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Gender Divide in Youth Sports Persists, Study Says

Most coaches are men, most team moms are ... moms

African-American woman basketball coachA recent study in the journal Gender and Society confirms what many sports mothers have long known: the gender divide in youth sports is no different than in the home and the workplace, with the vast majority of head coaching slots held by men, and nearly all of the team mom positions held by, well, moms.

Researchers at the University of Southern California studied yearbooks for 538 Little League baseball and softball teams and 1,490 American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) soccer teams over an eight-year period. Their findings: only 13.4% of the head coaches in AYSO soccer were women, and only 5.9 % of the head coaching slots in baseball and softball went to women.  Of those women who were head coaches, most coached younger kids (ages 5 to 8) and girls. Boys - and especially boys older than age 10 - almost never had women coaches.

The low numbers of women coaches at the youth level exist despite factors that would otherwise have suggested a greater number, including the greatly expanded opportunities for girls in sports, the fact that most of today's women came of age in a post-Title IX world in which many of them played sports, and that women vastly outnumber men in every other volunteer activity involving their kids (PTA, Scouts, special events at school etc.).

The natural order of things?

What, then, explains this persistent gender segregation?

According to the authors, it is simply the "natural extension of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces, ... not simply from an accumulation of individual choices; rather, [but] produced ... and shaped by gendered language and belief systems [that] are seen by many coaches as natural extensions of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces."

In other words, because men still hold leadership positions in both their families and work, with women still generally performing supporting roles in each, this same gendered division ends up being the norm in youth sports as well and is the natural order of things.

In particular, the authors see the gendered division of labor in youth sports as resulting from the following:

  1. Entry into the coaching pipeline is reserved for men. Most head coaches interviewed had first served as assistant coaches for between one and six years. When requests went out for volunteers, either in a letter or e-mail to parents or at the pre-season meeting, the authors found in nearly all instances that dads "volunteered" to help as assistant coaches and moms "volunteered" to be team parents.  Women aren't invited to be coaches and, once they become coaches, don't find it to be friendly territory.
  2. Coaches commonly assume that fathers will volunteer to be assistant coaches and mothers to be "team moms" and recruit accordingly. None of the head coaches interviewed currently had a man as a team parent. Many of them, including a woman soccer coach, "laughed at the very thought." One remarked, "Oh, it's always a mom [laughs]. ‘Team mom.' That's why it's called ‘team mom'. You know, the coach is a male. And the mom - I mean, that's housekeeping - you know: Assign the snack."
  3. Youth sports use gendered language drawn from family relations. Team coaches aren't referred to as a team's "dad" but team parents are consistently referred to as the "team mom." "This gendered language supports the notion that a team is structured very much like a ‘traditional' heterosexual family: The head coach - nearly always a man - is the leader and the public face of the team; the team parent - nearly always a woman - is working behind the scenes, doing support work; assistant coaches - mostly men, but including the occasional woman - help the coach on the field during practices and games."
  4. Men don't or won't consider doing team parent work. Many of the woman coaches interviewed recognized that the reason men were not team parents was because they perceived it as "women's work", as non-masculine and thus undesirable, and that to publicly take on a job defined as "feminine" would be embarrassing or even humiliating. One woman Little League coach found it ironic that her husband - who did most of the cooking and housework at home - would not take on the role of team parent for his daughter's team. "I think there's a lot of men out there, but they don't want to be perceived as being domesticated." The resistance of men to even consider taking on the team parent position ultimately leaves the job in the hands of a woman who might also have been reluctant to do it. These informal constraints channel many women away from coaching and toward being team parents. Thus women don't so much as "volunteer" to be team parents as they are coerced by the system into taking on the job.

Valuing women

The study's authors point out a number of adverse effects of the current gender segregation in youth sports:

  • Women's work is devalued. The important work done by team parents is often disparaged by coaches as trivial and unimportant, with coaches saying that it is "not very hard to do" or "an easy job." There is a general failure on the part of coaches to recognize that the job that women team parents do is often just one of many volunteer jobs they perform in the community, while, for most male coaches, it is usually their one and only volunteer activity;
  • It reinforces negative role-modeling and lack of respect for women. Some of the women coaches interviewed who had consciously resisted the gendered sorting system expressed concern that the "team mom" amounted to negative role-modeling for kids and fed into the disrespect that woman coaches experienced. One put it this way: "The kids think that the moms should just be ‘team moms.' Which means that they don't take the mothers seriously, and I think that is a bad thing. I mean it's a bad thing. I think that's a lack of respect to women, to mothers."
  • It initiates children into a gender-segregated world. Sports are framed as a "realm in which girls are empowered to exercise individual choice (rehearsing choices they will later face in straddling the demands of careers and family labor), while continuing to view boys as naturally ‘hard-wired' to play sports (and ultimately, to have public careers).... In short, [youth sports] initiates kids into an adult world that has been only partially transformed by feminism, where many of the burdens of bridging and balancing work and family strains are still primarily on women's shoulders. Men coaches and ‘team moms' symbolize and exemplify these tensions."

Changing the system

The study offers little in the way of suggestions on how to change the gender segregation in youths sports - although it includes a few examples of women who simply refused to "go with the flow" of the channeling process, either by challenging the gendered selection process of assistant coaches and team parents or by refusing to have a team parent at all - which only ended up creating extra work for women coaches (as if they didn't have enough already) that most men coaches delegated to a team mom.

Instead of "‘bad guys' engaged in overt acts of sexism and discrimination," the authors blame the system itself and the unconscious, informal practicing of gender by "well-intentioned, good people." They conclude that "any attempt to move toward greater equality for women and men in youth sports presupposes simultaneous movements toward equality in workplaces and families."

 

 


Brooke de lench is the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers In Youth Sports and founder and Editor-in-Chief of MomsTeam.com.

 

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Brooke de Lench writes:  For a more in-depth discussion of the important issues raised by this study, I highly recommend the 2009 book by one the study's co-authors, Professor Michael Messner, It's All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports

I had the privilege of reading the book in manuscript form in the summer of 2008 and found it to contain a brilliant assessment of today's gender-divided youth sports culture with many important insights that I am sure will make it a "must read" for anyone involved in youth sports. 

I have also listed below some articles on the MomsTeam.com site about women as youth sports coaches and ways women and mothers can change the culture so that it reflects their views as well as those of men. 

Finally, we want to hear from you.  While I enjoyed coaching, I also enjoyed being a team mom.  What do you think of the study? Have you experienced the gender division of labor the study talks about in your town?  What is your community doing to promote full inclusion of women at all levels of coaching?  Have you seen an increase in the number of women coaches?  Do you know of dads who have been or currently team parents?  Your voice matters.  Click here to share your thoughts.

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