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Column: Women’s sports need female leaders

Pitt’s new women’s basketball head coach Lance White — who was hired April 18 to replace former coach Suzie McConnell-Serio — seems like a great snag for the program.

The former Florida State assistant has it going on — a 350-145 overall record, 12 seasons with 20 or more wins with the Seminoles — and prior to that, three Big 12 championships and seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with Texas Tech.

But even though White may be able to steer the recently struggling program to new winning ways, his hiring is part of a systemic issue in college sports. White is the second man to be chosen to lead a women’s varsity team this hiring season after Pitt’s new head soccer coach Randy Waldrum was brought on last December.

Men coaching women is actually a quite recent trend. When Title IX was enacted in 1972 to promote gender equality in education, women coached more than 90 percent of women’s college teams across two dozen sports. That number has decreased to about 40 percent today, according to an exhaustive 2017 report from Rachel Stark of the NCAA.

Though Pitt athletics can pride itself on gender equality in administrative leadership — as athletic director Heather Lyke is the first woman in her current position in program history — they fall into this growing trend of team leadership deficiency. Of the 14 teams at Pitt, only three have head coaches who are women.

All three of these head coaches are for women’s or mixed-gender squads, which Pitt has eight of — Holly Aprile heading up softball, Katie Hazelton with diving and Samantha Snider with gymnastics. The other five teams made up of women and co-ed rosters are coached by men, including teams that Pitt only offers to women in compliance with Title IX, like volleyball and tennis.

One phrase repeatedly brought up surrounding the issue is one of indifference and color blindness — one that comes up time and again when it comes to any debate on gender or racial inequality — an argument that demographics shouldn’t matter when choosing a potential candidate for the job.

Coaching is coaching,” critics say.

But this is simply not the case. To say a man can do the job just as well as as a woman is fair enough, but the leadership of a team matters when it comes to shared experiences. It is a fact that mentees perform better and are more likely to succeed when their leaders are similar to them.

A study published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in March 2018 found that when students have teachers who are demographically similar to them, they report feeling more interested in the work they are doing, more confident in their teachers’ abilities to communicate with them and more cared for overall.

Kelly Bryan, women’s soccer head coach at Kenyon College, told Stark she thought this disparity was not only an issue for current players, but one that could affect future coaches.

“There’s not enough women who realize coaching is an opportunity,” she said in the NCAA’s report. “A lot of these girls had male coaches growing up and never realized they could be a coach.”

In addition to a lack of mentors, Stark also found that workplace discrimination, perceived gender bias and lower pay are fears for many prospective candidates. LGBTQ+ coaches especially reported fear of discrimination in the workplace.

A Women’s Sports Foundation study conducted in 2016 found many female college coaches perceived gender bias in career advancement, influence within an athletics department and access to resources among other areas. Around 80 percent of women who responded to the survey believed it was easier for a man in their field to get a top-level job, and 91 percent thought it was easier for men to negotiate salary increases.

And, no matter the team, women are often just not considered for the job to begin with. Carol Hutchins, Michigan’s head softball coach, told Stark implicit bias often keeps administrators from even thinking of finding women for jobs they’re qualified for.

“I’ve had athletic directors call me and say, ‘There’s this job open. Who do you think we should hire?’ I’ll bring up names, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know if she’s interested. She didn’t apply,’” she said. “Jim Harbaugh didn’t apply to Michigan. He didn’t send in his resumé and say, ‘Dear Michigan, would you be interested in me?’ We went out and got him … Go out and get a good woman.”

The NCAA has taken notice of the gender disparity in coaching. After a 22-year dormancy, the association’s Gender Equity Task Force reconvened in 2015 to stimulate new conversation around Title IX. Presidents at NCAA schools were encouraged in 2016 to sign a pledge to address the low representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in athletics leadership roles, which Pitt signed.

And though there is little empirical evidence on whether or not administrations are taking action, women are beginning to step into coaching roles more — even on teams comprised of men.

Becky Hammon, an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, has been in consideration for head coaching jobs with both the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons, making her the first-ever woman to be considered for a head coaching job in the NBA.

Nancy Lieberman, heralded as one of the greatest in women’s basketball, was hired as an assistant coach by the Sacramento Kings in 2015. Kathryn Smith became the first full-time female coach in the NFL when she was hired by the Buffalo Bills as special teams quality control coach in 2016.

But even though women are rightfully being given these positions, the problem of sexism in sports is not over. These coaches are in a slim minority — women make up only around 3 percent of coaches in men’s college sports and even less professionally.

White was a solid pick for Pitt and he will surely give the team the shake-up they badly need. But if Lyke had the option of a female coach with the qualifications to match — which she likely did — she should have reconsidered.

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