Where are the women coaches? ESSA targets gender equality in high performance sport

10 November 2023

Gender equality progress in Australian sport is evident on the field, but a shortage of women in high-performance coaching roles emphasises the urgent need for a more inclusive game plan.

Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) highlights that Australia's sports landscape lacks gender diversity and inclusivity, painting a bleak outlook for the lead-up to the 2032 Olympic Games without urgent support, recognition, and career progression.

As Australia's premier authority for tertiary-trained sports and science professionals, ESSA is urging sports entities to embrace gender diversity in leadership, calling for expanded opportunities for female students in sports science, exercise physiology, and high-performance fields to address the balance demanded by women's sports.

As a female high performance practitioner with Perth Glory, Carmen Colomer is aware that she is among the minority in Australia, especially one working for a men’s elite sporting team.

“With over a decade of experience in professional men’s sports, my journey began as a sports scientist and has evolved to my current role as the Head of Performance. Throughout my career I have witnessed the under representation of women in sports, leading to a lack of visible role models for aspiring female Accredited Exercise Physiologists,” said Carmen.

“During my pregnancy and postpartum journey, I encountered a scarcity of women in my position who I could look up to and seek guidance from. The reality is that there are very few, if any, women in similar roles.

“Where are the women? They are deterred by the prospect of working in high performance sport because current environments don’t foster a variety of coaching styles with diverse gender identities. There are also concerns like I faced that working in sports means sacrificing their desire to have a family with concerns when they take maternity leave about professional relevance and replaceability.”

Carmen said she is fortunate to work for an organisation that challenged the ‘status quo’ and recognised the benefit of coach and leader gender diversity.

The current workforce data by ESSA paints a bleak outlook with only 24 per cent of Accredited Sports Scientists and High Performance Managers women.

The International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 2023 titled “The under representation of women coaches in high-performance sport,” states that despite the identified decline of women coach numbers three decades ago, very little has changed.

The review states that over 30 years ago, female coach numbers and proportions were declining relative to the growing participation of female athletes. Yet little has changed in proportional representation of women in high performance sport.

In fact, the International Olympic Committee recently found the proportion of women coaches at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had only increased by 2 per cent from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to 13 per cent of all coaches. In football, the statistics are worse; it has been reported that only 7 per cent of FIFA coaches are women. This contrasts with gains in diversity and equality made in most other professions over the past two decades.

Former Olympic legend and ESSA Brand Strategy Manager, Duncan Armstrong, said there was a drastic need to reimagine the role of women in high performance sport.

“ESSA is calling for help to encourage young Australian women to become sports scientists and exercise physiologists, and respond to the wonderful increase in women’s sport,” he said.

“Considering the Matilda’s incredible success in the FIFA World Cup and the development of the women’s pro sports in rugby league, Aussie Rules and cricket, ESSA is wanting to boost the current number of women exercise professionals to service the demand.

“Carmen’s story is inspirational because of the risky conditions which currently exist for women in the ‘engine room’ of sports science. Like a lot of professions, it’s even riskier for women who want to start a family as there isn’t a well-worn career pathway to secure a return to work.”