Anniversary of Title IX: Where Are the Female Coaches? by Jess Larson

Around here at Girls in the Game, we’re pretty big fans of Title IX, both individually and as a whole organization. Title IX paved the way for an entirely new generation of women and girls who grew up knowing that they have the right to play. But on the 45th anniversary of this piece of legislation, it’s also important to look back and consider some of the unintended consequences of Title IX, especially on the prevalence of female coaches.

The numbers before and after 1972 when Congress passed Title IX speak for themselves. The percentage of women coaching women’s teams fell from 90% of all women’s teams before 1972, to around 43% today (only 3% of men’s teams and 23% of all teams). So how did it happen? How did one of the most ground-breaking pieces of legislation when it comes to female athletes’ rights do so wrong by female coaches?

Paid coaching positions were the main factor in the extreme decline of female coaches after 1972; as soon as the colleges were required to offer women equal opportunities, they also had to hire paid, full-time coaches for positions that had previously been volunteer and passion projects for women. And those colleges hired men almost exclusively, a trend that persists even today. A 2016 survey by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that systemic gender bias still exists within hiring practices, and that many of the women feared for their jobs if they expressed Title IX concerns.

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Jess ready to play soccer in her little league uniform

Looking back on my own participation in sports, even on my co-ed little league soccer teams, my coaches were overwhelmingly male, mostly dads of fellow players with the glaring exception being when my mother coached my brothers’ soccer team (go mom!). As a young person, I never questioned why it was always men who coached my teams, even my all-girl high school team; it was just normal. Fast forward to college and intramural soccer season on campus. My dorm team’s star player gets a concussion during one of our first games. She’s had several head injuries before, and her doctor gives her a strong warning that getting another head injury on the soccer field again could result in permanent brain damage.

So, instead, she becomes our intramural team coach. At the time, I didn’t have high hopes; generally intramural coaches are more of a hindrance than a help. But let me tell you, she was really good, better than any of my coaches before, from little league dads to high school teachers. She was confident and cool on the sidelines. She saw where our opponents had weak spots in their set-up and directed us to exploit those areas. She had vision and she gave great motivational speeches, all for intramural soccer!

I give this example, not because it’s an incredible story that will one day become a major motion picture or be told at motivational speeches, but because it was very normal and yet so surprising to me at the time. Why did I expect her to fail as a coach? Why did I have such low expectations of her? I still remember that year of intramurals to this day, and it’s because of her coaching. She made me wonder why I hadn’t had more female coaches in my years of playing.

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Coach Iris having fun with girls at a recent game day.

And this leads me to one Girls in the Game practice that I absolutely love. Any adult participant at programming goes by Coach, followed by their first name. At programming, my name’s always Coach Jess. We write it on our name tags. We introduce ourselves that way. We call our fellow coaches by this title.

It’s a title that our Teen Squad members aspire to as we heard a few months back from Coach Alecia’s blog. And every time our girls see a new woman coaching them, encouraging them, giving directions and taking charge, they see that they too can be coaches. That they belong not just on the field, but in the locker room calling the shots, in the office making the player trades or in the training centers helping athletes stay healthy and in shape. They see that girls belong in every level of the sports industry. And that they too can be called “Coach”.

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