‘Missed opportunities’: why are the WSL’s female coaches a minority?

A couple of weeks ago, Carla Ward, the manager of Aston Villa, was taking part in a documentary about mums in football. “I’ve got a four-year-old little girl, and all she talks about is what she sees,” Ward says. “She loves to tell everyone that her mum is the manager of Aston Villa.”

During filming, the documentary makers asked her daughter what she wanted to be when she was older. Her response? A football manager. “They said: ‘Why?’ She said: ‘Because I see my mummy doing it,’” Ward recalls.

As one of just five female managers in the 12 Women’s Super League clubs, it’s important for Ward to be visible on a personal level. “You think to yourself: the more that these young girls can see it, the more they can believe that they can go and do it. And I’m massive on that.”

Despite the rapid growth of the women’s game in recent years, there is a noticeable lack of female managers and coaches in the upper echelons of the game. At the Women’s World Cup last year, only 12 of the 32 head coaches were women. While there have been interim appointments, a female coach has yet to be appointed a permanent manager in the men’s professional game. Last month, Emma Hayes, who has led Chelsea to four consecutive WSL titles, described the lack of female coaches as a “massive issue”, telling the BBC: “We’ve got a lot of work to do to close that gap.”

For Ward, female coaches are out there – the issue is they aren’t being given the chance to shoot their shot. “Being in the game myself, I know there’s plenty of females out there that are good enough, but it’s that opportunity. I think people need to maybe open the door.”

While Ward stresses that she is “very big on the right person for the right job”, she adds: “Visibility is key. And how do we get that visibility? I’m not sure. But certainly, at the minute, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities with how clubs are maybe recruiting.”

In the Women’s Championship the figures are more promising: six out of 12 managers are women. Among them is former professional player Remi Allen, who was appointed head coach of London City Lionesses in early March. For Allen, things are starting to change but there is still work to be done. “I feel like it has to be the best person for the job,” says Allen, echoing Ward. “In the past, definitely, 100%, women haven’t been getting a look in or have been penalised for being a woman, [and] I think it’s gradually starting to change. But we need more, we absolutely need more.”

Like Ward, Allen says female coaches need more ways to get their foot in the door. “There are absolutely a lot of females out there who I know, who are incredible coaches, who aren’t getting the opportunities.”

Still, the wheels are in motion. In December, the FA reported that, between October 2021 and October 2023, there was an 83% increase in the number of female coaches with Level 1 qualifications and above. Governing bodies also have several programmes aimed at increasing the number of female coaches. The England manager, Sarina Wiegman, is among 10 elite women coaches taking part in a Uefa mentoring scheme aimed at increasing the number of top female coaches. Allen herself speaks highly of taking part in the FA’s England elite coach programme, where she worked as an assistant coach for the under-23 Lionesses.

Remi Allen, the London City Lionesses manager, says gradual change is happening but more needs to be done. Photograph: Henry Browne/The FA/Getty Images

Sexism, however, remains rife in the women’s game – and coaching is no exception. Last month, a survey by Kick It Out revealed that four in five female football coaches reported experiencing sexism in a coaching environment. For Allen, who previously played for Aston Villa, Leicester and Reading, the survey findings are “frustrating”. She says: “It’s been my whole career, like you see it all the time … I do feel clubs are now starting to implement things so that doesn’t happen. But my thing is that there needs to be a strong stance, because there’s no way a female should be going into work and experiencing that.”

Later this year, NewCo will take over the top two tiers of the English women’s game, and Allen is urging the independent body to invest in female coaches. For Allen, the first-hand experience of many female coaches in the women’s game means they have a lot to bring to the table. “We understand the women’s game, because we’ve lived it, breathed it and gone through the ups and downs of it,” she says.

Ward, meanwhile, wants to keep up the progress. “We’re all in this, trying to fight and push the women’s game forward,” she says. “So of course there’s going to be sexism, there still is, but us that are in these positions have to keep shouting, have to keep fighting and making sure that we remove dinosaurs, as I would call them.”

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