Sexism in Collegiate Swim Coaching: Experiences of Coaches

In 2019, there were 208 Division I women’s swim teams in the NCAA. Exactly, 33 had a female head coach. It is a sobering statistic that nearly 85% of the leadership in a women’s sport is male. Conversations regarding the lack of female leadership in college athletics have been ongoing for decades, however there has been virtually no improvement in the status of women in collegiate coaching. Across all women’s sports in NCAA Division I, approximately 40% of women’s teams are led by a female head coach. So what accounts for this even greater disparity in women’s swimming?


As youth athletes, both boys and girls are coached by men and women equally. At the club and youth swimming level, according to USA Swimming’s own demographic information, 51% of USA Swimming registered coaches are women. However, when these swimmers reach college the environment changes to one largely dominated by men in leadership roles. There is a false perception that male swimmers want or need to be coached by men at the collegiate level. Perhaps this makes the gender disparity a bit more easily understood although still disappointing. As an aside, previous research has indicated that when male athletes have experience working with female coaches in their youth they continue to have positive perceptions of female coaches as college athletes. Swimming is also contextually unique to other sports in the NCAA in that it largely operates in a mixed gender environment. Men’s and women’s swimming teams often train side-by-side, sharing everything from buses and weight rooms to a coaching staff.


The data tells the story of what has been termed a leaky pipeline. In Division I collegiate swimming, women are entering the profession as assistant coaches (40%); however, they are not ascending to the ranks of head coach (15%). In order to shed light on this phenomenon, we sought to answer these questions: What are the career experiences of NCAA Division I female swimming coaches? And further, how do these experiences impact their upward career mobility?


We interviewed 21 female coaches regarding their experiences in coaching in NCAA Division I swimming. These coaches were at various levels in their career, including: head coaches, associate head coaches, assistant coaches, and recently retired coaches. The participants represented a diverse selection of Division I institutions and conferences in level of competition and geographic location.. All of the interviews were conducted by the same researcher and averaged 44 minutes in length. The interviews included questions regarding the coaches’ personal coaching history, their training and education as a coach, and their perceptions regarding the gender imbalance in the profession.


The experiences of the participants in this study revealed a pervasiveness of gender bias and sexism in the swim coaching profession. Sexism was manifested in five general categories: (a) misidentification (b) differential treatment, (c) tokenism, (d) isolation, and (e) motherhood.


Misidentification. The female coaches in this study experienced sexism through a lack of external identification as coaches or the leaders of their teams. This sexism is not uncommon; research has found that many times women in coaching are questioned on their status or must hold high credentials (e.g., former All-American or Olympian) in order to be respected in their environment. The participants commented on how they are sometimes mistaken for one of the athletes or an athletic trainer, and not as a part of the coaching staff. The less experienced, younger coaches often assumed that it is because of their age and not because of their gender, although this misidentification happens to even the most experienced coaches. More experienced coaches discussed times when meet security assumed they were parents of athletes or incidents when their younger male assistant was assumed to be the head coach and not them.


Differential Treatment. Participants also discussed the differential treatment they experienced in comparison to their male peers. Sexism in the form of differential treatment occurred from a variety of sources, be it other coaches, athletes, parents, or athletic administrators. Coaches reported feelings of disrespect from their male athletes. They also reported that male coaches from other programs would use their gender as a negative recruiting tool, telling prospective student-athletes that they “need to swim for a male coach.” Female coaches were also disparaged by their male colleagues when they did not act in stereotypically feminine ways. Coaches stated that when a female coach enforces the rules, she is termed a “bitch.” The expectation is that the “female is supposed to be the complete nurturer.”


This differential treatment is at the center of the sexism experienced by female coaches as it perpetuates hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is the system in which men’s dominant role in society is legitimized, which in turns makes women the subordinate gender. The participants’ examples of differential treatment continually reinforce the notion that men are presumed to be the natural leaders. This is especially true in a male-dominated sporting context where stereotypical masculine behaviors are rewarded. When athletes say “they prefer a male coach” or administrators think they need to hire a male coach for male athletes, they are constructing or reconstructing the gender hierarchy and perpetuating hegemonic masculinity. Women continue to experience underrepresentation in leadership roles because of this false perception.


Tokenism. Several of the coaches provided examples of times they have felt like a token in their careers. Tokenism is when an organization makes a symbolic effort to include minority groups in order to be perceived as more inclusive. An example of tokenism from this study is when a male head coach did not want to interview a woman for an open assistant coaching position because he already had one female coach on his staff. He felt he had already fulfilled his obligation of employing a woman and therefore could not recognize the need or benefit to have another woman on his staff regardless of her coaching ability.


An effect of tokenism is that individuals may perceive that the only reason a woman has a specific position is because of her gender, not her expertise. The tokened individual may feel that way about herself as demonstrated by the sentiment of one of the participants when she questioned whether she was deserving of her position or whether she got her job “just because she was a female.” The effect is that the individuals in the minority group may have a diminished self-esteem.


The token status that female assistant coaches appear to occupy in the minds of their male head coaches or administrators may result in fewer opportunities for on-the-job training in the technical areas of coaching that will most likely lead to head coaching opportunities. The coaches in the current study used terms such as “secretary-coach,” “admin-coach,” and “operations-coach” to describe the token role that these female coaches occupy; demonstrating the gender norms of men’s and women’s work. Women are not being prepared to move onto higher positions of leadership. They are experiencing “the sticky floor” phenomena where the entry-level position becomes a “trap” rather than a “stepping stone.” A sticky floor does not allow a woman to advance high enough to even encounter the more commonly discussed glass ceiling.


Isolation. This dearth of female representation in swim coaching can lead to women lacking mentorship, role models, and allies within their industry causing feelings of isolation. Isolation can occur in two different ways: within a coaching staff and in the swimming community at large. In the current study, the assistant coaches discussed being the only woman on the coaching staff, while the head coaches discussed isolation in the larger swimming community. The coaches were often one of the very few women on pool decks, at professional meetings, or in other potential networking situations.


Isolation seemed to be present at every stage of these women’s careers. The women were usually the only female coach on a five-person coaching staff early in their careers. They were met with a “good ‘ole boys” club that was unwelcoming, and they found it challenging to connect with other women when they pursued networking at professional development events. Once the women had a well-established career in their 30s and 40s, they found that many of the female coaches who were once their peers had left the profession. Lastly, if the female coach reached the highest coaching levels, they were now one of the very few female head coaches.


Motherhood. Sexist attitudes towards female coaches can also come from pregnancy or parental status which can create further conflict for women regarding a work-life balance. In other male-dominated professions, women who did not have children were perceived as competent as men in the field, but once women had children or became pregnant, they were now regarded as mothers rather than professionals. Female coaches working in a male-dominated environment may be more accepted before they become mothers, but once pregnancy or motherhood occurs, the two identities of coach and mother may be incongruous.


One coach in the study described an instance of being passed over for a head coaching position after she interviewed for the job visibly pregnant. Another coach relayed a story of when she overheard a male head coach say he would not hire a specific female assistant coach because she had children. Several coaches in the study who were considering having children had concerns on how administrators may react when and if they got pregnant and the eventual impact it could have on their careers.


The impact of pregnancy or parental status discrimination may contribute to the struggle for women to advance in coaching. These intersecting identities of gender and parental status uniquely affect women as male coaches often do not have the same societal expectations for fatherhood, and fatherhood may actually be seen as a benefit to their role as coach.


Implications for Practice. Due to the continued male-domination of leadership positions in sport, women cannot simply wait for a change in culture to advance their careers. Therefore, female swimming coaches must act to enhance their career mobility. Misidentification and differential treatment due to societal stereotypes will undoubtedly continue. However, the response of the coach can change perceptions. When asked how the coaches handled these situations, some coaches laughed off the misidentification or sexist behaviors while others corrected the behavior. Although often uncomfortable and clearly unfair, only through confronting the stereotypes will the offenders become aware of their biases.


To combat the token role that assistant coaches often occupy, assistant coaches need to discuss their career goals with their head coach to avoid the “sticky floor.” The head coach then needs to train and develop their assistant coaches in tangible skills that will be marketable for head coaching positions. This means assistant coaches need to assert themselves in asking for duties other than administration. Assistant coaches need to be given the autonomy to develop season training plans, write workouts, recruit, and fundraise, among numerous other coaching skills. These are the skills that will help them prepare for their next career move.


Although working in an inhospitable environment may make mentorship and networking more challenging, the most successful, longest tenured coaches in this study participated extensively in these activities. If a coach desires a long and more satisfying career experience, networking and mentoring services are available through a variety of coaching organizations as well as through institutional athletic departments.


Lastly, a coach’s parental-status, whether a mother or father, should not have a negative impact on the career of a coach. It should be under the purview of the athletic department to ensure that hiring practices are non-discriminatory based on parental status. The athletic department should also provide proper support and resources for coaches with children such as on-campus child-care options, flexible work schedules, and the ability for children to travel with the team. Head coaches need to be aware of the demands of the job on parents and consider ways in which they can support assistant coaches with children.


These recommendations for practice cannot summarily fix the problem of institutional and pervasive sexism in a male-dominated community, however, they may provide some pathways towards equity between male and female coaches.


Conclusion. Women must be in an environment that facilitates upward career mobility to maintain a coaching career or climb the coaching career ladder. The current college swim coaching environment does the opposite. Many women are not able to ascend to higher ranks due to a variety of barriers perpetuated by sexism and hegemony. Additionally, the roles that they do occupy on their coaching staffs may be unfulfilling and not offer growth opportunities.


From these findings, athletic administrators can recognize the challenges their female coaches face and consider strategies to support them better. Likewise, the perception of what a swimming coach looks, sounds, and acts like needs to evolve in order to challenge the belief that sport leadership positions are inherently masculine. It has long been recognized that there is a gender representation problem in collegiate swim coaching, but the narrative often shifted the blame to the coach herself with observations of women not wanting to coach. However, from these findings, it is undeniable that it is the environment that needs to change to make coaching more attractive for women in terms of career advancement and overall job satisfaction.


Siegele, J.L., Hardin, R., Taylor, E.A., & Smith, A.B. (2020). “She is the Best Female Coach”: NCAA Division I Swimming Coaches’ Experiences of Sexism, Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 13, 93-118. Full article here.





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