Coaching and female leadership

Before I delve into this month's subject, I'd like to take a moment to comment on the name of my column. "Getting Girled" is a phrase commonly used by young boys and middle-aged men, or any age group defined by insecurities over masculinity, when a female beats them in an athletic endeavor. One reader contacted me about the title, stating the name of my column may in fact be counterproductive to my cause, that it places a negative spin on the issue before anyone can begin reading.

Unfortunately, my fair reader, what you point out is true. That is also kind of my point. The very ubiquity of the phrase "getting girled" proves the existence of gender bias in athletics: it exhibits an ideology that actively restrains women from gaining equal standing with their male peers.

This ideology, the one that paints female success as a bad thing, the one that says "you can be good, but not too good" is that which is being tested and questioned on all levels of the women's movement today. Thus, I hoped that my title would grab eyes and introduce my content for me.

Great. Now that I have your attention, I'd like to share a personal anecdote. Growing up, I was always "the bossy one." At a very young age, I was chastised by both friends and their parents for being opinionated during playtime. When I began participating in athletics, however, I finally found an arena in which that agency was no longer seen in a negative light. My attitude even got a new name: I was no longer bossy, I was a leader.

Yet, despite the empowerment I gained from leading in athletics, I lacked an advantage many young male athletes enjoy: role models in leadership positions. The success of Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book "Lean In" has sparked a discussion about women in leadership positions, how societal sways have caused women to hold themselves back and how beneficial empowered women are to upcoming generations.

In athletics, where coaches, team owners, department directors and referees are in inordinately male, the effects are tantamount. You cannot be what you cannot see.

Herein lies one of the failures of Title IX. In the wake of 1973, while the number of supported female athletes in this country doubled, female coaching staffs more than halved. In order to meet the requirements of the act, most predominantly male athletic departments created female teams or took over existing female departments, rendering already existing female administrators, directors and coaches superfluous.

Despite the success of coaches like Vivian D. Stringer and Pat Summit, the world of athletics, including the female athletes themselves, are still reluctant to trust female leaders. Even here in Vermont, stark inequalities go virtually unnoticed. If one casually peruses the athletics website of Burr & Burton Academy (which I did, although it wasn't all that casual), she will notice that of the 41 teams at the school, eight of them have women as head coaches. While the school's athletic director and trainer are women, and two women lead cross-country and snowboarding co-ed teams, no women are the head coaches of all-male teams, even though nine of the all-female teams have male head coaches.

I am not arguing that men shouldn't coach women, or that women should coach men; I don't think that gender makes any one person a better or worse coach (duh), but I would like to question why this inequality exists. At first, I would have played the blame game. I would have written the issue off as pure sexism, that women weren't getting jobs as coaches because men weren't hiring them, that patriarchal administrators were all in on an agreement to keep men in charge and women out of the job.

It is not that simple. If sexism were simple, we would have solved this problem long ago. One of the reasons women are not in head coaching positions, one of those unbearable facts that makes feminists everywhere cringe, is that women simply are not applying for the jobs. Just like the women Sandberg targets in her book, we are holding ourselves back.

As more and more women begin to lead businesses and corporations, I hope that the trend transcends into the athletics. If anything, I hope that greater visibility of female leaders in sports will mean that more young women stick with their athletic endeavors and that no more little girls will be overgeneralized and misunderstood as "the bossy one."

Annie Pokorny is a member of the Stratton Mountain School's T2 elite Cross country Ski Team and a part-time student at Middlebury College.


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