Women still face big challenges if they aspire to high-level administration and coaching positions in men’s professional sport, but increasingly they have some strong role models to turn to.
Helena Costa became the first woman to manage a men’s professional soccer team when she was appointed manager of French second division club Clermont Foot 63 a few months ago. However, she resigned before the first training session, claiming the club had undermined her.
Of her swift departure, club president Claude Michy was quoted as saying, “She’s a woman, so it could be down to any number of things.”
A significant step forward in reducing gender discrimination in professional sport was followed by a jump backwards, in this case.
In Australia, achieving gender equality in high-level sports administration has had a glacial start, but signs of diversity have shone through.
Beverly Knight, a director at Essendon Football Club from 1993 until 2010, was the first female board member in the Australian Football League (AFL). Last year Peggy O’Neal became the AFL’s first club president, at Richmond.
Case study: Peta Searle, development coach at St Kilda Football Club
In May this year, Peta Searle achieved the highest coaching level for a female in the AFL when St Kilda Football Club recruited her as a development coach on an 18-month contract.
Searle is a primary school PE teacher who was described in media reports as a ‘trailblazer’ when she was made assistant coach at Victorian Football League (VFL) club Port Melbourne – a position she held, until recently, for two years.
She says she hasn’t experienced too much stereotyping from people she has worked with in the game. “Generally people take you for the person you are, rather than your gender.”
But she’s well aware of the broader attitude that “a woman wouldn’t understand a man’s game” and the view that you need to have played at AFL level to be able to coach at AFL level. “I try not to let those preconceptions bother me and instead focus on the fact that the people I work with don’t have them.”
There’s no guaranteed method for dissolving stereotypes in the sports industry, she says. “I don’t think I’ve employed set techniques. Rather, I believe I’ve got to where I am by having self-belief.”
Her advice for other women who want to make it to the top in a male-dominated area of sport is:
- Create the conversations that are needed.
- Think outside the square.
- Keep at it. ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no’; it just means you have to find another angle.
Naturally, Searle is pleased the league’s new CEO is on a well-publicised mission to improve diversity. “Under the leadership of Gillon McLachlan, the AFL executive reinforced its commitment to a greater inclusion of women in the industry by establishing a three-year gender strategy, which has shown great support to people like myself.”
But she’s not taking her eye off the ball. Football, not gender equality, is her priority. “My main focus is on my role as development coach, and while I’m all for diversity in the football world, I’m primarily concerned with performing my duties at my workplace.
“I don’t know if what I bring is all that different. With anyone in a development coaching role, you need to be able to understand young people and know how to bring out the best in them. I feel I can do that, but I’m not necessarily better at it than men who are development coaches.”
She says she’s happy to talk to people who feel they might gain something from a conversation with her, but finding her own mentor is on her ‘to do’ list. “I don’t have a direct female mentor and that’s something I need to address.”
The 2014 AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference, in Melbourne on 30 October, will focus on building management practices in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Registrations close 24 October.