Yes, it's that time of year again. Hiring and firing in the world of college and high school sports.
From May to early August, we will be able to watch the open job postings on NCAA.org grow to 4 digits in the listings. Countless coaches at all levels in all sports will either be leaving their current posts for greener pastures or sadly be given their walking papers leading them back onto the free agent market.
Recently, a D-I women's soccer coach and friend of mine received an early tip on a future job opening by the current female coach who was leaving her position to move up to a major D-I post.
As a fairly respected figure within her athletic department, the current coach contacted my friend and encouraged her to apply. Of my friend's 15 years of college coaching experience, eight were spent as a successful head coach, five as an assistant and two as a second assistant. Amongst her glowing recommendations and impeccable resume, were substantially solid references. Prior to the job being posted, in addition to an endorsement from the current coach, the administration received a few phone calls and testimonial emails on her behalf.
This process is not uncommon in the world of athletics and is relatively typical on the men's side for early endorsement of potential candidates with inside information. However, over the course of some networking by this highly qualified candidate my friend eventually obtained an early dialogue opportunity with a key administrator. Upon inquiry about the position my friend was told this:
"So your resume and references look great but the women's team expressed they prefer a male to coach them."
With this statement the administration eliminated what would eventually be the most qualified candidate in the pool simply based on gender.
Later on, I learned that several women who applied without knowledge that the system would not even be seriously considering them, had double the experience and success than the male who was ultimately chosen. This was of course justified in the eyes of the administration because the "team requested it". The fact that an administrator was even comfortable repeating and admitting this statement speaks volumes about the system female coaches are up against.
However, this gender biased request is not at all uncommon in college and high school athletics. What is more alarming than this request by the athletes are the administrations who are entertaining these "preferences" at the same time they are convinced they are conducting balanced searches.
Please read below on the reasons catering to this request on preference of one gender is highly problematic and discriminatory. This concept and practice is also a part of a much bigger problem that so few leaders want or choose to acknowledge. This is a sexist scapegoat that exists in the athletics and we must address it.
1. Any administration or coach who permits their team to suggest or dictate the gender of their next hire is an active participant in the war on women coaches.
The war on women coaches is real. As an employer, you can be part of the solution by recognizing these patterns of behavior in athletics that seeks to quietly eliminate, scrutinize and cast harsh unfounded doubt on female leaders. Many athletes lacked female role models in their sports careers prior to college. Only about 10% of the athletes I speak to in the recruiting process say they have ever had a female coach in any of the sports they have competed in. At some point in their career, the majority were coached by their father or male family friend. There is typically a very strong bond and history within that father/coach relationship where female athletes view male figures as more natural and socially acceptable leaders. As a result, by the time the athletes get to college they may view female leadership as more adversarial or uncomfortable when held to standards or asked to be accountable.
This does not mean we should become cross with the female athletes due to their lack of exposure because this is not all their fault. What we can take ownership over is how we change this perception that females leading other females is strictly intrusive or that it comes with automatic conflict or tension. Silently accepting or lacking the conviction to discuss and refute this perception openly with the athletes, only feeds and strengthens their bias.
2. If you are one of those administrators or coaches claiming that "gender does not matter" yet simultaneously eliminate half your candidates from the hiring pool because the athletes expressed their preference, you are fully supporting the theory that gender is ALL that matters.
As a leader you may think this input is as reasonable as any other characteristic of preference. While the athletes are your ideal focus group in many areas of feedback within the program, permitting the submission or dictation of strictly a male hire is toxic.
Absorbing this kind of team feedback without asking more questions and/or attempting to unearth the root of this selective elimination of their own gender, you are normalizing discrimination.
Failure to recognize this is setting up the next generation of female athletes to enter the workforce with the understanding that there is no harm in break-room discord over the prospect of having to work for a female boss. If you are an athletic director or coach who justified drawing only male candidates based on team input, you are part of the problem.
Additionally, you may want to ask yourself if you are invested equally in supporting allprogram requests for resources, facilities and female athlete support in perpetuity. Turning away your athletes' or coaches requests for support in other areas of equality while urgently heeding their word on a gender specific candidate is a telltale sign that you are selective when convenient and far from understanding your own bias.
3. Searching for a candidate with only intention to hire a male based on the team's preference is a waste of professional time for the female coaches you interview only to meet your gender ratio quota.
As the population of women coaches in the NCAA plateaus at 42%, we can no longer sit around and ask why there are so few of us when open statements against one gender are actively originating from the athletes themselves and supported by admin. This preference should not be interpreted as malicious. However, it should also not be seen as reasonable or balanced feedback that is a reflection a genuine need of any athletic program.
By placating to the athletes or using this as an excuse to narrow the pool or minimize search committee work, you have essentially rendered the qualifications of female candidates irrelevant to the process based on gender alone. This is a form of less detectable discrimination which can be far more poisonous and damaging than open discrimination.
4. Eliminating female candidates based on a preference of gender by a few or several athletes is no different than limiting your consideration to only white candidates.
I invite you to give that job description post a try and let me know how that goes.
If you are still unable to see this problem even after this comparison, try reframing it within any departmental model. In the hiring of an assistant AD or assistant coach you would have to be 100% comfortable approaching human resources to request they filter out all female candidates. You then must be prepared to explain the details of why your department would be more comfortable working with only males. This doesn't just sound absurd, it absolutely is.
5. If you are an admin that has had this feedback from your program and feel you have no choice but to adhere to this "preference" you are perpetuating toxic culture by not professionally and fully explaining bullets 1-4 to the athletes.
I have read countless articles where both women and men swear that hiring is all about the qualifications and "gender doesn't matter". This theory would be an incredible one in a society that believed women and men were equals in coaching or any other professional sector. However, we are not there yet and have much work to do in educating the public on the damage of not only these statements in the short term, but what learned behaviors we are instilling in our young women long term.
In the event you feel unequipped or your equality knowledge is rusty or lacking, solicit the help of your Title IX coordinator, HR or other resources within your institution associated with diversity and inclusion. If all else fails, contact me and I will explain this to your coaches, admin or athletes.
Listening to the needs of athletes on so many levels is healthy, inclusive and collaborative. However, when it comes to willingly permitting players to set gender parameters on who your institution hires, obliging this request is no different than co-signing discriminatory hiring practices.