Female coaches face bias, insecurities in joining all levels of sport: experts

TORONTO — When University of Victoria basketball coach Dani Sinclair went into labour in the middle of a hard-fought playoff run, she struggled with a dilemma no male coach ever faces: should she recover and cocoon with her newborn in those precious first days after birth, or power through exhaustion to attend her team’s crucial game?

In the end, she tried to do both — after delivering at 4:30 a.m., she badgered her doctor into discharging her from hospital at noon, and was on the bench to root for the Vikes at 6 p.m., with her newborn in the stands with her husband.

“I think I freaked some of my girls out,” she admits of her decision, made back in March 2016.

“(But) with all three of my kids I’ve had this hit of adrenaline 24 hours post-labour, post-delivery and so I was fine. Even after not sleeping I felt energized. It was the next night I felt terrible.”

Still, she showed up for the next game, too, feeling obliged after making such an effort the previous night. Looking back now, Sinclair wonders if subconscious insecurities pushed her above and beyond the call of duty, describing herself at the time as “a young coach who still really needed to prove myself.”

“There may have been a part of me that was like: ‘Well, I’ve been able to reach this point, I have this job, I can’t give anybody any reason to think that I can’t do this,’” she admits of a field that has proven tough for women to break into.

“That’s one of the things as female coaches that we battle. We are questioned a little bit more, possibly, than male coaches are, just because there’s fewer of us.”

The gender disparity in coaching is evident as Canada prepares to send its athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where just 10 per cent of coaches are female, says Isabelle Cayer, senior coaching consultant at the Coaching Association of Canada.

That’s down from 17 per cent at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio and 13 per cent at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

And so the Coaches Association of Ontario has launched a campaign dubbed “Changing the Game — Changing the Conversation” to drive home the message that women have the skills and the drive to coach and mentor athletes at all levels.

The dearth of female coaches is a national problem, says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.

She cites federal data from 2015 that found just 25 per cent of Canadian coaches were female. Slightly more enrolled in the Coaching Association of Canada’s certification program, where 30 per cent were women, but that, too, is disconcerting.

“You see women are being trained, but that’s not necessarily translating into active coaches,” says Sandmeyer-Graves, adding that across 54 national teams, only 16 per cent of head coaches and 19 per cent of assistant coaches were female, according to Sport Canada data in 2016.

The problems are myriad, she says, citing gender stereotypes that don’t see women in leadership roles, lopsided domestic obligations that make it hard for mothers to volunteer at evening and weekend games, unconscious biases that don’t value female expertise, and few role models.

And it exists from grassroots soccer and baseball games all the way up to the elite level, adds Cayer, worrying that youngsters who encounter exclusively male coaches develop a distorted world view that can shape gender expectations both in and out of the sports world.

“My message at the grassroots level is really the importance of seeing men and women on the field coaching (and that) anyone is able to be a coach at that level,” says Cayer, noting that part of the campaign is directed at encouraging women to volunteer, even if they believe they know nothing about sports.

“There’s only a few things that you need to be able to do and some clubs can do it really well, they can offer some training that is about safety and basic rules around the game and how to set up some practices, your warm up, your cool down, what that looks like and that it’s about fun.”

Sandmeyer-Graves says women are better represented — although still under-represented — at the grassroots level, but that drops as you go up the levels of competition.

“Unfortunately, those are some of the most visible coaching roles, the most influential coaching roles and also the better paid coaching roles.”

Even seasoned athletes who transition to coaching can be plagued by doubts.

Back when Sinclair was an assistant coach and learned she was pregnant with her first child, she immediately thought: “My coaching career is over.”

“I wholeheartedly believed that,” says Sinclair. “And it took a lot to change my perspective of that.”

She found support at the University of Victoria and went on to ascend to the head coach position, crediting a flexible, accommodating work environment — along with strong family help at home — with allowing her to have two more kids while leading the women’s basketball team.

“If the leadership within organizations aren’t willing to look at it from a different perspective, I don’t know if change can happen, even if we have all these great initiatives happening,” she says, noting past awareness campaigns seemed to have had little impact.

“I have a really positive example here at UVic … they’ve had to approach my job description differently than a lot of our other coaches. I’ve had a lot of flexibility at times to work at home and have my kids in the office with me or in the gym with me, or on the road.”

If the problem was easy to solve, it would have been done long ago, agrees Sandmeyer-Graves, wondering if it’s time for government to play a stronger role.

She sees merit in tying federal and provincial funds to equity measures, a step that could motivate organizations to take intentional action to close the gender gap.

“Because what’s clear is that good intentions and time just aren’t enough,” she says.

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