Women in the coaching world are few and far between, whether it be at regional, national or international levels. It has been a topic of debate amongst the coaching community and that debate does not cease when it comes to Atlantic University Sport and all of the varsity athletic programs within it.
There are 80 head coaching positions in the AUS conference. 10.5 of these positions are held by women, three of whom coach with the Varsity Reds. Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s rank in at second with two each and Acadia, St. Thomas and Université de Moncton hold the third position with one apiece. Memorial University has a single woman who is the Co-head coach of one of their programs. St. FX, UPEI, MTA, and CBU have no coaches who are women.
The Varsity Reds lead the race with their trio of women coaches, one of whom was hired within the last year. Robin Ferdinand of both men’s and women’s swimming, Jilliane Portelli of women’s volleyball, and Sarah Hilworth of the women’s hockey are the holders of these positions and have shown that working in a male dominated field is not going to stop them from being a part of the sports that they love.
“I think it’s normal, it’s what I expected, you know, taking a coaching job, that I would be surrounded by male colleagues,” said Portelli. She started coaching with UNB shortly after finishing her time as an assistant coach with Ottawa U. She was hired in the position after long-time head coach, John Richard, became the athletic director of the Varsity Reds.
“Luckily, the men here are very open and very supportive and we’ve formed really good relationships in this hallway,” she said, referring to the hallway in the Currie Center that has the offices of the four court sports—men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball.
Women’s volleyball is different from other AUS sports, with an even split of three head coaches per gender.
“We have a really nice dynamic where there are three females, and one of them has been here longer than anyone,” Portelli said.
In other disciplines, equal division is—most often—not the case. Both Ferdinand and Hilworth are the only women head coaches in the AUS conference for their sports, with Ferdinand being joined only recently by a co-head coach with Memorial University Seahawks swimming. They are part of a group that makes up a miniscule percentage of overall head coach positions in Canadian university athletics. This balance can lead to an interesting dynamic.
“Occasionally, especially some of the older male coaches, will say things like ‘sweetie,’ or ‘hon.’ They kind of make it so that, because I’m a female, I’m not on the same level as them—but you just kind of keep plugging along and earn respect,” said Ferdinand. “Honestly, until we get to the [coaches] meetings, I don’t really think about it.”
“When you walk into a room, you hope that people just see you as a good [coach] and don’t see you as someone young, or someone who’s female,” said Hilworth.
Hilworth’s coaching staff for next season is an anomaly because it’s the only staff in the conference for women’s hockey with both assistant coaches being women. Their goalie coach is the only male on the bench.
“For us to be able to bring in three strong females to take the lead in terms of coaching here, [it] shows our squad that there is a life after hockey and that you can continue to be in sport and be a female,” Hilworth said.
Hilworth hopes that the representative coaching staff will help to inspire other women to pursue coaching themselves.
“If there’s moms in the crowd, they can go ‘yeah, I can coach my daughter’—or if there’s a girl who’s been kind of interested in that coaching aspect in grade 12, she can see a role model and be proactive in her development,” she said.
All three of the women coaches at UNB have had coaches that have been role models to them in their professions, regardless of gender. They look to continue the tradition of being positive role models in their athletes’ lives.
“I think every coach that I have ever had was a role model for me, so I would assume that, whether as a male or female I would be a role model,” said Portelli.
“Being a female, and being able to inspire those athletes by walking the walk, I think that goes a very long way,” said Hilworth.
Speaking of their past, each of the trio believe that the coaching community has made large strides in the way of equality.
“I think that there are definitely more women coaching; you see more and more every year,” said Portelli. “All throughout the states and the NCAA, a lot of their women’s teams are headed by women—and even overseas you’re seeing women in strong leadership roles in sport. It’s still very much male dominated, but I think there is a lot of equality amongst us regardless of gender that wouldn’t have been there probably 20 years ago.”
Despite this increase, many women who become coaches fill unpaid assistant positions.
“It’s too bad that we can’t pay more assistant coaches, because I think that would help,” said Hilworth. “It’s a matter of giving the tools to the female coaches and saying you can do this, and give them the confidence.”
The women head coaches on the UNB staff have a sense of comradery.
“We’re pretty lucky here to have a good group of strong female coaches—we kind of have each other’s back,” said Hilworth.
“We try to meet every once in awhile and have a little girl-talk session, and we’re really excited now that Sarah has joined the crew too, and that we have another person,” said Ferdinand on her friendship with Portelli.
Though UNB leads the way, there is still more progress to be made for women in the male-dominated coaching world.