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National Women's Soccer League

Gender Equality Concerns Surface as NWSL Ramps Up

Should the women's professional league adopt a "Rooney Rule" requiring teams to interview female candidates for certain positions? John D. Halloran asked around and received some thoughtful answers.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
April 12, 2016
10:55 AM

OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, issues of gender equality have dominated the headlines in the world of women’s soccer. First, U.S. Soccer sued the union that represents the women’s national team in February. Then, two weeks ago, five American players filed an EEOC complaint against the federation.

However, with a pair of April friendlies behind the U.S. squad, women’s soccer fans will now turn their attention to the National Women’s Soccer League, set to kick off its 2016 season—and make history—this weekend. In the wake of two previous attempts to establish women’s professional soccer in the United States, the NWSL will succeed where the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer failed, surviving to an unprecedented fourth season.

Standing in the shadow of those failures, the early years of the NWSL focused primarily on one thing—sustainability. Now, however, the league is beginning to face questions about its own issues with gender inequality. 

This winter, several clubs in the NWSL made news with the hiring of several high-profile female assistant coaches, including former U.S. internationals Cat Whitehill and Jill Loyden, former FIFA Player of Year Nadine Angerer, and the experienced Denise Reddy—who returns to the league after spending four years in Europe as a head coach.

And while these hirings do seem to represent a move forward, others wonder: Is the league doing enough to promote women in coaching roles and front-office positions? There are only a handful of women involved in high-profile front-office positions and there is only one female head coach in the league—the eminently qualified Laura Harvey, who won multiple championships with Arsenal before coming to NWSL and winning Coach of the Year Honors in 2014 and 2015.

To get the perspective of those on the front lines, American Soccer Now spent the last several weeks speaking with many of these coaches, as well as players and front-office staff around the league.

One of those who thinks the NWSL needs to do more to involve women is Chicago Red Stars’ general manager Alyse LaHue, center in the photo below, who has steadily risen in the ranks since beginning work with the team as an intern in 2008.

“It’s just not a part of the conversation yet,” said LaHue. “Part of that is because there are no females in the room to bring it up. When you look at our league office, our commissioner is male, our communications director is male. All of the U.S. Soccer heads of department are male, our entire [NWSL] Board of Governors meetings are male. Think about this: Every time there is a major league meeting, there may be no females in the room, except maybe one woman taking notes.

"That, to me, is insane.”

[Editors note: The league pointed out that Western New York Flash President Alex Sahlen is a member of The Board of Governors.]

Since the inception of the NWSL, owners throughout the league have worried about its financial stability. Those worries, argued LaHue, have made the issue of gender equality a secondary concern.

“It’s certainly not" a priority, LaHue said. "I think the owners are focused on building a stable league and there are a lot of [other] things there that come first, before looking at gender diversity.”

Still, she believes “things are going in the right direction.” LaHue also said Red Stars’ owner Arnim Whisler is “very sensitive” about the issue of gender equality and acknowledged the contributions of owners around the league in promoting women’s soccer.

“This isn’t a shot at any league owners—they’re phenomenal people who are funding these teams and I’m extremely grateful to all of them for stepping up and owe them personally for the opportunity that I have right now,” noted LaHue. “I’m not placing blame on just them solely. We have to start somewhere getting females in the door, the coaching level, the executive level, the front offices.”

Whitehill, who earned 134 caps with the U.S. women in a career that spanned a decade and included two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal, played her final years as a professional with the Boston Breakers. After retiring from the game last year, she is returning to the Breakers this season as a coach.

The former American international, who also does color commentary, hopes her hiring signaled a recognition by the league that they need more female voices. She also believes a growing pool of qualified women should make it easier to involve them in the coaching ranks.

“I think it is important to have women coaches in the league,” said Whitehill. “I talked to Laura Harvey because I did a Seattle Reign game for Fox last year. I was asking her specifically, ‘Why do you feel you’re the only female head coach?’ She said, ‘You know, I don’t really think of it that way, I just hope that it’s the right person for the job. It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female.’

“I love that because I want people to hire based on whether you’re the best, not whether you’re female. I think the NWSL is starting to do that because they have options now where there are a lot of people out there, female-speaking, that are qualified.”

Loyden, another American World Cup veteran, also joined the coaching ranks this off-season, rejoining Sky Blue FC as an assistant. After retiring in 2014 and taking a year off to spend with her family, she is now ready to share her talents with the next generation of players.

“I was very fortunate with my career to play as long as I did, and play at the level I did, but I think I was born to be a coach,” said Loyden. “I love it. I love sharing my knowledge with younger players and helping them achieve greater things than I’ve ever done.”

Loyden also echoed Whitehill comments on the league needing more input from women, but emphasized the importance of hiring candidates based on their qualifications, not gender.

“I think the league definitely needs some more female voices. However, I think the league needs the best possible coach in each position. Male or female doesn’t matter,” she explained.

“At the end of the day, it really is whoever is best for the position, but it’s nice to see some women filling those roles and being the best candidate for that selection.”

Reddy returns to the NWSL this season after a career of playing and coaching abroad. She spent 11 years as a player with Malmo before three head coaching stints in Sweden and Denmark.

Like Whitehill and Loyden, Reddy said that she wants to be hired because of her ability.

“I want equal opportunity, of course, but I want equal opportunity based off my ability,” said Reddy. “I want to be hired because I’m the best.”

Still, Reddy stressed that societal pressures make it “hard for women to get head coaching jobs, or head roles, period.”

“I don’t want to come across as, ‘It’s great the way it is.’ I do think there needs to be a mentality—a social mentality shift from everyone—that females can lead, no matter what,” explained Reddy. “Just like there can be a guy that can lead and knows what he’s doing, there are women that know the game and have been around it. I don’t think it has anything to do with gender, but it does have to do with opportunity.”

Reddy also pointed out that sometimes the players themselves carry a negative prejudice towards female coaches, saying, “Female players need to understand that females can coach.”

One player who agrees with Reddy’s sentiment is U.S. international and Red Stars’ forward Christen Press, who repeated that view, saying barriers toward female coaches can be even tougher than those female players face.

“There has been a lot of progress in terms of the stereotypes female athletes face, but I don't see that positive trend among coaches—even within the soccer community,” said Press. “I hear a lot of players say that they prefer male coaches and even that female coaches are 'too emotional.'

“That's the same stigmatic rhetoric women face in all positions of power. It starts from the bottom up. We want to build a community that encourages powerful women to reach their potential on and off the field.”

Some advocates have argued the solution lies in the institution of an NFL-style Rooney Rule. Starting in 2003, the “Rooney Rule” requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for open coaching and front-office positions. In February, the NFL announced it is expanding the Rooney Rule to require interviewing female candidates for executive positions at the league level.

Some now say the NWSL should follow suit.

LaHue supports such a move “100%” and said interviewing female candidates should be mandatory.

“We have to have an open policy about encouraging women to apply for these positions. Historically, we’ve seen the data—across any sort of corporate position—women, if they feel unqualified, won’t apply. Whereas a man who’s not qualified will always apply. I think if we started by saying that every team has to interview female candidates, it’s a starting point that will open the door.

“Right now, when you look around, you don’t see a lot of female coaches, I’m sure a lot of females are thinking they don’t have an opportunity,” she added. “By opening the door, at least to encourage applications and to encourage women to apply, that would be a good starting point.”

Whitehill, for her part, argued that teams—whether they are required to or not—would benefit from looking at a wide range of candidates.

“I like the idea of interviewing a bunch of different people,” said the former defender. “It seems like sometimes the coaches have been a bit recycled in our league. It’s the same thing in the NFL, they’re recycled. It’s good to get some fresh blood in there when it comes to interviewing, whether that’s a male or female. I just think it’s important to see what else is out there.

“I don’t know if it should be a requirement necessarily, but I think it would be in the best interest of every club to look at people who are applying and really think about it rather than just hiring the first person that sounds good.”

However, Loyden provided a dissenting voice in the discussion about a potential Rooney Rule. She opposes such a proposal.

“It’s up to the club’s discretion on who they want to hire. Obviously, I would love to have more females because that would include myself, but I don’t think it should be mandated that they interview at least one woman,” concluded Loyden. “Hopefully, the higher-ups in the clubs can see the differences and they don’t see a gender, they just see a resume and they say, ‘Who’s the best? Who has the most experience? Who’s going to be the best fit for this club?'”

Ashlee Comber, Chief Operating Officer of the Washington Spirit, repeated that argument and insisted her club works to hire the best candidate for each position regardless of gender. While she didn’t directly answer whether or not she favored a league mandate requiring the interviewing of female candidates, she turned the issue back toward qualifications.

“We hire the best person for the role no matter what the position and regardless of any categorization of the individual,” said Comber. “I don’t believe a certain classification of individuals is better than the next—it’s the individual’s character, mentality, determination, and skillset that will set her or him apart from the rest.

“I’m a firm believer in going after what you want. If you really want something and believe in it, then find a way to create a path and position yourself to get it. That’s what I did with the Spirit when they brought me on in 2012, and then when my role was expanded to running the club in 2013. Again, regardless of an individual’s classification, I think people need to empower themselves to be confident to approach the right people; determined to position themselves; and convincing that they are the right person for the job.”

Despite these positive intentions, four teams—representing nearly half the league—still have male-only coaching staffs. This seems especially shocking considering the fact the United States has led the world for decades in the development of women’s soccer. With dozens of former World Cup champions and Olympic gold medal veterans in the U.S., it stands to reason more would be coaching in the NWSL.

“I do think it’s a missed opportunity,” lamented Whitehill. “I think there’s something a lot of us national team players can bring to the table that not many people can. We have the experience of playing at the highest level at world championships, like the Olympics and World Cup. We have been playing in professional leagues and we can really supply that to all the players if we want to be a coach. Some players would really like to get into coaching and haven’t had the opportunity.”

“Kristine Lilly, for example, now she’s an assistant coach at Texas,” added Whitehill. “She wasn’t coaching for a long time, but her best friend’s there and gave her an opportunity. The more Kristine Lilly’s we can get into the coaching game, the better.”

However, Loyden disagreed with the premise that the NWSL is missing out by not employing more former U.S. internationals. She argued that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.

“It takes a special kind of person to want to coach. Just because you’re a good player, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a phenomenal coach,” said Loyden. “You have to not only understand the game and technique, you have to know how to teach. Coaches are teachers. You have to learn how to manage players and personalities.

“You have to be passionate about it. If you’re not passionate about it, then I don’t think you’re going to be a good coach just because you have played at that highest level,” she added. “It’s up to each individual person, whether or not they have that passion and fire to keep learning and help others.”

But whether those coaches and front-office personnel come from the pool of former players or not, the issue of gender inequality will continue to be debated as the league enters this historic fourth season.

“What I’ve seen is a lack of gender diversity amongst our front offices, and at the league level as well,” said LaHue. “It’s something I certainly hope changes throughout the years as we continue to grow as a league. Right now, if you look across the board, there’s certainly a pretty high gender disparity. I think when you have an opportunity to create and build a women’s league, it deserves women’s voices to be a part of that and that’s something we lack right now.”

“There has to be that part of the conversation, to bring a female’s perspective,” LaHue later added. “We’re trying to build a league for women, about women, so we have to be represented. I’m on a long-term mission and it’s going to take a while.”

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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