Beyond X’s and O’s: What Female Coaches are saying about Gender Bias in Women’s College Sports

Women's Sports Foundation

Did you know that despite the expansion of opportunities for women since Title IX’s passage, the number of women coaching women’s teams at the collegiate level has declined significantly since? In 1972, more than 90% of the coaches of women’s teams were female. Today, that figure has fallen to only 43%.

In an effort to reveal why women coaches are so markedly underrepresented in these leadership roles, the Women’s Sports Foundation has just released “Beyond X’s and O’s: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women’s College Sports,” the largest nationally representative survey of male and female coaches of women’s college sports. Over 2,500 respondents provided data which points to gender as the key factor shaping attitudes and experiences for coaches in the workplace. This report confirms that not only does systemic gender bias exist; it is targeted specifically to coaches of women who are female, rather than to all coaches of women’s sports.

In their responses to our survey, more than 40% of female coaches felt “discriminated against because of their gender,” while only 29% of their male counterparts reported the same sentiment. The women surveyed also revealed reluctance to discuss these and other issues with campus leadership, citing fear of unfair treatment, retaliation or job loss. According to the research, female coaches also face disparities in pay and professional advancement due to gender bias. Some key findings in our Beyond X’s and O’s report illustrate that:

Men are given more professional advantages than women: A majority of female survey respondents believe that it is easier for men to secure high level jobs, salary increases, promotions and multi-year contracts. One female coach noted that, as men now dominate coaching positions in women’s sports, fewer opportunities exist for women: “Quite simply, men have more leverage because they have opportunities for coaching in both men's and women's sports. Having more job opportunities also gives you more opportunities to renegotiate current deals and alter current arrangements.”

Women experience more gender bias on the job: Female coaches also reported being subjected to a different standard than their male counterparts, and believe that management both favors men over women and evaluates them differently. Regarding hiring practices, one female coach observed that there is a strong tendency to “overlook females with strong personalities because they will be ‘tough to handle’ even though such things are never mentioned when hiring a male.” Another female coach who had been censured on multiple occasions for confronting referees said that, “I find [these charges] to be a gender bias as the male coaches in our department are far more out of line and disrespectful to officials, however, because I am a female, I am expected to be quiet and passive where it is accepted for the male coaches to question calls...”

Advocating for fairness has consequences: Stories of retaliation against coaches for speaking up about Title IX violations have circulated in recent years, so it is not surprising that many coaches surveyed in Beyond X’s and O’s fear paying a very real price for voicing their concerns: unfair treatment, retaliation or even dismissal. One female coach asserted: “If a woman files a discrimination complaint or lawsuit, she can usually kiss her career goodbye.”

Female coaches hold back: This gender bias has created a culture in which female coaches of women’s sports feel uncomfortable speaking up for themselves and for their athletes, within the athletic department as well as to college administration. As a result, the coaches surveyed tend to be more reserved when offering input and are less involved in the decision-making process. “ I have seen [female] department members stop speaking up because leadership has visibly….or verbally shut them down. I believe the women in our department are mostly biting their tongues because of the negative reactions to comments…If my opinion is asked, I give it, but I understand why my discouraged co-workers, especially female, have stopped speaking up.”

What steps can athletic departments and college administrators take to ensure equal oppportunity and fair treatment for coaches of all genders? Beyond X’s and O’s offers thorough and constructive policy recommendations designed to foster coaching environments with nondiscriminatory hiring practices, compensation structures and professional expectations. Title IX compliance training, fair employment policies and an expressed commitment to eliminating gender bias will all serve to create a culture of equality in collegiate coaching, ensuring equitable participation and opportunity for all. “As a long-tenured female head coach, I fully appreciate the advancements that have been made in supporting women in athletics. There are a few women in powerful positions but not enough. Women supporting women in the athletics workplace still has a long way to go…The fight isn't over.”

To view the study and policy recommendations, visit


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