Bearing the Burden of Doubt: Female Coaches' Experiences of Gender Relations

By Norman, Leanne | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Bearing the Burden of Doubt: Female Coaches' Experiences of Gender Relations


Norman, Leanne, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Based on interview research, this study examined how master female coaches based in the United Kingdom experienced relations with men within their profession. Using a feminist cultural studies approach to examine how sport promotes and maintains a gender order unfavorable to women, we found that female coaches felt the need to continually prove themselves and often experienced coaching as a hostile and intimidating culture. Participants reported a gradual reduction in such unwelcoming behavior from men, seemingly because they had proved to be no threat to the existing patriarchal structure. A critical exploration of coaching is needed to understand how masculine hegemony leads to women's relative powerlessness as coaches. Furthermore, the findings present a case for a greater emphasis on sociocultural education within the UK coaching curricula.

Key words: coaching; cultural studies; hegemony

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From its institutionalized roots in Victorian Britain, such is its popularity across all cultures that contemporary sport remains a social institution (Hargreaves, 1994). Infused into Victorian sport were the values of wider society, those of power, competitiveness and physical prowess associated with masculinity (Hargreaves, 1994). In contrast to this was the popular "myth of female frailty", women were perceived to be emotional, passive and physically weak and thus excluded from the 'rigors' of sports participation and leadership (Theberge, 2000, p. 323). Even though many sports have become popular to a wider audience of women spectators, such as soccer in the United Kingdom (Jones, 2008), the cultural prevalence of dominant notions associated with femininity, that of "delicacy and vulnerability" (Bell, 2008, p. 46), continue to maintain male hegemony of sport (Sabo & Messner, 1993). The long, well embedded historical roots and governing philosophies of sporting organizations have meant that traditional cultural practices and ideologies remain, which persist to guard men and undermine women (Shaw & Slack, 2002).

Absolute numbers of women's and girls' participation have grown steadily since the 1970s, with a vast increase in health and fitness participation in particular (Kay, 2003). However, the number of women in coaching and leadership roles has not mirrored such increases in sport, and the coaching profession remains particularly exclusionary to women (Norman, 2008). It is significant that sport is not isolated from the wider political, cultural, and economic contexts in which this occurs (Birrell & Cole, 1994). Nevertheless, only within the last 30 years have academics and researchers seriously questioned the unequal relations between men and women in sport and theorized about the "cultural meanings of women's relative absence from sport" (Birrell, 1988, p. 459).

The topic of the skewed coaching gender ratio has been popular in the research literature. Even so, issues of distribution rather than relational analyses (Hall, 1990) have often dominated such investigations. This research provided us with knowledge of many factors preventing women from gaining more coaching opportunities or contributing to their intentions to leave the profession. However, the prevalence of distributive and quantitative research related to women's underrepresentation to coaching lacks emphasis on the importance of their experiences as framed by gendered power relations (Smith, 1992). More work is warranted to understand the relations between men and women that underpin such issues of inequality (Hall, 1990). That is, a more complex, in-depth interrogation of the gender order within coaching is warranted to comprehend how interactions have been historically constructed and also how they can be redefined.

Shaw and Slack (2002) used three English sporting National Governing Bodies (NGBs) to focus on the historical construction of gender relations in sporting organizations. Adopting a postmodern approach to understand how popular discourses historically influenced gender relations, Shaw and Slack examined the expression of masculinities and femininities as a creation of power relationships and organizational discourse. …

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