Making sports HERstory: Becky Hammon, Sarah Thomas among those breaking glass ceiling

Monumental firsts also highlight work needed to bring true equality to athletics

In these unprecedented times, we are constantly living through major historical events — this includes the world of sports as well. In the past three months, we have witnessed three monumental firsts for women in sports.
On Dec. 30, Becky Hammon, assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs, became the first woman to serve as head coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA) during a regular season game when she took over for head coach Gregg Popovich after his ejection. Less than a month later on Jan. 25, referees Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder officiated a game together, marking the first time in NBA history that two female referees worked the same game. Then on Feb. 7, National Football League (NFL) referee Sarah Thomas made history as the first woman to referee a Super Bowl.
While these historic firsts should be celebrated, they also highlight the lack of female representation within sports organizations. Thomas is one of only five full-time female referees in the NFL, the NBA currently has only five full-time women referees, and Hammon is one of only six women who hold an assistant coaching role in the NBA.
These low numbers could potentially be explained by the fact that these are male sports leagues. However, the gender gap extends even into women’s sports. In 2019, only 13 of the 31 referees in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) were women, and currently 4 of 12 head coaches in the WNBA are women.
A report published by the University of Minnesota on head coaches of women’s collegiate teams in NCAA Division I (DI) teams in the 2018-19 school year found that only 42.1% of women’s collegiate teams have female head coaches—this percentage has been on the decline since 1972 when Title IX was passed. The number dropped from over 90% before the law was passed to 55% in 1981 when the NCAA began women’s championships, and it has stagnated just over 40% throughout the 2010’s.
But why? Why are more than half of women’s collegiate teams coached by men? Most NCAA men’s teams are led by male coaches. Why is the same not true of female coaches in women’s collegiate sports?
There’s a number of reasons. One is the lack of promotion. The majority of female representation in coaching exists in entry level positions. As the job titles become more prestigious and the pay becomes higher, women coaches seem to fall through the cracks. This could be for a myriad of reasons, from hiring biases that favor men for promotions, to women being less likely to apply for higher-paid leadership positions.
Another reason is that women tend to leave the coaching profession well before they reach retirement age. A 2014 round table of female sports leaders, hosted by Marlene Bjornsru, who was the Executive Director of the Alliance of Women Coaches at the time, identified 28 key reasons women were likely to leave coaching. Reasons ranged from the stress of work-life balance and the scrutiny of the job, to a lack of mentors and network opportunities, to perceived gender biases and gender-related microaggressions.
While these experiences are common, they are not necessarily universal. Abby Martin, Trinity’s head softball coach, noted that she had not faced much discrimination or lack of opportunity in her own coaching career.
“I have not experienced too much of that in my career. Sometimes I have to deal with other coaches or umpires ‘man-splaining’ things to me, but that’s really as bad as it got. I have also loved working with men in the coaching world. We can definitely learn a lot from each other,” Martin said.
Many sports organizations have implemented strategies to increase diversity and inclusion, such as Trinity Athletics’ United As One pledge and the NCAA’s Gender Equity Task Force Charge. According to Jacob Tingle, director of Experiential Learning and Trinity’s NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative, these kinds of intentional inclusion strategies have positive effects.
“There’s some research a colleague [George B. Cunningham] out of Texas A&M has done, and he’s partnered with some folks at the University of Massachusetts. They’ve looked specifically at intercollegiate athletic departments who have intentional inclusion strategies. Athletic departments that have specific and intentional inclusion strategies for coaches and administrators actually perform better in almost every metric,” Tingle said. “So not only are there kind of quasi-superficial metrics of ‘are you winning more games?’, but ‘are you graduating athletes on time?’, ‘[do] your athletes have high GPAs?’, ‘are your athletes engaging in other areas of campus life?’”
However, these strategies are mainly focused on student-athletes and rarely consider the need for inclusion when it comes to coaching staff and sports officials. Having intentional strategies to include women in athletics, like creating equitable policies and eliminating gendered microaggressions, could potentially keep more women in the professions of coaching and sports officiating.
In fact, many of the same factors that lead to women coaches being more likely to quit are the same factors that lead female sports officials to quit.
A 2014 research article focusing on the experiences of former women basketball officials by Tingle, Stacy Warner and Melanie Sartore-Baldwin found four key factors that led to women officials’ decision to quit. Two of these factors — Lack of Mutual Respect and Gendered Abuse—include both repetitive, ambitious disrespect and incivility as well as blatant prejudice and discrimination. Coupled with the other two factors — Perceived Inequity of Policies and Lack of Role Modeling and Mentoring — the officials from the study were left without a community and without support to navigate gender-specific aggressions.
This kind of workplace environment leads to higher levels of stress and anxiety that is detrimental to the mental health of female sports officials. According to Tingle, female sports officials face abuses that negatively impact their mental health that their male counterparts do not.
“There’s almost no conversation happening in and around sports for how to care for and support the mental health of sports officials,” Tingle said. “Females are experiencing things that are far different than the male officials.”
Tingle suggested that a solution to these issues could be for sports officiating organizations to implement intentional inclusion strategies. Having diverse individuals in leadership roles to better represent the individuals and groups that will be impacted by the organization’s decisions is one way to improve the experience for women officials.
Supporting women in sports leadership roles is important from a standpoint of diversity and inclusion as well as from a perspective of equity, but there are other tangible benefits to having women coaches and referees.
First, including women creates a larger talent pool to pull from. There are many talented female coaches and sports officials — many of whom are better than a lot of male coaches and sports officials. “Women can accomplish anything, and that includes leading a team to success,” Martin said.
By intentionally working to provide women with as many opportunities as men and creating an equitable work environment, sports organizations will have access to more talent.
Second, having female coaches and referees allow female athletes to have role models and mentors — like Hammon, Thomas, Sago and Schroeder — to look up to. Seeing women pursue careers in sports can inspire women with a passion for athletics to follow in their footsteps. In fact, when asked, Martin cited her own coach as the reason she pursued a career in coaching.
“My college coach, Julie Lenhart, when I played at Cortland State. She is so humble and really knows how to motivate her athletes. She gave me a championship experience, and I knew I could never walk away from the game after playing for her. Coaching was the only way I could keep softball in my life forever,” Martin said.
Finally, having coaches and referees that are women can help create a comfortable environment for female athletes. Women are often viewed as more approachable especially by other women who expect men to be more dismissive of them, and according to Martin, female athletes may even be more likely to confide in female coaches.
“I think women coaching women definitely has its advantages because there is just a general understanding about each other. I think I’m more approachable because I am a female, too, where my girls can come to me with personal problems and may hesitate to do so if I were a man. This is purely speculation, however, based on my experience,” Martin said.
The same principle can be extended to female referees. Marisa Amarino, a sophomore setter on Trinity’s volleyball team, notes that in her experience with referees, she felt more comfortable and confident approaching a female referee as opposed to a man.
“When you talk to a higher authority official sometimes having that confidence, it can kind of be shut down, so I feel like I have more confidence in myself and my team when I talk to a female referee because I feel like she would converse with me and understand,” Amarino said.
Amarino also noted that male and female coaches tended to bring different things to the table, with male coaches focusing more on tough mentality and competition.
“I’m comfortable with either coaching but I prefer a female coach because I think that at least my coach, Coach [Julie] Jenkins, touches not only on the competitive side of the game but also the mental side and the emotional side of sports, which I respect so much,” Amarino said.
While it is important to celebrate every historic “first” that women accomplish, it should be coupled with the hope that it will be followed by many seconds, thirds and beyond. Until a woman reaching the highest levels of sports is no longer historic, there is still work to be done.