Fifty years after Title IX, coaching and leadership disparities persist for women


Data visualization by Zoey Soh

Gender demographics of Northwestern coaches.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

Northwestern women’s basketball associate head coach Tangela Smith made headlines as a high school player. A Chicago native, Smith’s prowess on the court earned All-American honors. 

When it came time for her recruiting process, it wasn’t just the talented team that drew Smith to playing at Iowa.

“There was a woman head coach, (who was) like a mother figure away from home,” Smith said. “(Women coaches) are people players can look up to.” 

Now, five years into her time at NU, Smith is one of three women coaches on the sidelines and one of two women of color. Yet, 50 years after the passage of Title IX, significant disparities remain for women and people of color in the sports coaching world.

Women hold just 41.3% of head coaching positions in Division I women’s sports, according to 2021 data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Among assistant coaches across Division I women’s athletics, only 47.2% are women and less than 30% are people of color. 

For Smith, the solution to national coaching disparities is an easy one. 

“Just hire (women),” Smith said. “It’s as simple as that. There are a lot of great women out there who can coach the game of basketball.”

Women’s basketball director of operations Karen Stack Umlauf (Communication ‘83) noted the importance of encouraging women to embrace the journey of coaching. She said she has a niece playing a Division I sport who has realized over the course of her college career that she might enjoy coaching instead of going into medicine.  

At NU, the percentage of women head coaches is higher than the national rate at 63.6%, as seven of the 11 varsity women’s sports are coached by women. Among women’s assistant coaches, NU is similar to the national average at 48%. But the racial disparities are especially stark: no head coaches of NU women’s sports are people of color, compared to 17.8% nationally. 

Field hockey coach Tracey Fuchs recalled fighting for opportunities to compete with boys when she was younger. Now, she leads a Division I program in a sport that ranks among the “highest percentages” of having women coaches. 

Beyond women leading women’s sports programs, Fuchs said it’s important that women break into the men’s sports world as well.

“Women should be coaching men’s soccer (and) basketball,” Fuchs said. “I mean, why can’t they coach baseball? We have a lot of men’s baseball coaches coaching softball. It’s just that people haven’t seen it… Having that diversity on any staff is only going to help your program.”

There is just one woman who is the head coach of an NU men’s program: Katie Robinson of swimming and diving. But having just one woman coaching a men’s sport puts NU well above the national average. With Robinson at the helm of swimming and diving, NU has an average of 12.5% women head coaches of men’s sports. Nationally, the average is 4.5%. 

Stack Umlauf made history as the first female assistant coach in the Chicago Bulls organization. During her time with the Bulls, she said few women came to ask her about coaching roles. Instead, most wanted to talk with her about marketing. 

Stack Umlauf said her experience with the Bulls taught her that showing interest in coaching men’s sports can be a solution in itself. She spent decades with the organization before joining the coaching staff. When she did, some of her colleagues asked her why she hadn’t told them about her desire to join the staff sooner. 

Returning to the college game at NU for the first time in decades, Stack Umlauf said gender coaching disparities in men’s basketball have caught her attention. 

“It’s always struck me that there aren’t more (women coaching men’s programs), with how progressive we are in society,” Stack Umlauf said. “That’s got to improve. The more diversity you have, the better it is for (everyone’s) experience.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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