explains that “HE represents the team in communications with the umpire and opposing teams.”[1]

Clearly, the rulebook did not intend for female coaches to deal with umpires or opposing teams. If someone were so inclined, and decided to read the rulebook in its entirety, they  would find a phrase that indicates “wherever ‘he’ or ‘him’ or their related pronouns may appear in this rule book either as words or parts of words…they have been used for literary purpose and are meant in their generic sense (ie. To include all humankind, or both male and female sexes).[2]

As someone who loves to read, and reads often, I simply cannot see any literary benefit that would force the author to use “He” instead of “He or she” or  “the person”.  If a rulebook is designed to explain the rules of the game, why not use language that includes all participants. This use of gender specific language even when anecdotal or unintentalional sends the message to female coaches and female athletes that they do not belong in sport.

Sport is supposed to pull people together

At first these insults and indigities aimed at my colleagues and friends drove me crazy.  Sport is supposed to be a safe place that brings people together. Moreover, the OIWFA is not just any league.  It is one with the specific purpose of promoting women’s softball. Additionally, the OIWFA is very well run organization, with league executives who are passionate about women in sport, and coaches who are committed to coaching women.  If these incidents occur in a league as progressive as this,  serious consideration is required.

As I became conscious of how (predominantly) male coaches and officials treated female colleagues I became increasingly frustrated and irritated on their behalf.  After a few incidents, I decided to ask my colleagues about it and was very surprised to learn that they were not at all surprised.  The sport climate that they had grown up with had acclimiatized them to this behaviour.  Frankly, they said, they had begun to expect it. One of them laughed at me and said “if I let every example of sexism in sport bother me, I would be angry all the time. My colleagues had been raised in a sport culture that forced them to decide between accepting being treated unfairly, or to fall into a rage all the time. This is unacceptable.

The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport (CAAWS) lists its goal as “ creating an equitable sport and physical activity system in which girls and women are actively engaged as participants and leaders.”[3] They released a study that expressed the importance of including women and girls in sport.

What needs to be done?

Very clearly, more needs to be done to increase the number of women and girls in sport.  One of the best ways to do this, is to remove barriers for women who decide to coach.  This will create situations where young girls, will see role models in their coaches and sport leaders. This should be the job of everyone in sport.

In the United States, the stituation is improving, but far from satisfactory. In the NCAA the number of female coaches is at an all-time high, yet the 2,974 women who coach other women still represent only 42.9% of head coaches in women’s sports.[4] The barriers experienced by my colleagues who volunteered to coach, were similar to those experienced by female professional coaches. Female coaches face significant barriers.

In general, female coaches receive little respect, causing them to question their choice of career. Women entering coaching are not given the same credibility as men; they must prove themselves as competent and qualified coaches. One coach stated, “I wasn’t taken seriously until there was some success, until I proved myself.” This unequal assumption of competence rarely subsides and makes women feel as though they must constantly battle for respect and resources.[5]

Despite Hilary Clinton’s claim that she had put the “biggest crack in the glass ceiling”, during her 2016 Presidential run, sport remains a difficult field for women.  In a response to a study on barriers for women in coaching, one coach told a researcher at St. Francis Xavier University that “As long as I can remember sport has been the toughest, toughest field to work in for a woman because you were constantly trying to prove yourself. If you were the kind of woman who needed a lot of validation it was not the place to be. You had to believe in yourself and what you were doing.”[6]

The impact of this unacceptable treatment is multi-layered.  It leaves female coaches with the implicit lesson that coaching is a “man’s” game, and they do not belong. This adds unfair stress and burden to what is already a difficult task.  Many female coaches report feeling angry at the system, which often causes them to withdraw from sport. [7]

How can Women Succeed?

Unfortunately, their withdrawal reinfoces a negative cycle as their decision to quit coaching leaves fewer female role models for female athletes which perpetuates the cycle. Successes have been achieved in supporting female coaches.  But it requires “more than simply skill building.  It also includes creating safe spaces, generating alliances among women and developing a feminist approach to coaching, teaching, and learning”[8]

My experience with the University of Ottawa taught me that much more has to be done to create safe spaces for women in coaching, and taught me just how much I had to learn about a feminist approach to coaching.  Claudia Dimmick wrote an excellent article entitled Male Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack that mirrored  Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. [9]  Both Dimmick and McIntosh ask those in privileged classes to do the mental work to unpack the unearned knapsack of privileges we enjoy to move closer to a more just and inclusive sport system for all those among us.

If you believe that sport should be a safe place for women, and believe that sport should be available for everyone, it is incumbent those with privilege to do the mental work to identify your own privilege and unpack your own backpack to remove the items that disadvantage others. As you find privileges that you have but have not earned, share them using the #unpackingprivilege.

I was honoured and privleged this year to be the only male on a Coaching Staff with Jean Cardona, Stephanie Bouchey, Elissa Sivel and Grace Lonergan. They are all fantastic coaches, role models and leaders.

Don’t call them sweetheart, call them coach.

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