Women Coaching, The Glass Cliff, and NCAA Soccer


Women increasingly participate in sport and exercise. For example, at the high school level, in 1972, girls represented just 7 percent of all athletes. That figure is now at 42 percent. Similar patterns are present in college sports.

Though participation rates have grown, leadership opportunities have not. In 1972, women led almost all women’s college teams. Today, fewer than half of those teams have a woman at the leadership helm. 

What accounts for these changes in the coaching ranks? A number of societal and individual factors are to blame. Recently, Pamela Wicker, of German Sport University-Cologne, and her colleagues examined another possibility—differences in the types of opportunities. 

They drew from a theory called the glass cliff. According to this perspective, women do not have many leadership opportunities, but when they do, the leadership role is not a good one. The organization might be in crisis or have a history of under-performing. This puts women in a tough spot because they are not placed in a position to be successful. 

To examine this possibility in sport, Wicker and colleagues collected data from women’s NCAA soccer teams from 2007-2017. During that time, 59 head coaching changes were made, and women were hired just 25 percent of the time. 

The researchers then examined what type of teams the new coaches led. Women were more likely than men to be hired to lead teams with few wins and with several seasons of low winning percentages. 

There are several key points from their research. First, over this timeframe, women continued to be overlooked for head coaching positions. Second, when they did get the chance, they were more likely than men to be hired to a team with a history of poor performance. Third, and related to this point, men were more likely to be hired to teams with a history of success.

All of these factors contribute to the under-representation of women in leadership roles. Within NCAA soccer, it appears the trend continues.