Research Findings: Closed and Exclusive Networks


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

The other consequence of a lack of professionalised coaching system is that it is a breeding ground for same- sex, informal yet powerful exclusive networks. This ultimately works against women coaches because of the current culture of many NGBs as described in section 2.1. Such unregulated appointment processes and networks can lead to the exclusion and powerlessness of women. Many of the coaches described coaching as a ‘closed shop’ whereby decisions regarding coaching appointments were made informally and behind closed doors, and opportunities for development and roles were decided by, and given to, the few (mostly, White men):

I was a professional coach and I couldn’t become a professional coach in the UK because there weren’t any opportunities to do that. The very few opportunities there were, I wasn’t given the option to be in that position because someone else had been earmarked for that position. So I guess in a way, the system was a barrier to me being able to continue being a professional coach. 

I think part of the reason why I wasn’t going out to network was because I was a young coach, I am female, and every coach was male. It seemed very closed world. When you went to competitions, they all stood round in huddles and sounding very knowledgeable and you just felt it was hard to break into that.

I have probably said ‘jobs for the boys’, I’ve said that phrase because I feel like sometimes it has been….you just think how could I ever infiltrate myself into that?

I faced barriers when I wanted to be a team manager for [the national] team, and the barrier was, you know, this chap’s got it instead, who hasn’t produced anybody or anything but because he can talk better than I can they’ve decided that he’s going to take the team out for the Games. So, yeah, I do hit barriers, I think if there’s a chap who’s got a bit of kudos then what can I do? I do face barriers like that, I don’t get the roles that I feel I could get…I usually end up looking to see if there are any and saying to whoever is in charge of, say, the [name of event] “Is there anything I can do? Can I help? I’d love to do this, that and the other.”, but, no…I think they pick those they want to pick, basically

Like, you know, I could potentially apply for the [name of position], but I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t waste my time. Probably because I am a woman…I did actually also apply for the [name of role], but was told I wasn’t experienced enough, I didn’t even get an interview for that! I was gobsmacked! They were telling me they didn’t want me to be part of the system then! The people who interviewed me had said ‘well, it’s a very small world, we generally wouldn’t think of taking anyone on that we didn’t know, because it’s a bit of a closed shop, but we really liked and were impressed with your application

Due to the dominance of male power and the gendered ideas and assumptions that underpin much of the coaching culture in athletics coupled with a lack of professionalisation (which brings with it, regulation), the result is a proliferation of exclusive, all-male coaching networks that ultimately exclude women:

You just feel like it is harder to, to feel like your opinion isn’t taken seriously or as valid as other coaches. I would say there are male coaches who I would put myself on an equal platform as, but I suspect some of the male colleagues who they speak to don’t see you on the same platform. When you actually look at their credentials of who they have coached and what they have done, and what they have delivered on in terms of workshops and extra stuff, you know, well actually I have done that, I have done that, I have done that as well, I might have done that better…you know. And yes you kind of think why am I being asked last, or why is my opinion not being…I would describe it as the ‘huddle’… you get a male huddle that gets together and they think they have all the answers, and we’ll have a chat and it’s almost like you are, you know, not necessarily always intentionally, but you know over the beers or whatever. You are still conscious that maybe sometimes conversations have happened that you perhaps would have liked to have been privy to or part of and weren’t. When you [go] to competitions, they all stood round in huddles and sounding very knowledgeable and you just felt it was hard to break into that. But I would say the mentoring events really helped that. On the one hand there were still the huddles.

And I do find it’s a bit boys club in that sense. 

They were all male [the coaching team]. I think they had a problem with a female coach being the lead.

The coaches instead, called for cultural reform to modernise the ideas and practices of the organisation. However, some were unsure as to whether change would occur in the current way of working and if the same all-male networks still dominated decision-making. In this way, same-sex networks are impediments to cultural and structural reform, and the cause to many women’s poorer experience of coaching or decision to step back from their role:

That whole culture is still old school who you know and not what you know. I don’t know [how to join these networks] is the answer.

I don’t think it will [change] until the old guard move away from coaching and the more professional people move up. They are generally now doing it in a more professional manner and getting themselves more qualified and aren’t insecure and I think there is a hell of a lot of insecurity in coaching. A lot of these people have just been coaching for years with no particular, er…you know they haven’t studied their arses off, they haven’t travelled the world for work and research and I think that makes them really insecure. I think insecurity drives a lot of behaviour and you know people coming through and it used to be an old boys club and now there is women and young people and all that sort of thing. Because there is a lot of dinosaurs doing the same thing and suspicious of change. 

[One of the men] did one of those [name of event] coaching ones and if you listen to it, you will hear them all chat about erm, the golf course and when they played this and when they did that. You realise how cliquey and how old school it can be. But you think, have we really not moved away from that? And you know, then you sort of hear them talking and it’s ‘oh do you remember when we did, remember when we played that match there, and remember we had that golf course…’ And you think, you know, athletics is very very cliquey, and it’s not open to all. It is a lot of old school. That whole culture is still old school who you know and not what you know.

It is a bit of an old boys’ network. And being female, people assume you are the athlete’s mother and not their coach. Anybody who sees you they say, ‘oh are you the mum?’ Whereas they wouldn’t think that for a male, they would probably ask the question ‘are you the coach?’. So it is, that is a cultural thing.

I think more positive now that I am not actually working for the governing body. The reason for that isn’t because of the governing body, the reason for that was the amount of animosity being a young female in a role created by the older male population in the [name of event] coaching community.

I said I wanted to step down and didn’t want to work in this role anymore [because of reported harassment]. But that person who was the instigator of all this…he is now still in a high position… because it’s an old boys’ network. So, you know, it was quiet, I was prepared to step down from that role, even though it was what I wanted to do at the time. It was kind of intimidating and back stabbey and back bitey, it has never been from coaches who were better than me, it was always from peers of a similar level. And I’ve never had it from female coaches, it has always been from older male coaches, younger male coaches not at all, it was always the older male coaches that have been the issue for me.