Addressing the gender imbalance in sports coaching

The summer of 2017 is likely to be remembered as a significant landmark in the development of women’s sport. The Uefa European Championship, Cricket World Cup and Rugby World Cup were all held within a few months providing women’s team sports with an opportunity to shine. The success of the respective England teams helped to ensure that interest and excitement was maximised while prime time slots and record TV audiences gave an indication of just how far women’s team sports have progressed in recent years. 

The increasing media coverage of women’s sport has brought into sharp focus issues of gender equality in sport, not only in terms of general participation and media coverage but also representation in sport leadership positions including coaching. While the proportion of women coaches is generally low at all levels (across Europe between 20% and 30% of coaches are women according to recent European Commission estimates), representation is considerably poorer at higher or elite coaching levels. Research by the Female Coaching Network, for example, showed that approximately 11% of Olympic level coaches in 2016 were women. 

These statistics are revealing not only from the point of view of equality of opportunities in the coaching profession but also in terms of wider initiatives that seek to increase the participation of women and girls in sport. There is a wide acceptance that women coaches can be important in encouraging more girls and women to try new sports and then helping them to maintain their participation on a regular basis. Research has shown that some women and girls can feel more comfortable with female coaches, particularly at the initial engagement stage. 

Within the context of agendas and actions to promote equality of opportunity in coaching, Ecorys recently completed a rapid research exercise that examined how coaching education schemes are seeking to address such issues. The European Commission commissioned this particular study to identify existing (formal and non-formal) training and education schemes for coaches in view of their accessibility for women and gender equality approaches. The findings of the research were presented at a conference on the role of sports coaches in society organised for the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in July 2017.

This research was carried out over a short three month period in summer 2017 and can therefore only begin to scratch the surface in understanding which programmes are most effective in terms of encouraging women’s coaching development. Nevertheless the study was able to identify some specific trends and insights on the role of coaching education in supporting women and addressing gender equality issues.  The study identified 36 coaching education programmes with a clear gender element across 13 countries. The most common approach was women-only courses; examples of other accessible education activities for women (e.g. those that used more flexible timetabling) were more limited as were programmes with modules on gender equality.

Specific case studies which examined some of the education programmes in greater depth showed that women-only coaching courses have worked well where the numbers of women coaches in particular sports are starting from a low base and particularly where women perceive coaching as a male–dominated profession. The research also showed that some sport federations are moving from women-only courses to a quota-based approach, whereby women are allocated a certain number of places in mixed programmes in some cases supported by financial subsidises. This reflects a belief that there are longer-term benefits for women in developing their coaching skills within a mixed gender environment.

The research suggests that, irrespective of the gender of the participants, the development of gender modules has the potential to support female coaches in their experiences of coaching as they are better prepared to deal with issues of discrimination in the workplace. They can also enable men to develop a better understanding of what the key issues surrounding discrimination are, allowing them to adjust their behaviour accordingly. 

The research highlights the scope for developing gender-related provision and, through reference to existing good practice, the potential for European federations and national sport bodies across Europe to play a leading role in championing the importance of gender-related approaches in coaching education schemes. 

Read the full report here

Details on the conference on the role of sport coaches in society can be found here.

For further information please contact James Sennett or Charlotte Ruitinga