If you've been watching the FIFA Women's World Cup, you may have noticed that the head coaches of most of the 24 national teams competing in Canada are men. In fact, only seven teams (the USA, Ecuador, Germany, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Sweden, and Ivory Coast) are led by female head coaches.
While that number is five more than when I watched from the stands at Giants Stadium as the U.S. played Mexico in the 1999 Women's World Cup, it is still a distressingly low number.
Unfortunately, women's elite soccer has plenty of company: women head coaches are also few and far between in professional sports (which a recent article in Time Magazine not only characterized as unfair, but bad business) and at the college level, where the disparity has gone from bad to worse (As USA Today recently reported, the percentage of women coaches at the college level has dropped precipitously, from 90 percent when Title IX was enacted in 1972 to 40 percent today, with only a minuscule 2 percent of men's teams being coached by women).
Many reasons have been offered to explain the under-representation of women in the coaching ranks, not only at the professional and collegiate level, but at the high school and youth level as well. But what really sticks in my craw is that such gender inequality persists even though, I believe, women, far from being ill-equipped to be good coaches (as some continue to claim), may actually enjoy some natural advantages over men, especially when it comes to coaching at the youth level.
While making generalizations based on gender is tricky business, here's a list of eleven reasons why, as I first wrote in my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, I think women are so well-suited to coach youth sports:
1. Women are safety conscious and risk averse. Studies show that serotonin levels in the brain are inversely related to risk-taking behavior. Evolutionary biologists believe that a woman's higher levels of serotonin, combined with her instinct to survive by avoiding risk, prompt women to be more careful about safety so as to avoid exposing children to an unreasonable risk of injury.
What I have found from consulting with youth sports programs across the country over the last fifteen years is that programs in which women, usually mothers, are actively involved - not just as team moms, but as coaches and administrators - tend to put a higher premium on safety. Exhibit A is the football program in Newcastle, Oklahoma featured in my concussion documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS). I would never have assembled a team of world-class experts to parachute into the town in the summer of 2012 to help the program implement a comprehensive concussion risk management program called The Six Pillars had it not been for an email I got from a Newcastle mother of one of the players - who was also a school board member - reaching out to me for help in reducing the alarming number of concussions players had suffered the previous season.
2. Women are natural teachers. While there are exceptions to every rule, of course, I believe that women coaches tend to be more organized and prepared to provide a quality experience to all kids involved. I coached that way, and remember that parents constantly remarked on my organizational skills, and told me that my attention to detail had made them more organized sports parents as well.
3. Women tend to be less authoritarian leaders. Women tend to lead by consensus, a leadership style that even boys prefer, rather than employing a more authoritarian form of leadership. Women tend to connect by empathizing and establishing relationships. A mother's instinct to be a calming influence and peacemaker, and to want to emphasize how all players are alike, not different, serve her well as a youth sports coach, where playing favorites or allowing teammates to bully or tease other teammates can create a hostile psychological climate.
4. Women are natural nurturers. Science has shown that women are generally more adept than men at detecting mood from facial expression, body posture, and gestures, and thus knowing if a child is unhappy. Because they tend to be emotionally open and have good communication skills, women are able to motivate and relate well to players, which is essential if a child is to have an enjoyable sports experience.
5. Women tend to want to find a balance between competition and cooperation. I have found that a woman's focus tends to be more on teamwork, arising out of her belief that the best result comes when everyone contributes and the most is gotten from everyone's individual talents. Women tend to reject the common supposition that competition must consist of winning and losing and of displays of power, dominance, and control, for better or worse. "What we need to be teaching our daughters and sons," said Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest, "is that it's possible to have a good time - a better time - without turning the playing field into a battlefield."
6. Women care about all children, not just their own. More than 9 in 10 mothers surveyed in a landmark study of mothers agreed with the statement, "After I became a mother, I found myself caring more about the well-being of all children, just not my own." As co-authors Martha Farrell Erickson and Enola Aird observed, mothers have a "special sense of responsibility for children in general."
7. Women are process- rather than result-oriented. This is what youth sports should be all about: an emphasis on the process (developing skills, both physical and social, and having fun) not solely on the result (wins and losses).
8. Mothers want to protect children from the pressures of the adult world. Nine out of ten mothers questioned in the Motherhood Study - and most child psychologists agree - that exposing kids too fast to the pressures of the adult world is a bad thing; that childhood should be a time when children are protected from, not intentionally exposed, to large parts of the adult world. Many mothers are concerned about the "disappearance of childhood" as the late author, media critic, and NYU professor Neil Postman, called it, and see themselves, in a sense, as what Postman called the "overseers" of children. As coaches, mothers tend to resist the concept, increasingly prevalent in today's youth sports, that intentionally exposing children to the harsh realities of the adult world (cut-throat competition, sorting out of winners and losers), even before they have reached puberty and grown into their bodies, is somehow a good idea.
9. Women have been socialized to place a high value on sportsmanship. One of the most important lessons a youth sports coach can teach players is the value and importance of good sportsmanship. A landmark study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found an ethical and moral gulf between female and male high school athletes in terms of their tolerance for poor sportsmanship. Some research suggests that the ways in which girls are socialized may promote a lower tolerance for poor sports behavior.
10. Women are good at teaching boys healthy masculinity. Female coaches can teach male athletes that they don't have to conform to society's male gender stereotype by hiding their emotions, pain and injuries; that it is possible to be emotionally open and still be a man. Canadian professor Alexis Peters, an expert on masculinity, violence and ethics in sports, argued in an article in the Calgary Herald, that "the root of the problem is not men, athletes or sport themselves ... The issue is adults who forget what it is like to be a child and impose 'real man' values into youth sport." The presence of women as coaches of boys raises, wrote Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky in Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives, "profound questions about male supremacy and directly challenges the patriarchal notion that maleness is a key prerequisite for coaching and for leadership." In other words, more woman coaching boys could, by changing the way men think about masculinity, drive one more nail into the coffin of the myth that women are somehow lacking the qualities to be leaders in society.
11. Women coaches are role models for girls and teach them to celebrate being a female athlete. Women coaches break down gender stereotypes by proving that women can be just as competent and tough as men. As Professor Staurowsky told me, the presence of woman in large numbers as coaches at the youth sport level would help boys and girls see that "women can coach, thus affecting their vision of how sports systems operate."
While participation by girls in sports has increased at all levels (Olympic, professional, college, high school, and youth) and society is more accepting than ever of female athleticism, the fact that women are still so woefully under-represented in the coaching ranks, and that girls drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys are indications that we still have a long way to go as a society in reaching the goal of gender equality in sports.
Here's hoping that the increased prominence of women head coaches at this FIFA Women's World Cup leads to positive change, so that, by the time the next FIFA Women's World Cup is held in France four years from now, I'll be able to report that the number of head coaching slots at the tournament filled by women, and the number of women coaching at the professional, college, high school and youth level have all moved in the only direction they should go: up.
Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports by Brooke de Lench (HarperCollins 2006).
Brooke de Lench is the Executive Editor of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute (MYSSI), Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, and Producer of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench.