I was minding my own business, eating my lunch alone at a table when two women asked to join me at my table. The conversation that would unfold for the next hour or so went way beyond my expectations.
Before I went to this convention, I thought that gender bias in the game was mostly as a thing that didn't have any real effect on my life. Today, I can't stop seeing it everywhere - I mean everywhere.
In this episode, I want to talk about women and gender bias in the game and in life. What is gender bias and how is it affecting not only the women in our world, but the men, our children, and the entire game. I don't know if this episode is more for my men or women listeners, but I promise you, it's worth paying attention to. Let's talk about it.
What is Gender Bias?
Unfair difference in the way women and men are treated.
Understanding the definition of Gender Bias is easy. But I think actually understanding and appreciating gender bias in real life and the effect that it has on us - men, women, and children alike - is a whole other ball game. I've known the definition of gender bias for years. But as with most hot button issues, I didn't think it applied to me, so I honestly just considered it one of those many social problems that someone else was better at dealing with. I was wrong.
As a manager of employees, I felt like I always stood ready to address a gender bias or sexism issue if it ever came to my attention, but it rarely showed up explicitly. When it did, I was there to do my part in dealing with it, but honestly, I thought it was another of those issues that the media and social pressures were blowing out of proportion. There is so much noise about groups being unfairly treated these days, they're enough to make anyone curl into the fetal position and cry uncle. So... I live my life and put the noise on ignore. Again, I was wrong.
My History with Female Gender Bias
As with most things, I think it's useful to know where I'm coming from when I talk about this. My perspective is likely different from yours because my exposure has been different. I'm a 6'2" man who's had many successes in life. I've climbed to the top of several career ladders. I have a great family. I don't fear walking alone at night. And I have had what I believe are many healthy professional relationships with women employees, peers, and supervisors over the years.
My mother is a feminist. She grew up with four older brothers in New York, and from the stories she told me, her life was a testosterone heavy environment. My uncles were scrappers. Gender inequality affected her profoundly, and to this day, she and my sister are pretty adamant about the idea that whatever men can do, women can do better. To them, it doesn't matter what. Women can pretty much do anything better than men. As a boy and later as a young man growing up, the continual refrain became pretty annoying actually.
I felt like I got it already and wondered what they wanted me to do about it. I never felt like pay inequality or glass ceilings made sense. I won a lot of work related awards and I've been beaten by women who were clearly better the job than I was and genuinely celebrated their success.
As a Treasurer and member of the board of directors for a fire department I was a member of as a young man, I was the lone voice advocating for two women to join the department in the late 80's, early 90's when women were boxed out of the fire service.
I spent a lot of my life working in operational environments, and I treasured having a female partner. I'll talk more about that in a few minutes, but to me, male/female partners were more balanced; a yin and yang working together in harmony. I was medical operations and I found that we reached and connected with more humanity together than we ever could as single sex teams.
I felt that gender bias was not my problem. I thought the rest of the world would catch up one day or it wouldn't, but I was Switzerland. I'm not Switzerland anymore.
The Moment That Started This Journey
I was minding my own business last week at the Annual United Soccer Coaches convention. I was taking a break from sessions and other events that I will gladly tell you more about in future episodes. I was eating my lunch in a comfy spot - by myself at a table. Gender bias in the game was the farthest thing from my mind. Two women approached and asked if they could join me.
One woman was my age or older, clearly accomplished as a coach with many wins and successful business ventures under her belt. She had experience, confidence, and a friendly but efficient manner. She smiled easily and took the initiative with what was to come over the next hour.
The other presented as physically attractive to me, intelligent, and younger than both of us. She was recently fired from her coaching job, and after some time, I got the idea she was trying to connect with the more experienced coach in search of some mentorship. She admitted she was looking for some female to female mentorship, which made good sense in the context of her concerns.
We three chatted for a while and the conversation was to me more interesting than any I had heard in a while. For whatever reason, I was being granted the privilege of access and insight into personal struggles and insights into both of these women's careers. As a many time mentor myself, I was both grateful and deeply interested in this discussion as it unfolded. I listened, asked questions, and offered some of my own background and experience. At one point, I caught myself man-splaining the different personality types.
I have a long history with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I've taken the test many times over the years. It was used as a component of our pre-marriage counseling. I applied it in graduate school in a 3D, interactive model I made mapping personality types to careers, to Peter Senge's Five Disciplines, and to Steven Alter's work system model. The model I made showed how we might use personality types combined with works from Senge and Alter to plan and execute organizational development change management projects in culturally different organizations. I also used type indicators to help structure the adult teams I've managed over the years into highly functional units.
I connected with both women on the basis of personality. Evenly split between Introverted and Extroverted, I related easily to the two women's personalities. One, the older one, was typed ENTJ. The second, the younger one, was typed INTJ. While I tend to lean more towards the introverted side as I mature, I know both types intimately - including their strengths and struggles as a man. Listening to how these same strengths and struggle play out in life as a woman was deeply fascinating to me and I found myself not wanting our discussion to end.
All personalities morph and mature. One woman, the older one, has the personality type I more readily identified with when I was younger and climbing the career ladder. The second woman, the younger one, has the personality I more readily identify with today. Both personality types are strong, intuitive, thoughtful, and organized. Both are also rare. As rare types, these types tend to struggle connecting with or being understood by many of the more common other 14 types.
For a man, these personality types simultaneously and naturally lead to leadership and being misunderstood. These same personalities that lead to leadership in men are often ridiculed and condemned in women. When a man is resourceful, assertive, and takes the lead, they can be (but are not always) celebrated. When a women does exactly the same thing - even when she does it better - she can labelled with bad words and rejected.
The younger woman had recently been fired from her coaching job. From what I heard, she not only did a great job as a coach, but she probably did it better than her peers and her supervisor. The result, combined with her intelligence, got her labelled and outcast. Of course, I acknowledge I only had one side of the discussion, but this pattern is something that fits with what I know of her personality.
The older woman was clearly as asset to the coaching community who had accomplished some really great things with her life. She currently coaches at a well-known university and runs a nonprofit that does great things on top of that. She is well spoken, a natural leader, and someone I immediately liked and respected. She relayed story after story of her life struggles against gender bias in the game. She's had to work twice as hard to get half the credit. She compromised in ways I couldn't imagine I would ever compromise and she rose above ignorance and sexism.
As I listened to these two women speak, in the back of my mind, I was taking inventory of the heroes and mentors in my own life. I wondered if I accounted for the extra effort women in this field needed to put in to overcome... if I accounted for the additional challenges that women had to overcome... would I have more women heroes? Over the next few days, I decided I would.
Impacts of Gender Bias in the Game
Based on feedback I've been getting and the reading I've been doing, I see several impacts that gender bias is having on the game. I'll break them into broad categories: Those that affect women, those that affect men, and those that are affecting our kids. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and may evolve over time.
Affects on Women
“I was not valued as a qualified female, MOM, coach. I’m one of very few female coaches within my current outdoor club. I am the ONLY female coach at my Futsal club. I was the ONLY female coach at the previous club. It’s a challenge to say the least.”
Fewer women in the game. When women don't feel comfortable, that they need to fight for everything they get, are undervalued or aren't having fun, many won't want to get involved. Fewer numbers mean fewer voices, ideas, approaches, and solutions. Women can feel isolated and alone. In some cases, they can be burned out or run off.
Stress. It takes a special kind of person to perform well under stress. Often, we see people under stress not performing to their fullest potential. How stressed do you think an average day can be for a woman who is working in an environment that does not understand or appreciate her?
Missing Horsepower. I spent several days noticing women at the convention who had their arms crossed, standing with diminished posture, and generally making themselves smaller than they really are. The body language of these women spoke volumes. To me, it was a visual representation of gender bias in the game and what we, as a whole, are experiencing.
You and I know some real powerhouses who are women who have made a huge difference in the game. But I wonder if we're seeing the full scope of what women COULD do for the game if conditions were different. How many female assistant coaches would be head coaches and driving culture and strategy? How many more great female leaders would we have in positions where they can make a real difference?
Unfair Advancement. If there is one thing I find pretty consistent is that women in the world of coaching often have to work twice as hard for a fraction of the credit. Consider this: take two people who share exactly the same title and job - a woman and a man. The woman in exactly the same position has likely had to overcome more obstacles, negotiate lesser deals (just to get a budget, for example), and has had to bring a level above in grit and determination. Given this context, I've taken a pause in my own life to evaluate my own heroes and role models.
Women like Jill Ellis (USWNT leader through two World Cups), Louise Waxler (former President of United Soccer Coaches), Tracy Hamm (Head coach of the UC Davis women's team), or Corinne Diacre (Head Coach of Clermont Foot in Ligue 2, France) are remarkable people for their ability to show how the human spirit can overcome and succeed against great odds and against gender bias in the game!
What other examples of gender bias in the game can you think of? I am positive I've not provided the entire list here. I'm soliciting your help in filling in the rest.
Affects on Men
Lack of Balance. As a young man, I worked in a number of operational capacities. Before I joined the military, I was a firefighter, a medical first responder, and an EMT. In the service, I expanded my skills with advance cardiac life support, pediatric advanced life support, helicopter operations, trauma support, pharmacology, psychology, etc. On the streets, we always work in teams - partners on single units and as part of larger support teams for additional skills sets, communications, law enforcement, etc.
I always liked having a female partner. Not just because I was a young man and the conversations were more interesting, but because our team was more effective. Operators never know what they're going to be called upon to respond to. We saw anything and everything: from car accidents to child birth, gun shot wounds to bee stings, suicides, rapes, child abuse, domestic violence, farm accidents, gas pains, and heart attacks. Our patients are in maximum security prisons, shipyards, suburban neighborhoods, drug-infested "war zones," on the open water, and even in the air.
When I was paired with a woman, were were better equipped to manage whatever humanity we might encounter in a given day. In some cases, she was stronger. In some cases, I was stronger. In many cases, we were equally strong and simply swapped the lead to give one another a mental break.
Think about a soccer pitch. The extremes might not be as extreme, but I'm doubtful that many coaches would be willing to claim that they can connect with all of their players in the way they need to in order to truly be effective with them. Some think they do, but coaching is about real connection - about understanding and relating to players and parents. Smart coaches and more effective coaching teams will calibrate their goals so everyone on the coaching team is on the same page, and simultaneously allow for and encourage individual human connection and communication.
I believe male/female teams are, as a general rule, better balanced than all male or all female teams. This is true on the pitch and at work. I'm not making any statements about sexual preferences, leanings, or pronouns here, so let's not go down that road. I'm simply saying that both sexes bring something unique to the table. When they are brought together in a respectful way, they can kick some serious butt.
Working in Handcuffs. Men don't all buy into the idea that women don't belong or should be paid less than their male counterparts. In fact, many men are actively seeking to better understand the issues and what solutions might look like. One inadvertent result from female gender bias is when it shuts down open discourse. When women or men assume that other men want to be oppressors of women, it makes it really hard for some men to engage.
Affects on our Kids of Gender Bias in the Game
“My daughter is 11, she recently played in the school mixed gender football team. She was awarded ‘person of the match’, not a well thought through accolade! ”
"...typically the school fields all boys & awards Man of the Match, the difference was the gender of the player & his expectations of her."
"...(the coach) hadn’t acknowledged in advance that his only female player might be the best player on that day."
Lack of Female Role Models. For many people, it's hard to see themselves in a position until they see someone else in that position. When we do see others like us in positions we might aspire to, we dig deeper. We try to understand what their life is like and if that is the life we ourselves might enjoy. When young girls see the women role models of today, do you think they see their life as something to aspire to? Do they clearly see how their investment in a similar future would contribute something meaningful to the game? Or do they see hardship, bias, stress, and glass ceilings?
Awkward Confidence Busters. How do you think the young lady in the story told to us by TeamSudds above felt about being the most valuable player in a match? How do you think she felt when she realized that there was not only no expectation that she would be that MVP, but that no one even knew how to address her in that setting?
Lack of Variety and Excitement. For boys and girls alike, variety and fun are the spices of life. There is no question that men and women bring differences, variety, and fun to the game in their own ways. Not only do different kids respond differently to different kids of leadership, but kids who like one coach's style over another benefit from simply getting the exposure. We're talking all the time in the coaching community about how kids benefit from being exposed to different coaches and coaching styles. How can we not celebrate adding more coaches and coaching styles to the game?
I want to point out that while Title IX has made it clear that boys and girls should have equal access to the game, boy and girls are not exactly the same when it comes to athletics. Women athletes have unique qualities that coaches need to be aware of. Girls suffer from a higher rate of concussions and ACL injuries than their male counterparts - for good reasons. Much of this is due to the angle of their hips and knees. They also uniquely are at risk from a triad of medical conditions that are referred to as the Female Athlete Triad. Anyone coaching young girls should be familiar with conditions that uniquely affect female athletes. These conditions don't mean that girls should participate any less in youth sports. They simply mean that coaches have to add knowledge of these conditions to their coaching education so we can serve our prime directive of providing safety for everyone.
What Can We Do about Gender Bias in the Game?
"Listen to us." This is a piece of advice offered me by both Trish Heffelfinger, former Executive Director of the Maryland SoccerPlex and current Board Member at Large for the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association; and Louise Waxler, Executive Director
McLean Youth Soccer Association and former President of United Soccer Coaches. I asked both women bluntly. What can we as men do to help us overcome gender bias and encourage women in the game?
I would add from a man's perspective that it's important to closely examine our own bias. I didn't think I had female gender bias, but when I closed my eyes and someone said the word "coach" to me, I automatically visualized the classic men coaches: John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, etc.
Check out this page of "Famous Coaches." (https://www.thefamouspeople.com/coaches.php). I count three women here. Some of that is because women is coaching has not had a spotlight on it as long as men in coaching has. But who can argue that Jill Ellis doesn't belong in this crowd? After leading her teams to victory in two World Cups? Really?
Active listening lead to some pretty interesting discussions for me these last few weeks. I've learned a lot - not the least of which is the fact that there is so much more to this issue than I could cover in a single episode. I even found credible arguments that male gender bias exists in ways I frankly never considered before.
If you're a woman already in the game, be proud and have confidence that you're adding value - even if it's not yet recognized by those around you. Have confidence that you're helping to turn the tide and bring awareness to the issue. Many of the women I spoke to in the lead up to this show are women I have learned to respect even more than I did before I started pulling it together. You have to be in it for people to listen to you. You are in it, and many of us are grateful.
If you're a woman who's considered getting involved, go for it! Know that you will probably run into some of this gender bias along the way, but that not only will you be making yourself stronger, but you'll be adding value to the game and inspiring kids in more ways than can be found in books.
At the end of the day, soccer is a team sport made stronger by the diversity of its players. Women are one of many untapped resources that have proven that they can add value to the game. They bring balance, creativity, connectivity, intelligence, and challenge to our sport. We will all be better for opening our eyes and ears, taking ownership of gender bias as one of many problems we all have responsibility for solving, and making it a point to move the needle in our own environment.
- Umaña, José. “Founding Executive Heffelfinger Retires from Maryland SoccerPlex Post.” The Montgomery County Sentinel, 15 Mar. 2019, mont.thesentinel.com/2019/03/15/founding-executive-heffelfinger-retires-from-maryland-soccerplex-post/.
- Research, Author Amino. “Female Athlete Triad: A Medical Syndrome of 3 Conditions.” Aminoco, 22 Aug. 2019, aminoco.com/female-athlete-triad-medical-syndrome-3-conditions/.
- Below are some of the video resources I reviewed in preparation for this episode.