By Colin Orsak
Presented with the percentage of Canadian college and university coaches who are women — 26 per cent — Gee-Gees’ Jen Boyd was taken aback, and for an unfortunate reason.
“I’m surprised it’s that high,” she recently told the Sports Pages in an interview.
The 26 per cent figure comes from a 2020 report from Canadian Women & Sport, which also notes that only three per cent of head coaches of men’s teams are women. On top of the overall discrepancy, the total percentage of women who are college and university coaches in Canada is declining.
Boyd, who is the head coach of the University of Ottawa’s women’s rugby team and with five national U Sports medals to her name is one of the most successful coaches to ever walk the sideline in Canadian university sport, believes the lack of women in her field is troubling. It also could have a damaging effect on women’s sports, she said.
Key to what makes it important to have women in coaching, Boyd said, is variance.
“In the mosaic of teaching and learning — of all the different tools that we have — different perspectives are the greatest tool,” Boyd said.
Dani Sinclair is the only female head coach of a varsity team at Carleton University. In coaching women, as she does with the Ravens women’s basketball team, female coaches can offer “a different type of connection” than their male counterparts.
“I know I can relate as a female who used to play at the university level,” said Sinclair, who was a member of McMaster University and University of Victoria basketball teams.
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“I can relate to these athletes because I used to be in their shoes. I think (women coaching women) is a huge benefit.”
The Canadian Women & Sport’s report from last year, called the Rally Report, also points out that the participation rates for girls in their late teen years and adult women is falling. In 1992, half of women aged 16 to 63 were involved in organized sports. By 2010, 35 per cent of women of the same age group played organized sports. Just 18 per cent of women in that age range were involved in sport last year.
Aside from the obvious point that having fewer girls and women involved in sport translates to fewer women having the opportunity to get involved in coaching positions, women also face barriers that men typically don’t in pursuing careers in coaching.
This was evident to Sinclair when she wanted to start a family of her own.
“If you want to have a family it’s really hard to do that,” Sinclair said in an interview. “There aren’t support systems in place at most universities that are going to help a coach do their job at the best of their ability, and also have a family.”
“I was able to coach and have three kids because I had such a strong personal support system, but not everybody has that,” she added.
Having a supportive husband has been crucial to former Gee-Gees’ women’s basketball coach and Ottawa Blackjacks assistant Fabienne Perrin-Blizzard’s coaching career, she told the Sports Pages. Her husband went so far as to become certified as a basketball coach himself, so that if she ever had to take care of their children — like, for example, to take them out of town to their own tournaments — that he could fill in for her at certain levels that she coached at.
Tawnya Guindon, an assistant for Carleton’s women’s hockey team, began her coaching career two seasons ago, and having witnessed men mistreat women in sports, highlighted it as a deterrent against women becoming coaches.
“If you’re a young woman trying to start your coaching career it makes it difficult when there are fathers (of athletes) who think that they are better and more knowledgeable than you are,” Guindon said.
While it represents just a start, the U Sports Female Apprenticeship Coach Program is one system attempting to address the shortage of women coaches in post-secondary competition in Canada. The program was launched last year and has helped Guindon and others access resources like direct training and consultation with more experienced coaches.
Programs like this are a step in the right direction, with Sinclair stressing the importance of having strong mentors while in the early goings of learning to coach.
“My belief is to be excellent, in any profession, mentorship is huge,” Sinclair said. “I know that I am in the position that I am in because of the people I was able to learn from and it gave me belief that being a female coach and being a female coach as a mother is possible.”
To Boyd, the most important change is a simple one.
“Hire more women — period,” Boyd said. “And hire more women of colour — period.”
Above all else, Boyd stressed that what sports needs is more diversity, which itself will help reverse the troubling trends of shrinking women’s participation as athletes and coaches.
“You cannot be what you cannot see,” Boyd said. “I live by that as an educator, as a coach, and as a woman.”
With files from Charlie Pinkerton.