UK Athletics chief vows to tackle abuse of female coaches

Kerry McCarthy
·3-min read
Photo credit: JohnnyGreig - Getty Images
Photo credit: JohnnyGreig - Getty Images

From Runner's World

The CEO of UK Athletics, Joanna Coates, says she will adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to dealing with harassment of female coaches within the sport.

Her comments come in the wake of a report by Leeds Beckett University that concludes there are ‘significant cultural and systemic issues’ to be ‘urgently addressed’ in athletics.

The university carried out a study, commissioned by the Female Coaching Network, into how to achieve gender equality within athletics.

It found that, in the past decade, British international teams for the Olympic athletics programme have had 207 male coaches but no female coaches. And just eight per cent of the top 100 UK athletes in 2019 were coached by a woman.

Some of the female coaches who have worked within the structure have reported ‘negative’ encounters with male coaches, which include incidences of ‘sexual harassment and degradation’.

Coates said: ‘The sexual harassment is definitely aimed at women. And similarly to the recent concerns raised around safeguarding, we should completely and utterly have a zero tolerance for anything like this within our sport.

‘The insight gathered from the study will definitely help us in creating our new coaching strategy and structure.’

The study also found a significant drop-off in the numbers of female coaches progressing from level one (30 per cent) to the top level four (11 per cent).

There are no women coaching at senior British Olympic-programme level, while at junior international level over the last decade, 23 of 113 coaches were female.

Photo credit: Ute Grabowsky - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ute Grabowsky - Getty Images

The report says: ‘The coaches described working in a culture in which they are and feel minoritised. It is a culture that is underpinned by unequal gendered assumptions and in which power is retained by a few rather than the many.

‘This is, in part, due to a lack of professionalisation within athletics coaching. Without a professionalised and regulated system, it is open to abuse in two particular ways: the poaching of athletes, and unregulated appointment processes and networks that lead to the exclusion and powerlessness of women.’

Commenting on the section about ‘unequal and unsafe relationships’ with male coaches, the report said: ‘A recurrent and serious theme to emerge from the interviews was that many women spoke of negative encounters and working relationships with male coaches.

‘Such behaviours towards women largely took the form of gendered micro-invalidations such as not being listened to, spoken to, disrespected, or excluded entirely (‘pushed out’). Concerningly, there were also incidences of sexual harassment and degradation against women coaches perpetrated by male coaches.’

In a response Coates, who has been in her position for just under a year, said she welcomed the research and that it is important to create a safer culture, where concerns can be aired without fear.

‘It has been clear to me from day one that we need to professionalise coaching, increase the development opportunities and we need to stop this culture of poaching; those are not gender-specific issues,’ she said.

‘I also believe this isn’t about needing more programmes that encourage women to be coaches because this isn’t just about increasing numbers.

The statistics show we have a sport filled with excellent, highly successful female coaches; we need to change the environment in which they operate and improve the experience.’

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