"How could you be a woman and not experience gender bias?" coach Tara VanDerveer asks over the phone.
The rhetorical question comes on the heels of the June 1 release of a new report by the Women's Sports Foundation, "Beyond X's and O's: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women's College Sports."
VanDerveer has coached the Stanford women's basketball team for 31 years. After graduating from Indiana University in 1975, VanDerveer returned home to take some time off with the intention of returning to school to pursue a law degree. Instead, she ended up coaching her sister's high school basketball team, and thanks to Title IX, there were coaching jobs at the collegiate level. She landed her first coaching gig as a graduate assistant at Ohio State University, and a head coaching job at the University of Idaho soon after.
"I was very fortunate that at Ohio State there was a strong female administrator, Phyllis Bailey," VanDerveer says of the experience. "When I went to Idaho, there was a strong female administrator, Kathy Clark. She took a chance on me as a young head coach, I was 24 or 25."
VanDerveer, who is the first to acknowledge her good fortune, had an experience that is even rarer today. Ninety percent of women's teams were coached by women in 1971. That has since dropped to 43 percent. Fewer women are athletic directors and/or make hiring decisions, which contributes to a somewhat hostile environment.
"We have situations within athletic departments where athletic directors don't want to work with women, who would much rather hire male coaches," VanDerveer says. "There are athletic directors who will hire women and support them pretty well, but may not [have an] understanding of the issues women experience that are different than men."
But, VanDerveer adds, there are still some athletic directors who champion gender diversity. "And then then there are athletic directors that are working really hard to promote women, and have more women coming down the pipeline," VanDerveer says.
Gender bias, however, is not just a hiring and representation problem. It permeates the environment, even abroad. VanDerveer recalls the time when an international referee tried to convince her of his skills, so he mentioned that he did men's games in addition to the women's. "So I got him a T-shirt that said women's basketball on it."
The issue is systemic, involving the decision-makers within departments who, within the athletic space, are mostly men. For change to happen, buy-in at the top will be essential.
"It doesn't matter how good you are if you don't have the support from the people above you," VanDerveer said.