Gender Equality

The glass wall: A lesson from women coaches for women in academia

If glass ceilings keep women from moving up, glass walls can keep them from moving to the side. This metaphor describes the harsh realities of coaching college and university sports teams in the United States and it gives us insight into the plight of women faculty members, too.

In high-stakes university sports programs in the U.S., there are coaching positions available for men’s teams and for women’s teams. Those positions, however, are not equally available to male and female coaches. In practice, men can coach women, but women cannot coach men. This effectively means there are twice as many jobs available to men as women.

A little over 40% of women’s athletics teams are coached by women, while fewer than 1% of men’s teams are coached by women. These facts and their context are presented in The Glass Wall by Kate Fagan and Luke Cyphers of espnW and ESPN The Magazine.

In basketball, for example, at the biggest and most competitive universities, the glass wall emerges in hiring statistics.

On every Division I campus, there are approximately eight basketball coaching positions: four on the men’s side, four on the women’s. Men can and do apply when any of those become available; inevitably they fill six of them. Women, however, will vie for only four slots — the women’s team slots — and claim two.

Part of the problem, then, is about women not applying for positions, and this is where a broader lesson might be found.

[F]emale candidates believed they needed to meet nine of 10 requirements on a job posting to even apply. For men, it was five out of 10.

This is the kind of claim that emerges when discussing academic positions, too. Men seem to interpret job announcements more liberally than women. And it’s a claim that can feed generalizations about differences in self-confidence between men and women.

Work to improve gender balance — whether in coaching positions or professorships — must take account of these differences. One example is the core of a promotion project at my own university, where we are working to get more women professors.

The project is built around a mock evaluation. Women submit their materials as though they were applying for promotion. An outside expert is engaged to evaluate the material and give specific feedback about what they need to do before they can apply in the actual process. This process is designed to give increased confidence, and it has led several women to apply for promotion.

Women find themselves in a glass box, with ceilings and walls that impede movement. Cultural and sociological norms are part of what hold these boxes together. The work of gender balance involves working to change these norms. It’s demanding work, but we’ll all be better off if we do it.

For a different perspective on ESPN’s story, see the Extracurriculars blog.

Photo courtesy of: nickmilleruk

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Noriko Cable says:

    I also suggest to evaluate job/role specification whether it is not heavily favouring men. I also think women’s own enemy is other women. What happened to Hilary Clinton anyway? If we want more women in a top job, women in the position should not be the ceiling for their followers.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for your comment. You are right that there are studies suggesting that women in higher positions don’t always help early career women move up in the ranks. For example, a recent study published in PNAS found that both men and women professors have subconscious biases against hiring young women for academic jobs. On the other hand, it’s less clear to me how Hillary Clinton’s fate is the result of being held back by other women. What were you thinking of in this case?

  • pizz off says:

    Women don’t coach men’s teams because men are better at coaching men, it’s as simple as that, you liberal hippie. It’s the same reason women reporters can come into men locker rooms, but men reporters are not permissable into women facilities. It is just the nature of things. Why are women allowed to have a baby with a man and decide later on they no longer love him (regardless of how good and faithful he is to her) and move on to another life with his child. As long as the woman is even remotely responsible there is no chance the man gets the kid, but now has to take it from the woman and the court system. This is just the nature of the world, and regardless of what you believe, we are all NOT equal.

    • Michael Schmittz says:

      That is correct, we are not equal, that is the nature of things, e.g. if it comes to aggression or nurture, there are clear differences between the sexes. But there is nothing in the job of coaching of men/women which would qualify one of the sexes more.

      The same arguments were used 100 years ago to restrict voting to males. I just wish people like you would be able to read articles 100 years from now, because then this whole discussion will be moot, as this kind of job will be taken in comparable numbers in jobs by each of the two genders.

    • Nicholas says:

      Wow…I can’t manage as civil a reply as the author did…you are a joke, sir. I hope you don’t have any daughters, because you certainly have a mental bias against women if you believe the things you said are at the root of gender equality, that is natural or “just the way it is”. Educate yourself.

      • pizz off says:

        I do have a daughter, and I am very educated, thank you. However, I am not a over-the-top optimistic hippie either. I don’t believe we can turn the world into a flowery playground where all are equal and we all get to be what we want, just because we want. We all need to learn to do the best we can with the hands we are dealt, and understand our limitations so we can try to all be happy in spite of them. We can’t change the world because we are unhappy that someone else gets to do or have something we can’t or don’t. It’s the same issue with gays; they can’t just be happy with the right to be openely gay and live their happy gay lives. Instead they wan’t to fight till the end of the world to have something that was constitutionaly written for straight people, while crying for equality at the same time; yet I don’t seem them fighting for those who are in incestial relationships. Gay people say the only important thing is love, and I’m pretty sure some of these people who get down with incest indeed do love their partner. Where is there equal opportunity to marry? This whole coaching issue is a simple one. Men are better at coaching and leading than women. That is why they are capable of coaching both. Both men and women respond equally to a MAN in charge. You don’t like that idea, but it’s very true regardless of how badly you want to change it. Can women lead? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it is such a rare occurance for a woman to be capable of leading men that it’s pointless to entertain the idea. I am not against women doing anything. I believe women are capable of far more than men, when they stay within their realm of capabilities. Where is the article of why men don’t get first rights to their children? Come on, let’s play this from both sides.

        • Michael Schmittz says:

          Well with the phrase ‘Unfortunately, it is such a rare occurance for a woman to be capable of leading men that it’s pointless to entertain the idea’ alone you already disqualify your whole contributition (although there are many more comments there – in fact completely unrelated to the issue discussed in the article – which reveal an extremely parochial view of life). Women just have had very limited opportunities to the present to show their capabilities in leading compared to men; if you look in politics and economy, in my opinion their report cards look on average better than that of men.

          And to repeat my point from the earlier contribution I am convinced that if you are able to look at earth 100 years from now this discussion will be moot as noone will consider gender an issue if discussing managing capabilities.

        • BMiller says:

          Women lead men in the military every day…I am an example myself. It’s all about personality, not gender.

    • Man Power says:

      I agree. Women reports get the first interview, women reports doing NFL recaps, speaking players, interviewing elite players and the women do not have any athletic credentials. The President is behind this push for women. We have female leader of the secret services now, all secrets will be out now unless HILLARY can stop them. Women have a place in coaching by coaching women team and being qualified to coach team. Not coaching to break a barrier or just to say I coach.

  • Kelly Lehrer says:

    Women not coaching men has nothing to do with sexism but everything to do with practicality. The fact is, professional male athletes simply wouldn’t respect or listen a female coach. Is it because they are sexist? No, it’s because that coach has never played in the NBA, does not understand the physicality of male athletics and has no hands on experience or knowledge of what do to in the pinnacle of athletics. Simply put, It would be economically irresponsible for administrators to hire a female coach because they would not be successful.

    • Diana Martin says:

      Not all male coaches have played in the NBA. If a male athlete can’t respect a woman who has played at a collegiate, professional (WNBA) or Olympic level, then yes, they are sexist. If men can understand women’s “physicality”, then certainly a female can understand a male’s. Please provide data showing that women coaching men is “economically irresponsible”.

      • Mike Conley says:

        Playing at the collegiate level in women’s sports, even on the highest level, would not let a woman understand the physicality of the male sport. I don’t necessarily think that this should be the reason to say that woman coaches can not coach men, but I do believe that it may matter to guys playing, that their coach has never gone through what they go through in basketball terms.

      • Your pal, Da Commish says:


        Your argument, “If men can understand women’s “physicality”, then certainly a female can understand a male’s,” in addition to being grammatically problematic (i.e. a slight singular/plural confusion), is fallacious.

        As it is certainly a given that the human male’s “physicality” is superior to the human woman’s “physicality” in virtually every sport known to man– hence the division of the sexes for competition purposes–, your assertion is obviously not true.

        Just because one entity has an understanding of a concept relating to another entity that is fully comprehensible to the former entity, does NOT mean it must follow that the latter entity must comprehend the same concept as it relates to the former entity. This is logically invalid.

        To put it in terms you may (hopefully) understand, what you are saying is something logically akin to, “If humans can understand the “physicality” of monkeys, then it must follow that monkeys can understand the “physicality” of humans.”

        Now, for reasons that are obvious when one takes into account the shortcomings of the typical monkey when being compared to his human cousin with regards to his mental capabilities, this is clearly a false statement– a statement, nonethless, that is not at all dissimilar to the one you made in your post!

        Please do try be a little more cogent (and grammatically correct) the next time you feel the need to comment on one of these trivial news items in the future.

        Insolently yours,

        Da Commish

        P.S.– It should also be noted that the previous poster’s use of the words “economically irresponsible” is quite obviously his own personal opinion based on his prior argument, and is not intended (nor should it have) to be backed up by any kind of meaningful statistic.

  • Pete says:

    Alright, well I do not understand how people think it is unfair to not have women coaching men. To me it is very simple. Simply put how comfortable is that women coach going to be in the first place, coaching young men at a collegiate level. Seems pretty simple to me. Secondly I think there also needs to be consideration of how serious an issue this is. Men typically have more experience at competitive/professional sports. Look at NFL, NBA and MLB. These are male leagues and have been that way for a very long time. As a competitive player, trying to further my sport career past the collegiate level i want a male football coach because they know what they are doing and have the experience. Obviously women can obtain the knowledge, but previous playing experience cannot be replicated through books. Our society is so focused on equal opportunity but there needs to be a line somewhere. Also i would like to point out i don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to have a male coaching young, of age females either. I coach at my old high school because i feel its important to give back to the community. Last year we had a female teacher helping out. Not only was she out of place, but she had 3 of our players injured doing a drill she thought was fun. Now how do you explain a broken leg to that kids parents. “O well we believe in equality.” Sure… That will work. Anyway i think for both sides coaches should stay to their gender appropriate teams. It would make everything a lot easier.

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