Casey Stoney could sense disrespect the moment she entered the room. She was a celebrated England women’s national soccer team captain, a trailblazer and a legend of her sport. But to coach it, throughout her 20s and 30s, she ventured into a series of educational courses designed to prepare her for a cutthroat profession. And in most of them, she found what countless aspiring leaders have over the years:
Among dozens of male pupils and instructors, she was often the only woman.
She’d sit at tables feeling “excluded” from conversations. Male peers would pick one another’s brains; Stoney, meanwhile, “felt like people wouldn’t talk to you, and wouldn’t engage with you.” One male tutor would misstate her name. “I had to spend the rest of the week earning [respect], because I was a woman,” Stoney says — and because a stifling bias still prevails at nearly every level of global soccer, even women’s soccer: “Women don’t know the game.”
“Which is completely wrong,” Stoney, now head coach of the National Women’s Soccer League’s San Diego Wave, clarifies.
Nonetheless, men maintain a near-exclusive grip on men’s soccer, and still preside over a majority of elite women’s teams.
Men coached roughly three-quarters of the 294 top-flight women’s teams from 30 different countries surveyed by FIFA last year. They led 70.9% of NCAA Division I college programs. They ran nearly 90% of youth clubs in the Elite Clubs National League. Even at the international level, where women coaches have won all but one major tournament since 2003, men still coach more than 60% of Women’s World Cup participants — and always have. They led 20 of the 32 teams at the 2023 World Cup; entering the quarterfinals, England’s Sarina Wiegman is the last woman standing.
The reasons why, according to interviews with more than a dozen coaches and executives, are wide-ranging and nuanced. They’re systemic and societal, conscious and unconscious. “It’s not that women do not want to coach,” Tatjana Haenni, the NWSL’s chief sporting director, who previously spent decades working in Europe, says. “It’s because of the lack of pathways, [and] the systematic culture around it.”
There are “many obstacles that historically have stood in the way of women coaches, and more broadly minority coaches,” Orlando Pride general manager Haley Carter says. They mirror the obstacles that once barred female players. For players, they’ve begun to ease, but for coaches, they’ve lingered even as women’s soccer’s economics and professional landscape boom.
“Soccer, or sport in general, is built by men, for men, run by men,” Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, who has studied coaching extensively, says. “Women have entered the system, and been highly successful … but the system is still the system.”
‘Girls cannot be what they cannot see’
The system is a vestige of century-old gender roles and sexism, sexism that Stoney first encountered in Essex and London, long before she understood the depths of it. She endured derision in all-boys soccer leagues. It hardened her, and molded her into a no-nonsense defender, and shaped her 20-year playing career. But she was told throughout that career: “You shouldn’t play, can’t play, it’s a man’s game.” Its gatekeepers had banned women for five decades in England, and elsewhere. Society obstructed girls who’d come to love the game all around the globe.
And so, when restrictive policies and attitudes finally began to relent, when girls were increasingly permitted to play soccer, the vast majority of adults qualified to teach it were men.
Millions of girls grew through the sport in the 1980s and ’90s, many without ever having a female coach.
“It’s astonishing, really,” Stoney says. She now inherits players who’ve had similar experiences to this day. She looks across the Wave’s facility at one of the country’s top youth clubs, San Diego Surf, and sees dozens of coaches but not a single woman.
Because the imbalance became self-fulfilling.
“Girls cannot be what they cannot see,” Miriam Hickey, a longtime youth coach, says.
“I can’t stress enough what visibility does. People want to see those that look like them in positions where they could go: ‘That could be me.’Beverly Yanez
“I can’t stress enough what visibility does,” Beverly Yanez, a former NWSL player and current Racing Louisville assistant coach, says. “People want to see those that look like them in positions where they could go: ‘That could be me.’”
Generations of girls didn’t see that, so they never even considered coaching. Others did, but were deterred by biases the imbalance reinforced.
“I was guilty of it as a player,” Stoney admits. “If a man walked in a room, I’d be like, ‘Oh, they know what they’re talking about.’ And if a woman walked in a room, I’d probably be a bit more like, ‘OK, let’s see how she gets on.’”
Lisa Cole encountered it when she succeeded Tony DiCicco as head coach of the Boston Breakers in 2012. She remembers skepticism, even among some of her players, who told her: “Oh, we’re just hesitant, we’ve never had a female coach.”
That bias, coaches say, has influenced male executives making hires; it has granted male coaches longer leashes and more second chances. It’s also contributed to intimidating, unwelcoming environments for any woman who dared seek professional development.
A coaching infrastructure built by men, for men
Development, for any soccer coach, consists of educational courses that license graduates to work at a given level of the sport. They begin with online “grassroots” modules — cheap and simple. Further up the ladder, they’re a combination of classroom-style learning and on-the-job training. They include homework assignments and practicums, with final assessments. The progression typically concludes with a yearlong “A” or “Pro” course comprising Zooms and in-person meetings.
And in many countries, Haenni says, “basically the coaching content is men’s football content. You hardly have [anything] on women’s football.”
That’s not the case everywhere. Yanez is currently taking U.S. Soccer’s “A-Pro” course, where some projects revolved around a U-20 Women’s World Cup analysis or a Women’s Premier Soccer League team.
But elsewhere, it’s very clear the courses were built by men, for men. In Switzerland, for example, high-level courses conflicted with a FIFA women’s international window. And they only offered admission to full-time coaches in men’s pro leagues, according to Haenni, who worked for the Swiss soccer federation before taking her job at the NWSL last year. So, because men’s clubs almost never hire women coaches, women were essentially forbidden.
In England and beyond, this is where Stoney and others found themselves the only woman in a class of men. “And that just takes — energy,” Haenni says with a chuckle. “Not every woman is made for that.” It doesn’t necessarily make for a “terrible, negative experience,” explains Orlando Pride assistant coach Yolanda Thomas, but “it’s uncomfortable” — and “for many women, it’s just not worth it.”
Because it’s also expensive. It often requires travel. And it can be inaccessible or unaccommodating for moms, who’ve historically shouldered the bulk of child-rearing responsibilities.
Many women say the coaching industry, in general, has been systemically inconsiderate in this regard. Men defined the obsessive rhythms of the job, working round-the-clock, 11-plus months per year — whereas “we, as women, are expected to do something pertaining to our family,” Thomas says. “When that burden is held by women, it affects your decision-making in your career — be it soccer or otherwise. It’s just that in soccer, a lot of times the interests conflict.”
“I actually [temporarily] left coaching, I left the career, because I just felt like there were too many conflicts being a mom,” Amanda Evans, now the head coach at Mary Baldwin University and chair of the United Soccer Coaches women’s community, says. She tells a story that sounds all too familiar. She had her first full-time head-coaching job, at Northland College in Wisconsin. She also had a young child, and when a new athletic director arrived, he told her that her daughter couldn’t travel with the team. Which, of course, “was a huge problem,” Evans says.
Another problem is compensation. For years, salaries throughout women’s soccer have been the opposite of lucrative. Entry-level coaching jobs could hardly support a family — if they existed at all. Many women’s teams haven’t employed full-time assistant coaches. The dearth of intermediate steps cut off a critical tenet of any coaching pipeline — the progression from assistant to head coach.
So instead, the pipeline often wound through men’s soccer — where coaching networks are vast and almost exclusively male.
Several people interviewed for this story emphasized that, just as women should be welcomed in men’s soccer, there is nothing inherently wrong with men coaching the women’s game. “We have a lot of really excellent, qualified male coaches,” Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Players Association, says. “But historically, there’s been a dynamic where men see coaching women as a steppingstone to where they really wanna go.”
“There’s a lot of men in the women’s game that come into the women’s game because they’re not good enough to be in the men’s game,” Stoney says.
They get jobs, though, because of aforementioned biases, and because of aforementioned barriers blocking women, and because “when there’s money, you hire the best; when there’s no money, you have to take whoever you get,” Haenni explains. “With the women’s game growing, and being so fragile, and not having the financial means to set up proper professional structures in the past, obviously it attracted average people, [irrespective of] gender.”
Outreach, all-female coaching courses only half the battle
Several executives pointed to this “pipeline issue” — and said that to fix it, to correct all these imbalances, clubs, leagues and federations must be “intentional.” They all advocated against artificial incentives or versions of the NFL’s Rooney Rule; but there must be “deliberate due diligence in seeking qualified women coaches,” Carter, the Orlando GM, says. And women must be “invited to apply” for jobs, in part because a patriarchal society has dissuaded them from self-advocating and seeking career advancement.
Multiple people mentioned “imposter syndrome” and similar concepts as self-limiting factors. Three coaches used the same hypothetical example to illustrate it: “If there is a job listed, and there are 10 requirements for that job, if a woman meets nine of those requirements but not the 10th, she will not apply for the job,” Evans says. “But if a man meets one of those requirements, he’ll apply for the job.”
Speaking on a January panel, Gotham FC general manager Yael Averbuch recalled a recent coaching search she led as a real-world example: “I got messages from male coaches’ agents all the time; I almost got none reaching out about women.” Male coaches also sent her résumés directly, “and I’ll be honest,” she said, there were “agents or men who sent résumés, and sometimes were wildly unqualified — like, an ‘F’ license trying to get a job coaching NWSL — and there are women out there with ‘A’ licenses and ‘Pro’ licenses who are not being sent my way. So, I felt, to do a truly diverse coaching search, I had to go seek out a lot of candidates.”
The NWSL, Haenni says, has been trying to help. They’ve “created a whole database” of coaches and other women’s soccer experts, of all genders, as part of a broader effort to improve the quality of coaching throughout the league after multiple probes uncovered widespread sexual, emotional and verbal abuse.
The NWSL, NWSLPA and U.S. Soccer also partnered to host all-female coaching courses, taught by women and exclusively for current and former players. There was a “C” License course in Utah in 2018, then a “B” course in 2021. Now there is a pact, within the NWSL’s first collective bargaining agreement, requiring the league to provide up to $25,000 annually to subsidize coaching course enrollment costs for current players.
Amy Rodriguez, a former U.S. national team forward and NWSL vet, took that 2021 course. “I didn’t know coaching was going to be in my future. I signed up thinking I wanted to learn more about it,” she later said. “And it was probably one of the greatest decisions I ever made.” Within two years, she became head coach of the NWSL’s Utah Royals — and living proof of the courses’ importance.
Countless women like Rodriguez have progressed through soccer’s player ranks unaware that second careers in the sport were feasible. Passions remained buried, uninspired and unexplored, because women weren’t visible in front offices or on sidelines, and because opportunities weren’t offered.
But that’s changing. In the courses, says Yanez, a 2018 “C” and 2021 “B” graduate, players “start to find this passion that they didn’t know that they necessarily had.” A few have already matriculated to NWSL staffs. And a pathway has begun to form.
Leagues and clubs know, however, that creating it is only half the battle.
“Getting women in the door,” Carter says, “and keeping women in the game are two different challenges.”
Nurturing inclusivity, support for women coaches
Lisa Cole has spent two-plus decades in the game, tolerating misogyny, and whistles, everything that frequently drives women out of it. She’s heard terrible tales of inappropriate flirtatious behavior, of chauvinistic comments that build up and make soccer a hostile place to work. Some women put up with it, and suffer, to build or maintain a professional network. Others try to call it out, but at a club full of men, doing so can be exceedingly difficult. “A lot of times,” Cole says, “it’s impossible.”
And when it feels impossible, that’s when mentees call her to tell her they’ve had enough; they need to leave coaching.
Evans says she’s had fellow female coaches come into her office crying, “because of how they’re being talked down to.”
And many others don’t have any office to go to, nor anybody to call.
One solution, therefore, is community-building. In interviews, several coaches hailed the need for both male allyship and same-identity mentorship. FIFA launched a mentorship program in 2018, which then-USWNT coach Jill Ellis loved and wanted to replicate. After retiring from coaching, Ellis worked with U.S. Soccer to launch a similar initiative that pairs young female coaches with experienced ones. The vets can help with everything from emotional support to networking.
At United Soccer Coaches, a national organization with more than 30,000 members, the women’s community has attempted to facilitate similar relationships. And within it, there’s a Moms Who Coach group. They have a Google Classroom, where mothers share resources and advice, everything from travel breast pump recommendations to crossing-and-finishing drills. Their WhatsApp chat and quarterly Zoom calls give them a forum to forge connections and share struggles.
They also push for institutional support, for policy changes that chip away at barriers. They got nursing stations at the 2023 United Soccer Coaches convention. They’re hoping for child care in 2024. They know that similar provisions or maternity policies at clubs and schools nationwide, and worldwide, could keep many mothers in the sport.
But to Thomas, a co-founder of the Moms Who Coach initiative, there also must be an overarching, intangible shift. “The biggest challenging part isn’t the logistics of making sure a mother can get to training,” she says. “It’s actually changing the perspective, that making these adjustments is in the best interest not just of that mom and coach, but of the players she leads, of the club that she works for.”
That shift has happened on the player side. It’s now widely understood that everybody — club, national team, player, family — wins when stars like Crystal Dunn or Alex Morgan can have children and continue playing; that accommodating them is beneficial, not burdensome.
The attitude toward mom-coaches, however, often still lags.
As women’s soccer grows, so will opportunities for women coaches
“So,” Thomas says, “you have barriers to entry. And then you couple that with having to provide for a family, having to have a schedule that allows you to raise children. … Access becomes difficult. And then even if you get access, there’s challenges, as far as being comfortable in these spaces.” All of it can be dispiriting. Perhaps infuriating. Demoralizing.
But the “historical context,” Thomas and others say, stokes hope.
Women’s soccer, as a professional enterprise, is still remarkably young. It is accelerating at a staggering pace, granting more opportunity to players than ever before. Opportunities for women coaches haven’t kept pace, but the lag is understandable; and before long, the secondary boom is coming.
“It’s becoming this whole movement,” Yanez says of women’s soccer. “And I think the next phase is the coaching world.”
Her life story serves as a case study. As a girl growing up in 1990s Southern California, she saw the 1999 Women’s World Cup live at the Rose Bowl, and immediately dreamed: “I wanna be them one day.” It became “the entire reason why I played,” she says. She climbed the ladder, to college and then the pros, to Finland and Japan and back to the NWSL. She developed an addiction, to what she calls “the push,” the collective drive among players to “create more visibility, create more dreamers, provide more platforms for women” — to do exactly what the 99ers had done for her.
And then, when her playing days elapsed, she delved full-time into coaching to continue the push.
“I just became addicted to wanting to progress the game again in a different capacity,” she says.
When she joined her first NWSL staff (Gotham) in 2021, there were very few former players coaching in the league. Already, they have multiplied. Yanez brings her daughter, Noemi-Rae, to training when convenient, and Noemi-Rae sees Mom on the field; she sees a female director of operations, a female equipment manager and a female head of high performance. “I want her to see that anything is possible,” Yanez says. More and more, she believes, girls and women worldwide are seeing that as well.
And when they see a woman coaching their youth team; or when they see Stoney sitting on her water cooler, overseeing an NWSL game on TV; or when they see 12 women coaching in a wildly successful World Cup, they will aspire.
They’ll navigate obstacles, but visibility will become a virtuous cycle, and progress will be organic.
Decades ago, “it was impossible for me to dream to be a professional,” Cole, who was born in the 1970s, says. “There wasn’t women’s professional soccer when I came up. Now there is. And you can see that effect on young girls. Hopefully, that same effect will happen in coaching.”