By Erin McMahon
When Julianne Sitch started her soccer career, she played on an all-boys team in Oswego, Illinois, for two years. At 5 years old, being the only girl on the field never bothered her. Sitch just wanted to play and enjoy the competitive nature of the game, and the Oswego Park District gave her that opportunity. But in recent months, playing with a boys soccer team has come full circle for Sitch. On April 20, she was announced as the new head coach of the University of Chicago men’s soccer team.
Sitch is now the second woman to hold a head coaching position with an NCAA men’s soccer team. Kim Wyant, who is at the helm of the New York University men’s team, became the first in 2015. Sitch said being able to speak to Wyant and having her to look up to made the opportunity to coach on the men’s side more believable for her.
“The more we can see it, the more we can envision women in these (coaching) positions,” Sitch said.
Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination within federally funded institutions and programs, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in June. Within the past year, more women have been assuming coaching roles on men’s professional teams. The NFL has 12 women on staff across eight different teams, the NBA has seven women all coaching for different teams, and Major and Minor League Baseball employs 11 women with on-field coaching positions.
But as changes are slowly being made on the professional level, the number of female coaches for men’s teams at the collegiate level still looks bleak. According to the NCAA’s 45 Years of Title IX report, only 4.6% of head coaching positions across all divisions of men’s teams in the NCAA are held by women.
So what will it take to see more female coaches in men’s sports?
“That stereotypical idea of a female (not) being able to lead a bunch of men still needs to be broken down,” Wyant said.
When NYU men’s head soccer coach Joe Behan resigned two weeks into the season in 2015 due to family health complications, Wyant said she was at the right place at the right time when she stepped in as interim head coach. But, it wasn’t just timing that landed Wyant her permanent position with the team.
“I don’t want people to walk around thinking that I was just given the job at NYU because I’m a female,” Wyant said. “I earned this position through my life’s work of coaching and my resume.”
Hiring a female head coach for a men’s team wasn’t a novelty for an institution like NYU. According to the school’s 2018 university data report, 45% of its athletic and education staff is made up of women, which includes Janice Quinn, the senior associate director of athletics who made the executive decision to hire Wyant.
But this isn’t the norm at other NCAA schools.
“There are not enough women who are in leadership roles at universities that can offer a different perspective on the hiring practices,” Wyant said. “And that applies to diversity as well.”
Angie Torain at U. of C. is part of the 25% of females who hold athletic director positions across all three divisions of the NCAA. She attributes some of the ongoing issues of female representation to women thinking they’re not good enough to get these male-dominated positions.
“It’s encouraging women when they see a position that they think they can do to go for it,” Torain said. “We were lucky with Julianne.”
With some motivation from her predecessor, Mike McGrath, Sitch said she went with a “why not?” mentality when she applied for her current position. Now at the forefront of men’s soccer at U. of C., she wants to show people coaching is about coaching and not the stigmatized capabilities of a certain gender.
“For me, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s men or women, I just want to get the best out of these athletes, help them pursue their dreams and goals, and my culture for that doesn’t change,” Sitch said.
Women like Torain and Sitch are making progress for women in sports, but men still occupy the majority of high-level athletic staff positions. Hence, the reality: It’s up to men to hire more diverse coaches. Janet Rayfield, head coach of women’s soccer at the University of Illinois and a good friend of Sitch’s, said the most movement for women in sports will likely result from their influence.
“Progress is really made when people of the traditional majority start to make decisions that value the input of underrepresented groups,” Rayfield said.
But gender controversy doesn’t end when the hire is made. Peg Rees, a former triple-sport athlete at the University of Oregon, said women who do get the opportunity to occupy coaching positions on a men’s team are consistently held to a higher standard. Having sat on the university committee to implement Title IX, she said though more opportunities are available now, the double standard for women is still apparent.
“Those very few women who are coaching men in sport have to be highly successful, more successful than their male counterparts at their same level,” Rees said.
Just three weeks into training, Sitch said she is excited to see what the team can achieve this year. Feeling secure with all the experience she’s had leading up to this new coaching job, she said she’s more concerned about setting an example for young women to go for any job they want.
“I hope with the likes of Kim Wyant and myself, sports can be a place where women can continue to inspire each other,” Sitch said.