Jill Carpenter has been the face of Sycamore softball for eight years.
A former shortstop and four-year starter at Northern Illinois University, Carpenter took over as the Spartans’ varsity head coach in 2006. She also sits on board directors for the Kishwaukee Valley Storm travel team.
Yet Carpenter still is sometimes mistaken for someone with a lesser role.
“Probably 75 percent of the time, if we get umpires at the game who don’t know me, they’ll go up to my assistant coach Vern Hjelmberg because they think he’s the head coach, when it’s really me,” Carpenter said. “There’s not that many female coaches, so it’s probably an easy assumption for them to make.”
Even if the mistake does no real harm, the reasoning behind the umpires’ assumptions is troubling. Carpenter is one of only nine women who are varsity head coaches at the seven local high schools of DeKalb, Sycamore, Kaneland, Genoa-Kingston, Hinckley-Big Rock, Hiawatha and Indian Creek. Only 11 percent of varsity head coaching positions at local schools are held by women.
DeKalb, Sycamore and Indian Creek each have two women as head coaches, the most of any schools in the area. Kaneland is the only school with none.
“It’s a very complicated answer as to why this is, from individual choices to family structure barriers to organizational opportunities to societal stereotypes about gender and leadership,” said Nicole LaVoi, associate director at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. “It’s not a simple answer as to why this decline or the underrepresentation has occurred.”
History and numbers
More than 40 years since Title IX outlawing gender discrimination in educational activities became federal law in 1972, record numbers of girls are participating in athletics. But the percentage of their coaches who are women has declined.
Although data is largely unavailable at the high school level, 40 years ago, more than 90 percent of collegiate women’s athletic teams were coached by women. Now the number hovers around 43 percent, according to a study by Brooklyn College professors Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter.
G-K athletic director Dirk Campbell said he’s only had two women head coaches during his four years at the school. He estimated that about 20 percent of applicants for coaching positions are women.
“When jobs become more desirable and they become better-paid, the men will start infiltrating those jobs and that’s exactly what we’ve seen with coaches of specifically girls basketball,” LaVoi said. “It’s complicated, but yes, that’s a pattern.”
At the seven local high schools, all varsity girls basketball and soccer teams are coached by men, and only two softball teams are led by female head coaches. Girls volleyball is the only major sport where a majority (four) of local varsity teams are coached by women.
While men have made inroads into girls sports, women are still largely locked out of coaching positions on boys teams. Only about 3 percent of men’s sports teams are coached by women at the collegiate level, the same percentage as in 1972.
Leah Eames, the DeKalb-Sycamore co-op swim coach for both the boys and girls teams, is one of only two local women to lead a boys sports team. Tiffany Gawrysh leads both the boys and girls cross country teams at G-K during the fall.
“When we do find those women, they are coaching sports that you could argue are not the most visible, culturally important sports,” LaVoi said. “They are in cross country, swimming or tennis. They are never in basketball, football, hockey, baseball.”
On a Friday morning in November, Eames traveled to Evanston to watch the preliminary heats at the girls state swim meet in Evanston.
DeKalb-Sycamore freshman Jensen Keck finished 33rd in the 100-yard breaststroke and, after more than three months, the co-op’s season was finally finished. Less than 48 hours later, Eames was back at the Huntley Middle School pool, for the first practice of the boys season.
More competition in youth sports has forced coaches to put in more time during the season and offseason to build successful programs.
“It’s kind of a year-round committment, whether it be on the club team, the high school team or just getting ready for the next season, planning different workouts, different practices,” Eames said. “It’s a lot of work.”
Carpenter experiences the same workload in softball, as she spends much of her summer with the Sycamore Flash softball teams, preparing girls to eventually become high school varsity softball players.
The time commitment is just one potential reason why there aren’t more women head coaches.
“At the high school level we see a lack of women maybe, in part, because they have to have multiple jobs,” LaVoi said. “If they have a family, they are still probably the primary caretaker and doing a lot of the domestic labor around the house. You’re talking about women that might then have four or five different roles that they’re juggling.”
Almost all of the local women in coaching are younger than most of their male counterparts. Neither Eames nor Carpenter is married, but both said family considerations could lead them to take a step back from coaching.
“Right now it’s doable ... but once I do start a family, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to have that alarm set before 5 [a.m.] and not return home before 8:30 or 9 [p.m.],” Eames said. “I’ve definitely thought about it, it’s definitely an issue that will come up.”
Changing a culture
Every day Sycamore High School senior Abby Foulk spends three hours as a classroom assistant at North Grove Elementary School, helping teach kindergartners and third-graders.
Foulk is an aspiring teacher who also has her eye on eventually becoming a softball coach.
“I want to have the game in my life forever, so I think coaching is one way to continue doing that, just like Carpenter has,” said Foulk, Sycamore’s ace pitcher.
Foulk noted that most of her travel coaches have been men with a baseball background, Foulk said she can relate to Carpenter because she’s following a similar path that Carpenter took when she played.
“She’s played in the women’s fast-pitch league, she played at NIU, she has a lot of experience,” Foulk said. “She has a way of reaching out to us and getting us the information we need to know, finding a way to really connect with us because she’s been there.”
In addition to her classroom time, Foulk is also a volunteer coach with the 10U Storm softball team and helps put on pitching clinics for the park district teams.
Carpenter said her first volunteer opportunities came in college, but during her tenure at Sycamore she’s seen more girls developing a desire to coach early on.
“They have more of a vision that it’s a possibility and is something they like to do,” Carpenter said. “In the past it was not something that girls said ‘This is something I’m going to do.’ “
Although the culture among younger female athletes may be shifting, LaVoi says more needs to be done. Some of her recommendations include active recruitment of women coaches by administrations, providing more mentorship and professional development opportunities for female coaches, and the possible implementation of hiring policies at schools.
The answers to getting more female head coaches may not be simple, but LaVoi said there’s a need for additional female role models on the sidelines.
“It is really important if we’re ever going to change stereotypes about women and leadership that we have to see women in positions of power, meaning as coaches, as head coaches, in particular,” LaVoi said. “Then young boys and girls will have a very different vision of women and power.”
To learn more Additional infomation about this issue, you can visit these sites. Alliance of Women Coaches: https://gocoaches.org/ Acosta / Carpenter study: http://www.acostacarpenter.org/ We Coach: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/MNYSRC/wecoach.htm l University of Minnesota Tucker Center: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/tuckercenter/