STORY BY SOFIA SCEKIC | PHOTO BY JILLIAN CLARK
Numerous surveys and studies continue to show that women are severely underrepresented in leadership and coaching roles in the NCAA.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that in 2022 only 7.6 percent of athletic directors at the Division I level were women.
Only 10 women were in the highest leadership position in university athletic departments, with six of those being in Power Five conferences.
In 2022, 22.9 percent of university-president and chancellor positions were held by women, a low number but a marked increase from the 13.8 percent figure in 2019.
And according to the NCAA demographics database, 75 percent of head coaches across all Division I sports were men in 2022 (while 53 percent of athletes were men).
The problem exists within Division I women’s rowing. Of the top 10 schools listed in the April 2023 rankings, only two coaches—Lori Dauphiny (Princeton) and Yazmin Farooq (Washington)—are women. Twenty years ago, five of the top 10 coaches in the April 2003 poll were women.
The fact that there are so few women in head-coaching and leadership positions confirms what numerous active and former coaches have observed in their years in the rowing world.
Before Title IX passed in 1972, the vast majority of coaches of women’s rowing teams were women. After Title IX was enacted and women’s sports teams were granted more funding and opportunities, there was a significant shift in the gender breakdown of women’s rowing coaches, with men filling most of the jobs.
According to Linda Muri, one of the few women who has coached both men and women at the collegiate level, by 1985, less than 20 percent of women were coaching Division I women’s rowing teams; before Title IX, they had coached nearly 100 percent.
NCAA data from the 2015-16 season show that of 150 women’s rowing head-coach positions, only 33 percent were held by women—a larger proportion than three decades ago, but still a fairly small number.
Current and former coaches, both male and female, all agree on one thing: There are too few women coaching Division I teams, and the issue has not improved enough over the last several decades. There are more women assistant coaches, a number that’s been growing, but the trend is less positive for head-coaching slots—despite the fact that women’s rowing has seen explosive growth, evident by how many women compete in the NCAA Championships.
“My hope is to see continued growth of women in leadership coaching roles similar to the growth of involvement in the sport and support from athletic departments,” said Luke McGee, head coach of Syracuse women’s crew.
McGee got his start in coaching when a coach at Brown said, “Hey, have you given any thought to coaching? I think you’d be pretty good at it.”
As important as encouraging athletes athletically and academically is planting the coaching seed, McGee said, and that suggestion can be especially effective coming from a woman who’s a role model.
“To have that female say to you, you’re really good at this and you absolutely have what it takes, it just lands a little differently,” said Laura Simon, a former assistant coach at Yale and an accomplished coxswain. “Not that what male coaches say isn’t equally important or powerful, but there’s something about that really strong female who looks at you and says, ‘Yes, you can do this.’”
At Washington, Farooq—the rare woman who began as a head coach rather than an assistant—has made a point of encouraging her athletes to pursue a career in coaching. Although many of her former rowers are not coaching currently at the NCAA Division I level, she proudly named four recent female graduates who are coaching in the Seattle area.
Farooq used to tell her graduating student-athletes that if they had an interest in coaching, they were welcome to come back to Washington as a volunteer assistant coach—one way many people get their start. Now, however, with the elimination of volunteer coaching positions and a shift to only paid jobs in NCAA rowing, that pipeline may no longer exist. It remains to be seen how this will affect the athlete-to-coach transition in terms of gender.
“If I see the sparkle in somebody’s eye where [coaching] seems like something they really want to do, I’m encouraging them to do it and then talking to them about how to go about it,” Farooq said.
Simon is similarly passionate about bringing more women into coaching, viewing it as a way to build the network of support and opportunity that exists for men.
“It wasn’t just about the rowing,” she said. “It was about being able to create that legacy of support and that concept of giving back. That’s why I went back into the sport.”
Despite efforts to achieve gender equity in coaching, women continue to face obstacles. Female coaches in other sports, particularly NCAA basketball, contend that women are less likely to coach because of prevailing gender roles in family life and the disproportionate burden on women to take care of children and the household.
It goes without saying that coaching is not a nine-to-five job. College coaches often run practices in the morning and afternoon, spend substantial time on administrative tasks and team planning, hold meetings with athletes, recruit at all hours of the day but especially in the evening, and shoulder a host of other responsibilities. All coaches will tell you that it takes a toll on family life, especially coaching at the national level.
Will Porter, who has coached the Yale women’s team for over 25 years, said he and his wife, who is a high-school teacher, strove to strike a balance between their careers and child-rearing. For example, when his children were young, Porter skipped his team’s morning lift and delegated it to an assistant coach so he could be at home to ready his kids for school. He also decided not to coach the National Team because of the cost to his family.
One of his assistant coaches, Kristen Wilhelm, is a mother to two young children, and Porter makes an effort to give her as much flexibility as she needs so she can continue coaching while also caring for her children. One way to ensure more gender equity in coaching, he believes, is for coaches and administrators to be “less rigid and more willing to work to accommodate families, and women without families, to help them advance.”
McGee is in a similar situation at Syracuse with associate head coach Claire Ochal, who recently had her first child.
“How can we provide an environment that makes it possible for her to pursue what she’s passionate about and also be the mother she wants to be and raise the family she wants to raise?” McGee said. “That’s a big challenge, but an important one for us to do correctly.”
Muri believes there are biases, conscious and unconscious, that influence coaches and athletic directors when they make hiring decisions: “If I hire this woman, she’s going to get pregnant in two years, and then I’ll have to do another job search.”
Misogyny exists in the rowing world, too, and experiencing discrimination and hearing stories about it can discourage young women from pursuing a coaching career.
One former coach told me that a male coach asked her to stop volunteering at a college rowing program.
Another former coach told me she left a university after the sexism and misogyny of the athletic department’s leadership made it a “miserable” place to coach.
“It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t me, it was them,” she said. “It’s yet another reason women stay out of coaching or leave coaching, when they come to an environment that’s not supportive, that’s not welcoming.”
By contrast, at the University of Washington, both the university president and athletic director are women, which has created an environment of collaboration, inclusion, and belonging, Farooq said, that makes it a good place to work for both men and women.
Farooq rowed under women coaches the majority of her career and saw the different ways male and female coaches operated, especially when she was still rowing in the 1980s and ’90s.
“You had these abusive coaches who said, ‘You do it my way if you want to win,’” she explained. “I had a woman coach, so I was in an environment of collaboration and elevating one another and seeing what we could create that was bigger than any of ourselves individually.
“Women coaches who come through women’s rowing programs are uniquely suited to empower women through their own experience and help them aspire to be coaches who are creating positive environments where we are not trying to climb over one another to get to the top,” she continued.
Teams that fail to hire women coaches and take advantage of their special gifts are missing out, Muri said.
“My life experience is different from that of my colleagues who are men of the same age and have been coaching for the same time,” she explained. “We can all bring so much to the table and we just lose out as a sport, as a society, when there aren’t more women involved in positions of leadership.”
McGee values having women on his coaching staff because of their unique perspective and their superior ability in certain circumstances to connect with female athletes, he said.
Some young women look for programs where they’ll be coached by a woman, and athletes have told Farooq that they chose Washington specifically because the head coach is female—something she hears more and more often.
There are other encouraging signs. In addition to the rising number of female assistant coaches, Farooq, McGee, and Porter all said more qualified women are applying for open positions, and the gender breakdown is closer to 50/50. While Porter said his recent job openings have attracted applicants who are about 60 percent male and 40 percent female, Farooq said she tends to see more women than men applying, perhaps because she’s a woman.
Studies have shown that women tend to apply for jobs only when they meet 100 percent of the criteria, whereas men tend to apply when they meet about half of the posted qualifications. If this trend holds true in rowing—and coaches indicated that it does based on the applications they’ve reviewed—it’s a promising development for the future of women’s rowing. As more and more qualified women apply for coaching positions, more are likely to get hired, evening out the gender balance.
Still, a more targeted effort is necessary, Muri argues, to recruit more qualified women and persuade them that they have a bright future coaching rowing.
“Cast a wider net. Do some of these interviews. And make change happen, don’t just sit there.”