Despite accounting for about 50 percent of the population, women are vastly underrepresented in the professional coaching environment. As recently as 2012, no women worked as coaches for the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB.
While some female coaches have been able to make strides in women’s sports, they are still in the minority of head coaches—only 24 percent of Division I head coaches were women during the 2019-20 academic year. According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, that year, women held 42 percent of head coaching positions for women’s teams at the Division I level. For women who coach men’s teams, the number is exponentially lower: female coaches lead only 4 percent of men’s teams. However, within the Ivy League, gender diversity among head coaches is comparatively higher. In fact, the Ivy League had the most female head coaches of all Division I conferences, with 52.4 percent of coaching roles filled by women.
The trend of female coaches breaking the glass ceilings of college athletics extends to Columbia as well. Joanne Schickerling, associate head coach of men’s and women’s squash, is one of twelve female coaches in all of college squash, and one of three in the Ivy League. Schickerling joined Columbia’s team in its nascent stage during the fall of 2013 as an assistant coach until she was promoted to her current position in summer 2017. Recently, she was nominated to the College Squash Association Board and is the chair of the women’s subcommittee.
Schickerling emphasized the importance of the institutional support that the Columbia athletic department has provided her with.
“[One] thing I loved about Columbia was how supportive they were to young and new coaches,” she said. “[They offered] professional development … I’ve learned so much and been so supported by the athletic department in growing as a coach.”
Though Columbia has contributed to her success, Schickerling believes more professional development should be offered to women in the field of coaching. Specifically, as a member of the College Squash Association, Schickerling seeks to get more women involved in squash coaching.
“One of our goals is to identify young female squash players that we can really support and encourage to keep pushing and keep working hard because it is such a rewarding job working with college squash teams,” Schickerling said. “I definitely see a very positive future.”
Growth in the field of female head coaching is not limited to Columbia. In March 2020, Brown University’s Heather Marini became the first woman to coach a NCAA Division I football team when she was promoted to quarterbacks coach.
Previously, Marini worked in Australia for a club football team, as a sports performance intern for Oregon State University, and as a scouting intern for the New York Jets. Often the only woman in the room, she detailed the experience as being difficult, but cited her perseverance as integral to her success.
“I was always raised to go after what you want,” Marini said. “So for me, it wasn’t so much about pulling attention to the fact that I was the only woman in the room, as much as it is about being there to do a job and doing my job as well as I can.”
Lindsay Iordache, who coaches divers on Yale University’s men’s and women’s swim and dive teams, described a similar experience to Marini’s.
Iordache noted that just as when she was an athlete herself, the demographic of diving coaches continues to be mostly male.
“It’s just a male-dominated profession and most people have male coaches,” Iordache said. " I don’t feel like I’m any different [than male coaches, but] it is a hurdle that I need to just keep working on.”
Iordache believes her passion for teaching others is what pushes her to continue in her profession. However, the decision to coach was not always easy for Iordache, who is a proud mom of six and four-year-old boys. Even at a previous job coaching a high school club diving team, she said, she was troubled by the thought of not being present for her children.
“I really struggled with what I was going to do,” Iordache said. “Am I just not going to see them while they’re in school and then at night when I’m working?”
Iordache’s internal strife about her children is a common feeling among working mothers, many of whom have to juggle not just work and family responsibilities but also the “motherhood penalty.” According to the American Association of University Women, the motherhood penalty is “the phenomenon by which women’s pay decreases once they become mothers.” As a result of this occurrence, working mothers often make 70 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar and are often not considered for further promotions at the frequency of their male counterparts.
Schickerling challenged the notion that female coaches should not be mothers.
“If you do want to support a family, it might be tough to do on an assistant [coach] salary. And so … having more opportunities [for women], I think would really help,” Schickerling said. She later added that “educating young females and helping them realize … how they can do both” would also help ease the concerns that mothers have about being coaches.
When she received the coaching job at Yale, Iordache was ecstatic because it offered her the opportunity to continue to coach while also being involved in her children’s lives.
In addition to the logistical advantages that working at Yale has provided her, Iordache said she has has appreciated the presence of female role models in its athletic department and the university’s supportive community, which has allowed her to flourish both on and off the pool deck.
“I’m just so thankful to be in a situation where I can be a mom and be a great coach,” Iordache said.
Iordache also expressed a strong desire to see more female coaches who are also mothers. She connected the need for more female coaches to the struggle for women’s equality as a whole.
“Not only do little girls need to continue to see strong women as role models, it’s just as important for female coaches to coach males,” she said. “In order for society to continue to grow and accept women as equal to men, it’s important for boys to grow up with strong women as mentors. It’s just as important for boys as it is for girls to have strong female role models.”
Expressing similar sentiments, Schickerling said she hopes to enact systemic change in order to place more strong women as head coaches in her own sport.
“Almost all [college squash teams] have one head coach for both men’s and women’s teams. I think it would be great to start looking for some of those schools to start separating the coaching roles—that way there’s more opportunities for head coaching positions [for women].”
Although head coaching opportunities for women in men’s sports are uncommon at the moment, Marini hopes to see that change going forward. In fact, one of her career goals is to advance to a point where she would be in a position to hire more women, a policy which she said would help not only those coaches but also athletics as a whole.
“I’m excited to eventually be able to be in a position where I can hire the best people for my program and I’m sure many of them will be women. When you restrict your hiring to 50 percent of the population you’re missing out on potentially the best person.”