Carolyn Kieger’s story is impressive. It shouldn’t be unique.
Kieger played four years for the women’s basketball team at Marquette University, graduated and took an entry-level job in basketball operations at the University of Miami. She parlayed that into an assistant coaching job with the Hurricanes and, after six seasons, was hired in 2014 to take over the Marquette program.
The Golden Eagles enter this season as the unanimous favorite in the preseason coaches’ poll to win the Big East title. They also enter the season as the only women’s basketball team in the conference coached by a woman.
That’s right. Nine out of 10 women’s basketball coaches in the Big East are men. And while that might be an extreme case, the dwindling number of women’s coaches is a major concern among women’s sports advocates.
While more women play college sports than ever before, only 38.8 percent of NCAA Division I women’s teams have a female head coach, according to NCAA figures. By contrast, in 1972, when the gender equity law known as Title IX was enacted, more than 90 percent of women’s teams had a female coach.
Why should the gender of a coach matter? Don’t we want the best person to get the job, regardless of gender? Isn’t Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach, a huge supporter of women and the best basketball coach in the game?
Yet women rarely get an opportunity to be interviewed for men’s head coaching jobs, let alone land them. In 2016, according to NCAA figures reported by Richard Lapchick’s The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, women held only 3.5 percent of the head-coaching jobs in men’s Division I sports.
“What bothers me is the men seem to have two career paths — they can coach men or women’s basketball — while the women only seem to have one, and that’s to coach women,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. “People assume that the only job women can do is coach women’s teams.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation was one of the first to examine this issue when it published a report called “Beyond X’s and O’s,” which revealed that in 2014, women held only 23 percent of coaching positions across all NCAA sports. Earlier this month, the foundation held a leadership conference for women athletes in New York City. That conference included a panel that examined the gender disparity in coaching and looked at ways to encourage and support young women who want to go into coaching.
With a record of 1,527-491-5 over 33 seasons, University of Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins is considered the Pat Summitt of her sport. She said she would not be where she is today if she hadn’t had strong female coaches in her life.
“I wanted to be them. It’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing,” said Hutchins, who was a panelist at the WSF event. “Having women in leadership positions sends the signal to young women that they can be strong women. I think that is really important.”
Hutchins, like Ackerman, thinks the situation is compounded by the lack of opportunity for women when it comes to coaching men’s sports.
“I have never been asked to be a baseball coach, and I know a number of men who have come from the baseball world to coach softball,” Hutchins said. “I don’t think Pat Summitt was ever offered a job on the men’s side. I think that alone speaks for itself . . . I think it’s really a matter of being valued for what we do. You can look at the double standards that are out there. I’m highly concerned.”
Ackerman believes players need to be encouraged to go into coaching to see that it is an attractive career. She also believes it would be helpful if there were a registry of coaches who are interested and qualified, with contact information, so athletic directors and the people who make hires would have a resource.
“After last season, I got two calls from athletic directors not in this conference who were looking for women’s basketball hires and they just thought I would know,” Ackerman said. “My observation is that people just don’t know who is out there. I think the pipeline has to be developed, fortified and nurtured.”
The lack of women in coaching also trickles down to the youth and high school levels. Kieger said some of her players never have been coached by a woman before. That fact was hammered home when some of her players flew to New York City for a Big East player career conference.
“We need more females in the game,” Kieger said. “When our kids [went to NYC], they started texting me, ‘Oh my gosh, Coach. We didn’t realize you were the only woman in the league. You’re the boss. You’re awesome.’
“Just to hear them say that was an ‘aha’ moment for me, too. I was like, we have to do better as females. We have to support each other. I’m going to do what I can to be a part of the solution.”