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Unconscious Bias in Professional Coaching

My grandmother was a home-owning single-mother-of-two in an era when it wasn't socially acceptable for women to do those things alone. I grew up very aware that women, once upon a time, were not considered equal members of society.

Grandma had been a secretary, but I could do anything, my family said. We may not have had a lot of money, but I was raised with the privilege of this teaching and by parents who fostered an environment where it seemed true.

Thus, until recently I fully embraced the myth that women had achieved equality. It wasn't until a woman’s campaign for President coincided with my realization that my professional calling was in coaching—a male-dominated industry—that I saw my own life in a new, uncomfortable light.

Despite working at a school whose administrators openly encourage girls to excel in science, math, and flag football, I am the only woman coach at my school who has a full-time contract. There are at least seven men. It’s not a reflection of the school—they genuinely want more women coaches and there are quite a few coaching part-time—but it is representative of the gender imbalance in professional coaching. The number of women in coaching has plummeted since the enactment of Title IX.

While I am supported and empowered by my colleagues, my gender remains a tremendous liability in the broader context of sport. This dynamic was inescapable the other weekend when I took my top swimmers to a swim meet run exclusively by older white men.

Over the course of the two-day meet I was called “kiddo” by one official; threatened—unapologetically—by another in the course of his attempt to enforce a nonexistent rule; lectured by a third for an “infraction” (removal of the prior day’s paper wristband) when a male coach ahead of me was reprimanded with only a grunt and disappointed look. Pushed to the limit of my good-natured passivity, I had the audacity to point out, “You didn't lecture that guy,” as I accepted a new wristband. That prompted him to seethe to my much younger male assistant coach, “Your lady friend better not make an enemy of me because I've been running this meet for 16 years.” Another condescending nickname along with another threat.

Men don't treat other men like this, and yet they can't seem to help themselves when it comes to women.

The conundrum women face is that any attempt we make to stand up for ourselves or point out unequal treatment is taken as a threat to power and reinforces the unconscious bias that women are irrational, emotional, incompetent, or subservient.

The only solution, short of sudden enlightenment, is to have more women running sport. But that’s not as simple as it sounds. There are even fewer women athletic directors than there are coaches, which means women are competing against a growing pool of men to be accepted by a male boss. It’s not an impossible dynamic, but we do have to be clear-eyed about the people we deal with in order to be accepted, and thus, retain permission to lead our teams.

My family was right—women have a plethora of options, far more than even 40 years ago. But beneath the surface of this social change we still have a long way to go.

Athletics, Leadership
Illuminate, Women

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