Sinead Kissane: Pathways slowly forming to encourage women into coaching
There are stand-out females who are breaking new ground as coaches but more needs to be done
When former Ireland player Tania Rosser began work as a coach in men's rugby, her role was sometimes mistaken for something else. Two years ago Rosser became the first female in Ireland to coach a men's rugby team - she took over as head coach of the Clontarf J1s (second team) and also started working with the senior men's team. Some referees initially assumed Rosser was the physio or the mother of one of the players before discovering that she was, in fact, the head coach.
Rosser's stature is growing, with players looking to join her team but she took some flak from opposition teams.
"There would be some remarks from opposing coaches like 'go back to the women's game'. You've got to be tough in that environment which is dominated by men," she admits.
"I'm confident with the knowledge of the game that I have. I just have to keep proving myself. I'm going to get a lot of feedback, a lot of comments thrown back at me and I've just got to be the bigger person and keep pushing on through".
Women's sport, and women in sport, is developing at various levels. Look at the past year: a record attendance for the women's All-Ireland football finals; Joy Neville winning World Rugby Referee of the Year; the Republic of Ireland mixing it with the best in their FIFA Women's World Cup qualifier group.
However, there remains a stark imbalance in Irish sport - why are there so few female coaches and managers?
There are currently only four female inter-county Gaelic football managers; Monaghan's Annmarie Burns, Armagh joint-managers Fionnuala McAtamney and Lorraine McCaffrey and Offaly manager Sinead Commons.
In senior inter-county camogie, there's Kilkenny's Ann Downey and Patricia O'Grady of Clare. Downey is surprised there continues to be so few women in these positions.
"What role models have women for women coaches?" Downey asks. "There would be pressures on you and you have to have the confidence and belief in your own ability that you are able to do it."
You can't be what you can't see, goes the saying. It's a straight-forward rationale that the more girls and women see other female coaches and managers, the more it opens up the idea for others.
Like women filling positions at board-room level in sporting organisations, sometimes we need to be coaxed into roles we previously wouldn't have seen ourselves in.
"Sometimes I don't think women back themselves enough, that they wouldn't be good enough to do it," former Ireland rugby captain Fiona Coghlan says. "It sometimes takes to be asked and that's what happened with Joy (Neville) and the refereeing - she had to be asked three times to try it."
Some women, such as Rosser, have dug out their own pathway to become a coach. A few years ago she went on a coaching course and was the only woman in a room of around 80 men.
"It could be (intimidating). I think I've got that competitive edge to me so I see it as a challenge," Rosser adds.
"I'm not going to lie, I probably don't get as much opportunities as the male coach would get. But look, it's a challenge and why not take the challenge on?"
Lisa Fallon was the only woman in her class when she studied for her UEFA B and UEFA A coaching badges. Next month she will complete her UEFA Pro License which has been 12 years in the making and which has come at a cost of around €20,000 altogether.
Fallon works as first-team analyst with Cork City FC men's team, with Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland and she recently joined Jim Gavin's coaching team with the Dublin footballers. "It's been a fairly relentless pursuit of study and getting experience," says Fallon.
Rosser and Fallon have made their own way but what are sports bodies doing to encourage women into coaching positions?
The Ladies Gaelic Football Association ran a Level 1 Assimilation course for inter-county players for the first time ever last year and they hope to do more of that in their new strategic plan. The Camogie Association is currently developing a specific Level 1 coaching course for former players and they plan to roll that out in August.
Leinster Rugby have started a 'Women in Coaching' programme, with current and former players involved in the first event last November and 50 female coaches at their second event last December.
For a national governing body such as Triathlon Ireland, they've also targeted trying to increase the number of female coaches by holding female-only coaching courses. In 2016, 69 women did the Tri Leader course and already in 2018, 35 women have done it.
"Women are under-represented as coaches - 22pc of our coaches are women, so in the context of 35pc of our members being women, that's certainly a part that we want to increase," says Kevin Keane of Triathlon Ireland.
"The men in our sport would definitely feel that there's nothing a woman shouldn't be able to tell them - that they can learn from a woman equally as well as they can learn from a man because one point of our sport is that we've always accorded equal billing to women," Keane adds.
"One of our most successful athletes ever is female - Aileen Reid. So there is an inbuilt role model there so I think that a lot of men would recognise that in our sport."
While sports including athletics and triathlon have traditionally had equal status for men and women, female team sports - such as rugby and football, which are still relatively young sports here - have traditionally not had that equal footing.
Does that make it even harder for women to break into coaching a men's team in sports such as football and rugby?
Because they are growing sports, a team such as the Republic of Ireland for example, is benefiting hugely from the vast knowledge and experience manager Colin Bell is giving the players. Those players will have that knowledge banked in the event they ever decided to get into coaching.
Women need male coaches as mentors. Mags D'Arcy (left) is the new goalkeeping coach with Davy Fitzgerald's Wexford. Fitzgerald showed real leadership by making this appointment which went outside conventional thinking.
"I've had nothing but respect and have learned more in the last couple of weeks about professional coaching than 15 years of playing camogie," D'Arcy said last month.
For someone like top horse-trainer Jessica Harrington, gender is rarely mentioned. That's where we want to get to for women in sport.
Sport in Ireland - at all levels - should encourage women into male-dominated environments, which would also help transform patriarchal aspects of sporting culture.
More pathways into coaching need to be developed so that, ultimately, women create a path for others to follow.