The Gender Gap in Coaching

by Casey Barrett

Why are there so few female head coaches?

She was the head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic team. A group that delivered the finest performance of any women’s swim team in U.S. Olympic history. She’s the coach of the defending NCAA champion Cal Bears. She just signed Missy Franklin, the greatest recruit in the history of college swimming. It’s been a good year for Teri McKeever. She is, very arguably, the best coach of female swimmers on the planet.

She is also in lonely company. McKeever remains one of the few women leading an NCAA women’s swim team.

Of the 49 teams that scored points at last year’s women’s NCAA Championships, only eight were led by a female head coach. Two of those eight – Lea Loveless of Stanford and Christina Teuscher of Yale – are no longer the coaches of their programs this year. Both were replaced by men. This means that about 90% of the teams you can expect to see at this year’s NCAAs will be led by men.

In the water, swimming is a healthier sport for women than it is for the guys. At the college level, their teams aren’t in imminent danger of being cut, and there are 30% more scholarships to go around for the women at Division I programs. (14 for the ladies, 9.9 for the men…) At the club level, these things are a bit harder to gauge, but the girls appear to have a pretty clear majority, in terms of participation.

So, why is the inverse true on deck? Why do so few female swimmers go on to become head coaches of swim teams?

You could blame it on misogynist jock culture among athletic directors and others who do the hiring for these positions. Maybe there’s an element of that. There probably always will be. But playing that card is like playing the race card – it simplifies a complex issue by demonizing one big group.

A better question is why less female swimmers seem to seek coaching careers after they hang up the goggles? It’s not just that they’re not being hired for most of the top jobs in swimming, there also appears to be a comparative lack of female candidates who want these jobs.

Here in New York City, just 20% of the teams (16 of 80) in the Metropolitan area are led by female head coaches. Our own team, the Manhattan Makos, has struggled for years to find as many former female swimmers interested in coaching as there are guys eager to offer a hand on deck. Most notably in the Metro area, Asphalt Green is led by coach Rachel Stratton-Mills. AGUA has long been one of the top clubs in the northeast, and this summer Stratton-Mills coached Lia Neal onto the U.S. Olympic team. In a recent interview with Mike Gustafson on the USA Swimming website, Stratton-Mills addressed the state of female coaches in America.

She says there are more every year and speaks of a need for other female coaches to seek each other out and create a system of support. However, Stratton-Mills remains in the minority among head coaches everywhere. A minority that only seems to narrow as you go higher in the sport. One of our Makos coaches called it a “pyramid structure”, pointing out that there are scores of female age group coaches in club swimming, but as swimmers get older, the coaching ranks become increasingly male.

Until you reach NCAAs, when you can rattle the women off on one hand. First, of course, is McKeever. Her example at Cal alone would seem all the evidence necessary to improve this ridiculous ratio. Then there’s the University of Texas. It must be noted that the Lady Longhorns have led the way for years in this regard. Over the last decade, three women have held the top job at Texas – Jill Sterkel, Kim Brackin, and now Carol Capitani.

Schools with a tradition of academic excellence also might be slightly ahead of the curve here. Last year, take a look at these five rather elite universities who had women leading their women’s swim teams: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Cal. Unfortunately, Yale and Stanford are no longer on that list, with Teuscher and Loveless having moved on, but with the three Ivys and the two Bay Area superstar schools, the connection must be made.

As I was researching this piece, I came across a story in the latest issue of Bloomberg Business Week entitled “The Boardroom’s Still the Boys Room.” The story disclosed that the ranks of female board members and directors at companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index remained slim. These boardrooms are still about 80% male and that’s not changing much. Ironically, it’s about the same number and same stubborn resistance to change among the ranks of head swimming coaches.

In that piece, I came across perhaps the best definition of diversity there is. It came from Cari Dominquez, a former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under George W. Bush. She says: “Diversity is not rocket science. If you look around and everyone looks like you, and it doesn’t reflect broader society, you have a problem.”

Thanks to programs like Make a Splash along with the outsized Olympic performances of American swimmers with diverse racial backgrounds, swimming has been making big strides in this department. However, if you really want to witness a lack of diversity in this sport, don’t look at the pool, look at the pool deck. On deck among coaches, it’s not just one ethnicity that dominates the population, it’s one gender.

As Dominquez points out, this is a problem. Not only does it not reflect broader society, it doesn’t even reflect the closed society of the swimmers being coached.