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IWD: The Seven-Per-Cent Problem

This International Women’s Day we invite you browse through the web and have a glance through pictures of women’s teams in the World Series, or the Six Nations, or the World Cup. Does anything strike you as odd?

If you search through the records of women’s international sevens online you will find over 100 teams playing regularly, but just nine of them stand out from the rest:

  • Austria
  • Cook Islands
  • Jamaica
  • Netherlands
  • Uganda
  • Venezuela
  • Zimbabwe
  • Hong Kong
  • Sri Lanka

What marks them out? These nine women’s international teams have women head coaches. The rest – around 93% of them – are all coached by men.

It is, when you think about it, quite remarkable. What reason could there be - is it that coaches tend to be former players, and as women’s rugby is a relatively young sport there will be fewer female coaches around?

Probably not as, if you look at other sports, it’s not much better. Only about 7% of coaches of women’s international football teams are coached by women. And even in sports with a far longer tradition of interational female competition the coaches still tend to be male. Women’s cricket has been an international sport since 1926, but the top coaches are almost exclusively male, and when Great Britain won gold in women’s hockey – a sport where female players outnumber men – it was quite striking that almost all of the coaching team that ran on at the end were male.

So a lack of women coaching is not due there being a smaller pool of ex-players. In fact overall in the UK 50% of Level 1 coaches are women, but almost all of them are unpaid volunteers coaching children. When it comes to developing their skills and moving on to make coaching a career the numbers plummet. Only about 18% of coaches above level 1 are women, and when it comes to top level coaches its less than one in eight, and by the time the international stage is reached the proportion drops to just 7-8%.

So what prevents women following men into coaching in the same numbers? And what stops them moving into the top positions?

Female coaches seem to be faced with a level of questioning that does not apply to men. Take Margot Wells, athletics coach with at least one Olympic gold medallist to her credit (husband Allan Wells). She has beem providing sprint coaching for rugby players for years but is still met with scepticism with many new appointments. When she was interviewed in 2014 she memorably said that "A lot of people still think I know nothing about rugby. This, despite the fact I've coached an international in every position except hooker.

"People who watch sport, especially men, think they know a lot about it when they don't. Sometimes when I tell a man that one of my jobs is to make people run faster, they'll start waxing lyrical about how it should be done. I'll say to them: 'What do you do for a living?' They might say: 'I'm an accountant.' So, I say: 'Would you expect me to tell you how to do your tax returns?'"

In rugby in England there is just one Level 4 female coach - Giselle Mather, former junior academy manager at London Irish. She, too, had problems when she tried to first move into coaching. When studying PE at university, her tutors tried to make her teach dance instead of rugby. While Mather resisted and eventually got her way, she says that others not as strong as her would have caved in.

"I've had a lot of hostility," says Mather. "When I first rocked up at Teddington they'd never been coached by a female before. Even now, when I first coach a male group they look at me and weigh me up."

When Katherine Merchant and 'Rocky' Clark started coaching they were regularly mistaken for being team physios by officials, or even completely ignored by opposition coaches who assumed male spectators were the team's coach.

"I normally shrug it off," Merchant told the BBC in 2015. "But it does make me a bit mad because fundamentally people just need to realise there are female coaches out there and they are good at what they do, otherwise they wouldn't be coaching.

"I'd understand it more if I was quite casual, but when I turn up in coaching kit and I'm clearly coaching and you still can't realise, that's when it's a bit like - really?"

Referees and opposition staff regularly assume Clark's house-mate Karl Cross was the team's coach. "Other coaches will come up and automatically go to shake his hand. They automatically assume he's the coach even though he's in jeans and turned up later - I find it frustrating that they can't seem to grasp it."

But these experiences should not put prospective coaches off. Things are changing and the development of women coaches is running parallel with campaigns to develop women match officials and increase participation generally. Sports Coach UK – in association with the “This Girl Can” campaign – is targeting the development of women coaches, a campaign paralleled across Europe by the SCORE project and beyond with examples such as the Coaching Association of Canada’s Women in Coaching initiative.

As Sports Coach UK says, sport needs more female coaches.

“Women are an untapped resource and will help widen the talent pool for prospective coaches. In many sports, women make up half of our national teams and, given that many coaches have themselves been athletes, we are inevitably losing valuable expertise by not encouraging these women to coach. The low number of women visible in high-profile coaching positions does little to change perceptions of sport being a male-dominated environment or promote sport as an attractive proposition for women as participants, volunteers, coaches or administrators.”

The theme of International Women's Day this year is "Be Bold for Change" - "to help forge a better working world - a more gender inclusive world." If the opportunity comes, and you are interested, be bold. Take up take up the chance to coach. There has never been more support out there - and you'll never regret it.