The Coaches Perspective: ‘Achieving Gender Equity in High Performance Athletics Coaching in the U.K’

Achieving Gender Equity in High Performance Athletics Coaching in the U.K

The aim of this present study was to: map the composition of the athletics coaching workforce in the UK, understand the experiences of high-performance female coaches working within their organisations, understand the impact of gender diversity amongst coaches on high-performance athletes, and to gather insight into the organisational processes and practices towards achieving gender equality within the home country governing bodies as well as UK Athletics itself.

The second stage of the project entailed interviewing a sample of female high-performance athletics coaches and female coaches with athletes in the Top 50 of each event group. The interviews focused on the coaches’ experiences in relation to: their career journey, their experiences of coaching within their sport and national governing body, what gender equity meant to them and their organisation, and what could be done (or is being done) within their organisations to advance gender equity and equality in high-performance coaching.

It is intended that this evidence will form the basis of specific and practical key recommendations towards shifting thinking and approaches to gender diversity and inclusion across the U.K.

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  • The research represented an excellent forum to listen to and represent the coaches’ stories. Positively, 17 high-performing women coaches were enthusiastic to participate in the research to step forwards to have their voices heard and share their stories. They represent a motivated, engaged, and valuable part of the UK athletics coaching workforce and are deeply committed to their role and to their relationships with their athletes. They work with a strong sense of purpose.

  • The coaches described working in a culture in which they are and feel minoritised. It is a culture that is underpinned by unequal gendered assumptions, and power is retained by a few rather than the many. Kudos tends to rest with (White) male coaches and / or those coaches who were former athletes. There is also a culture of overworking (and yet, coaches are not rewarded, financially, for such) and poor work-life integration that disadvantages women.

  • The athletics system in the UK is one that rests on volunteering. Coaching is under-professionalised but coaches are expected to be the most knowledgeable and skilled professionals in a volunteer capacity. They are central to the system and yet, they are not rewarded as such. It is not possible to make the assertion that being a high-performance athletics coach is a profession. Professions are characterised by a professional association, cognitive base, institutionalised training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control, a code of ethics and high standards of professional and intellectual excellence (Green & Gates, 2014). The issue of pay may present a greater issue for women coaches because they are outside of the organisation and of powerful, informal networks to be appointed to paid positions. This lends evidence to the argument that the issue is not because women do not want to coach or think they are capable enough (as it is often heard in organisations) but rather, they have no choice because it is not a financially viable role. In the words of one participant, coaches are carrying out their role “literally for the love of it”.

  • Without a professionalised and regulated system, it is open to abuse in two particular ways: poaching of athletes, and unregulated appointment processes and networks that lead to the exclusion and powerlessness of women. The culture of ‘poaching athletes’ was a frequent theme in the data. This is a similar finding to previous research that found such an issue in relation to Black and Minoritised Ethnic coaches: high-potential athletes are ‘poached’ from coaches and assigned to more powerful (read: White male) coaches (Rankin-Wright et al., 2017). This will impact those coaches in the minority because of their positions in the system which are underpinned by racial and gendered assumptions (e.g. women are better in ‘nurturing’ roles such as coaching children and / or those athletes with a disability) and their lack of influence and power in decision-making circles. The lack of professionalisation of coaching is exacerbating the culture of poaching. Further still, due to the dominance of male power and the gendered ideas and assumptions that underpin the coaching culture in athletics coupled with a lack of professionalisation, the result is a proliferation of exclusive, all-male coaching networks that ultimately exclude women and impede reform. In response, many women choose to not pursue further opportunities or step back from coaching entirely.

  • The existing coaching culture and broader systemic issues in the sport, coupled with the minoritised status of most women coaches, have an emotional and relational cost for such individuals and greatly impacts their relationships with male peers in the system. A recurrent and serious theme to emerge from the interviews was that many women spoke of negative encounters and working relationships with high-performance male coaches. Such behaviours largely took the form of gendered microinvalidations such as not being listened to, spoken to, disrespected, or excluded (‘pushed out’). Concerningly, there were also incidences of sexual harassment and degradation. This data paints a worrying picture of unequal relationships between men and women. There is urgent action needed to make athletics coaching safe for women, both physically and psychologically. Their minority status and a power imbalance between men and women within the system are breeding grounds for such behaviours. Such gendered microaggressive behaviours include patronising, devaluing, or exclusionary behaviours.

  • The existing coaching culture and broader systemic issues in the sport also have led to a devaluing of women’s coaching capabilities. They are often invisible on the athletics coaching landscape and this invisibility manifests itself as a lack of forum or of channels to speak to the NGB, a lack of recognition of their abilities for further coaching opportunities, and few invitations to either attend or present (or be paid to present) at coaching conferences. This invisibility, particularly at such public forums, must be addressed as to elevate women’s position in the organisations and reform what is understood to make high-performance coaching and coaches (to redefine coaching).

  • Through the NGBs’ current approach towards diversity and inclusion, coupled with the current cultural and systemic issues, women can be left feeling as a ‘tick-box measure’. This is evidence that the basic approach to D&I is hindering, not helping, women in terms of their sense of self, their relationships with male coaches, their visibility in the organisation, the assumptions of their capability, and their advancement and opportunities. More is needed to go beyond current thinking and approaches to diversity and inclusion and address wider culture and systemic issues.

  • There are many myths and stories that exist within organisational corridors as to women’s supposed lack of confidence or suitability for leadership. These stories then often form the evidence for intervention; development programmes and training for women are put into place as a way of ‘fixing’ their flaws and therefore, absence from high-performing roles. This belies the complexity and multifaceted nature of both their underrepresentation and sense of exclusion within organisations. In this way, it is akin to a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: which comes first? We make the assertion that trying to exist and advance as coaches in such cultures and systems that do little to nurture and promote talent, erodes self-worth. Rather than women not possessing the ability or assertiveness to be high-performing coaches, we content that the current issues are damaging to them. In response, some of the coaches demonstrated a sense of resilience to challenge the issues. But most appeared resigned to their position due to the strength and long-standing nature of the unequal culture.

  • As a result, many women are working harder to prove their coaching ability and gain recognition against impossible (male) standards with other coaches, NGB staff, and importantly, their athletes.

  • In summary, the coaches’ stories describe some of the complexities, nuances, strength, and embedded nature of the culture and system that impacts their lives in athletics. It speaks to the need to take a deeper- diving, far-reaching, and broader lens to the issue of a ‘lack of’ women coaches and towards diversity and inclusion (D&I). These stories speak of systematic exclusion founded on unequal gendered ideas, a gendered power imbalance, and a lack of a system that upholds and regulates professional standards. It goes beyond simple interventions and strategies; the evidence points to the need to engage with culture change and a professionalisation of coaching.

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