In the middle of a soccer game at the Duler Stadium in Goa, India, Linda Whitehead lets out a long laugh from high up on the stands.
She is amused by a simple question: Do women coaches face prejudice in the world of soccer?
Whitehead, 55, is a former player, coach, university professor, and woman with a long and deep association with the game.
In 1995 before Whitehead left Canada to work in the United States, she was one of only two women with the A-license — the highest nationally recognized coaching certification. In 2009 when she returned, she was still one of only two women with the certification. In more than two decades nothing had changed.
That year she applied to the Ontario Soccer Association for a job to teach community coaching courses. She was armed with a newly minted MBA and a master’s in coaching science. She had also worked with three provincial teams, two American university teams and the Canadian national women’s team.
“They said, ‘how qualified are you’?” she says. “You can teach our kids’ course.”
Instead, a man without a college degree and with a lower coaching qualification was picked to teach the senior courses. She had to pursue the matter with the higher ups in the association before she was assigned to teach all the courses.
Whitehead has worked in a developed country where the women’s national team is ranked fifth in the world and the women’s game is increasingly being taken seriously.
Still, when it comes to coaching, the glass ceiling is largely intact. “It’s still rare to find women in head coaching jobs,” she says. “It’s assumed that men are better until women prove themselves. There’s a cultural bias.”
Women coaches account for just seven percent of licensed soccer coaches (of all levels) worldwide, according to FIFA data from a 2014 survey. Though a woman coached the Dutch women’s national team to victory at this year’s Union of European Football Associations’ Women’s Championship, and there are more women than before, the numbers start to thin as you work your way up the pyramid.
Last month Emily Lima, hailed as a pioneer when she was first appointed to coach the Brazilian women’s team less than a year ago, was fired for poor results, despite support from players.
Soccer is still very much a man’s game in most parts of the world — less normalized than women’s tennis or basketball, for instance. There’s the incipient and overt sexism that comes on- and off-the-field, and the inherently sexist nature of coaching education itself.
Only a small proportion of women might enter coaching given the usual barriers that exist. Starting a family might coincide with the end of a playing career and the natural beginning of a coaching one. The traveling might be off-putting.
In the United States and Canada, licensed women coaches make up 21 percent of coaches, the highest. If these developed countries are still a work in progress, how much better can the others be? The short answer: not much.
Victorine Fomum is an assistant coach in a first division men’s team in Cameroon, where incredulity at being coached by a woman was the instinctive natural reaction when she first joined in 2014.
“As a woman it is not easy,” she says. “At times it is difficult to get acceptance.”
Fomum and Whitehead were among eight international coaches participating in a grassroots football and women’s rights festival in India in August, an occasion when conversations about gender and sport were front and center.
Fomum, 43, is one of the few — if not the only — women from the tiny West African country to get the A-license. A portly, poker-faced woman with an eccentric sense of humor, she commands animated authority on the field.
Men are sometimes reluctant to take instructions from women, so facing skepticism is an occupational hazard, alongside the pressure of continuously delivering results.
A little later that evening she joined the other coaches in a friendly seven-a-side game that included Juliana Roman Lozano, a slight woman with a flowing mop of hair and a dramatic nose pin. Lozano’s powerful right-footed kicks belied her 1.56-meter stature.
Lozano, who works in football and development, received her A-license in 2015, graduating in a cohort where she was the only woman among 87 men in Argentina, where she lives and works.
In a demonstration or a teaching drill that required volunteers, Lozano, 33, was not usually picked. “They assumed I didn’t want to participate so I wouldn’t embarrass myself,” she says, speaking quickly. Then matter of fact: “But that’s not true, because I am an amazing player.”
There were other little things: a teacher who lived by 19th-century standards of chivalry and apologized every time he swore when she was present. “But I swear three times more than him,” she says.
When Lozano moved from Sweden — where she largely grew up — to her home in Colombia as a 15-year-old, there was culture shock.
“When I came back it was like ‘you’re lesbian, you’re masculine, you’re the tough one,’” says Lozano. “It doesn’t help with your self-confidence.”
This is the garden-variety homophobia and sexism that permeates the hyper masculine world of soccer.
Bias though, is often simply baked into the fabric of coaching the sport. At Lozano’s classes in Argentina, the manuals made references to male bodies and research on men. Where were the theoretical conversations geared specifically towards understanding the body of the female sportsperson?
At the higher levels people are trained on the female athlete triad: diet, menstruation and bone density, and how to deal with these when coaching women. But when Whitehead mentions this in a class full of male coaches, she usually gets blank stares.
“It’s disappointing that men who coach women don’t have a clue about this,” says Whitehead. “We need to have coaching education from the perspective of women.”
“We realized that strengthening women coaches is crucial for the development of women’s soccer because they face problems and hurdles on many levels,” says Cordula Gdaniec, via email, one of the editors of “Female Coaching Zone,” a manual from a female perspective for which they interviewed two dozen women coaches. The booklet was prepared at a conference of coaches in 2015 organized by German soccer nonprofit Discover Football and released last year.
“Seeing a woman doing what you would like to do or achieve is crucial for girls in pursuing their goals,” Gdaniec continues.
Lebogang Tlhako, a tall, short-haired woman, was one of the coaches interviewed while assembling the manual of experiences and case studies from around the world. She grew up being coached by men and played surreptitiously in an all-boy’s league for a while as a child by masking her gender through haircuts.
In 2010 Tlhako, 30, became the first woman coach at Blue Birds Ladies Football Academy in Johannesburg, a club team she had earlier played for. As soon as she joined, there was a palpable shift in the air with the teams, she believes. “It makes a difference,” says Tlhako. “How men perceive women is not the same as how women do.”
With boys and men after the initial resistance, there is acceptance, and over a period of time it simply becomes normal. Fomum’s team moved from 15th to 7th place in their division last season, cementing her credibility among the players. The others too, speak of changing mores or greater acceptance, and definite improvements for women in the sport compared to their own playing days.
The number of women getting licensed has been incrementally increasing each year, alongside player growth, according to UEFA data. Since last year’s Under-17 world cup in Jordan, all teams had to have at least one female coach. Three of the 10 coaches shortlisted for FIFA’s best women’s coach were women, and one was among the three finalists.
But it’s not just about coaching those at the top level of the game but also about bringing more girls into the fold, especially in nonprofit interventions or areas where sport is harder for women.
“Coaching girls in soccer requires extra sets of skills and awareness of issues around playing football that only girls face,” says Gdaniec. “One key element here is liaising with reluctant parents and organizing training around the fact that girls are not allowed to play. In many countries football is used as a means to provide health and life skills education, where girls are addressed, it is essential that the coaches are women.”
Gdaniec found one other thing that resonated across regions and coach interviews — the women had sorely missed a female role model in their own playing years. “Now they see their own role as being that role model they had wished for,” she says. “It was a very personal issue for each woman but also a universal one.”