Football stadium at night

Women head coaches at all levels have talked of football culture being steeped in male dominance

5 December 2019

2 min

Very few women become elite football coaches because, to succeed, they have to face greater scrutiny and pressure than male coaches and ideally not have children.

Women coaches at every level of the game need to accept they’ll have to fight harder for everything and, if they are appointed, that it will probably be to less desirable positions, such as coaching younger age groups.

The findings come from new research led by Dr Beth Clarkson, at the University of Portsmouth, published in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal.

Dr Clarkson said: “It’s known very few women are appointed to elite level coaching roles, but until now, we didn’t know why.

“The results show most women football coaches experience discrimination and are denied opportunities to advance their careers.

“There appears to be fierce gender discrimination at all levels of football and across the full spectrum, from structure of the sport, to the social and cultural aspects of the role.

“Women coaches are missing from elite football because they face a bottleneck – as women advance, they are excluded from positions of power with limited career progression opportunities.”

The research is the first to examine barriers women coaches in England face across grassroots, academy and adult elite football.

The researchers interviewed 12 women head coaches working in youth recreational football, talent development or elite levels of English football.

Women head coaches at all levels talked of football culture being steeped in male dominance. All routinely encountered sexism. If a woman coached a team of girls, they were given fewer resources or the coach had to fight for the right to use equipment that boy players were given. One club told a woman job applicant ‘we don’t hire women’.

Sport is one of the last bastions of assumed male dominance and, in football, this culture is costing the sport a lot of skills and people.

Dr Beth Clarkson, Senior Lecturer in Sports Science

The women coaching at elite level told researchers they preferred to keep their heads down and fit in with the men.

They said they accepted that they’d be subjected to higher levels of scrutiny than their male counterparts, that they’d be mocked, and that being called ‘boy’ or told you’re the ‘token’ female came with the territory.

These women said coaching elite football meant not having children (because they were told children might compete for your attention), and women-only coaching courses were viewed as substandard. One told researchers if you want to be accepted, you train with everyone else, even if the training was designed for men and perpetuated male dominance in the sport.

“These women chose to go along with it, because they wanted to succeed in a career they were passionate about,” Dr Clarkson said. “It seems a good time now to move away from a one-size fits all in how coaching careers are developed.”

“Sport is one of the last bastions of assumed male dominance and, in football, this culture is costing the sport a lot of skills and people. Women are a largely untapped resource in elite coaching. They have a great deal more to offer, but little opportunity to do so, unless they are prepared to face greater scrutiny and come under more pressure than their male counterparts.”

In English football, at youth recreational level, women make up just 3 per cent of all coaches qualified to apply for head coach posts; at academy level, they make up 2 per cent of those eligible for head coach posts; and at elite level, women make up 1.5 per cent of coaches eligible for head coach posts.

She is calling on the sport’s governing body to take an occupational-focused approach, dependent on the performance level that women coaches work in, to support women coaches, keep them in the sport and help them progress their careers.