Breaking the glass ceiling in Australian elite sport



When the top coaching job at the North Melbourne football club recently became available, Lisa Alexander decided to throw her hat in the ring. Alexander’s coaching experience is formidable. She is the two-time Australian Institute of Sport coach of the year. She coached an Australian national team to two World Cup finals, one world cup win and a Commonwealth Games gold medal. She coached one of the top teams in the world for almost a decade. It’s the type of experience clubs dream of in a coach.

Lisa Alexander at all-stars game (Jaimi Joy/Getty Images)

But Alexander didn’t get the job. Not only that, she didn’t even get an interview. Because though she was one of Australia’s most successful and experienced coaches, her experience was in netball.

North Melbourne’s decision not to interview Alexander highlights the limited opportunities for women in senior coaching roles in Australia. There are two clear potential paths for women to the senior level of coaching men’s sport in Australia. One is to develop skills and experience in a sport in which there are multiple opportunities for women, then move across to a similar role in men’s sport. The other is to follow a development path within a sport with a men’s and a women’s program. Alexander’s experience suggests the former isn’t considered a serious development pathway.

Ted Lasso aside, transferring coaching skills across sports isn’t just the stuff of fiction. Take, for example, Mike Young. He’s a former minor league baseball player, and Australian baseball player and coach. He’s also the current Australian cricket team fielding coach.

Even within the AFL, the idea of transferrable skills isn’t new: you only need to consider the stories of international imports like Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly, Mason Cox and Mike Pyke, all of whom had considerable success at the highest levels of the game.

The skills that are vital in a senior coach — managing players, developing good assistant coaches, creating a long term plan for success and executing well under pressure — are not exclusive to any one code and are largely transferrable. There is also a strong argument that an outside perspective on tactics could be a significant advantage.


'While senior roles in men’s teams are at least theoretically appointed on "merit", that merit is defined in such a way that it excludes women — it requires experience that is not available to female coaches.'


But if the up-and-across path isn’t available, it makes it all the more important that there are sufficient development opportunities within sports in Australia. Unfortunately, as women’s professional sport has grown in Australia, fewer women have been given coaching roles.

In the first seasons of the AFLW, two of the eight senior coaches were women. Since then, twelve additional coaches have been appointed at across the last three seasons. Of those, Peta Searle of St Kilda was the only woman. In total, just three of the 20 people to have been appointed as senior coach to an AFLW team have been women.

A similar story has played out in cricket’s WBBL. Currently there are just two female coaches across the eight teams. This is despite women playing international cricket at the highest level since 1934. Three new coaches were appointed across the league in 19-20, and an additional two in 20-21. Of these new coaches, just one is a woman.

The argument that there is insufficient female coaching talent does not stand up to scrutiny. Over the course of four AFLW seasons and five WBBL seasons, dozens of female players have gained experience and then retired. The talent pool is larger than it was when each of these leagues were founded. And yet, female coaches have been given fewer opportunities to lead as the competitions have grown.

When retiring male players go straight into full time development coaching roles in the men’s game — as well as senior roles in women’s teams — and retiring female players can only access part time roles coaching other women, the development gap starts early. The path up through the league is crowded by men, who dominate roles not just in men’s sport, but in women’s sport as well. 

So while senior roles in men’s teams are at least theoretically appointed on ‘merit’, that merit is defined in such a way that it excludes women — it requires experience that is not available to female coaches. As such, our ‘merit-based’ system finds a way to exclude the two-time AIS coach of the year not just from being appointed to the role, but even from getting an interview.  

There are some signs of change on the horizon. The AFL recently announced a subsidy to encourage clubs to appoint women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in roles they have not traditionally held in football. But change can’t just come from the top-down. In order for it to be effective, clubs need to make bold decisions and take risks. But as long as women can't get their foot in the clubroom door, little is likely to change.



Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Main image: Lisa Alexander at all-stars game (Jaimi Joy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Riley, Lisa Alexander, AFLW, WBBL, AFL, gender equality, sport



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Existing comments

Erin you have addressed an issue that is so relevant to the Catholic Church here today and on many matters that need fixing now ! The start of the last paragraph in your story states " There are some signs of change on the horizon".. if only that applied to the Church with the appointment of women to the priesthood. It has occurred in other parts of the world and must occur in Australia...NOW.

Maurice Sheehan | 17 November 2020  

Anyone who has watched netball at the elite level will know the levels of skill, fitness and mental strength required to successfully compete. Although males do play netball, it is overwhelmingly a female sport. And successful female coaches in this very popular game gain considerable experience in managing physical and mental abilities. Transferring those skills to the blokey culture of the AFL, or indeed any male-dominated sport, presents formidable challenges. The sporting public is used to seeing salacious headlines about badboy behaviour, off and on the field. It would be to the AFL's advantage to have more professional female coaches. It could lead to a renewed awakening of a number of the players (and male powerbrokers of the game): a woman with impressive skills treating them with empathy and respect as their coach and expecting the same in return.

Pam | 17 November 2020  

Maurice you are preaching to the converted yet the stubborn mute resistance in Rome to inclusion of women even in debate is overwhelming. Its a man's world over there and the only current topic top of mind for Pope Francis is sanctioning same sex civil unions. And why that would take precedence over equal rights for women is just another example of the power of the LGBT lobby. How little power women hold in this church? Yet they constitute about half of Catholicism’s 1.2 billion followers. Not only are women barred from ordination to the priesthood, they are not even allowed to vote at Vatican synods, convened to advise the pope about challenges facing the church. Just goes to show that abuse is purely a "male" problem. In Rome the Swiss guards rudely block female entrants to the Vatican with their lances if their skirts are too short or their heads uncovered. The closest women will get to meaningful change in Rome is waving their handkerchiefs at Francis when he parades on the balcony.

Francis Armstrong | 18 November 2020  

Somebody needs to do some philosophical thinking about whether you can prime the well of merit by sacrificing some of the claims that arise from merit. It’s not a canonical issue so free thinking is permissible as to whether the well of merit can become deeper and richer if some meritorious men elected to “stand back and stand by” so presently unmeritorious women can be allowed to make that start of gaining merit and contributing to the well. Scratch-the-past-and-move on-with-what-you-have-now was applied to the brood of vipers approaching the Baptiser, as to the hordes who still approach his successor.

roy chen yee | 20 November 2020  

Maurice, why is the issue of women as priests still the subject of discussion? It is wasted dialogue. The Catholic Church has been the bastion of a male-only priesthood since Melchizedek, who officiated for Abraham. Popular opinion is unlikely to change such a foundation.

Bob GROVES | 24 November 2020  

I have no problems with women coaching sport at the highest levels. Whilst I think Dave Rennie is just settling in as the Wallabies coach and is doing reasonably, when the time comes and he decides to leave, I would have no problem with his being replaced by a woman, provided she brings the sensitivity and insight he has to the situation. Australian sportsmen often appear psychologically immature. A really mature man or woman might help them develop as real, all round moral men in the Ted Whitten, Bill Woodfull or John Landy mould. Talking of women's ordination, I remember, before that happened in the Anglican Church in Australia, a woman, I believe the widow of a former archbishop, who was later ordained herself, saying that, unless the women ordained came from a wider segment of society than the men who comprised the then clergy, nothing would really change. Real change is not about sex, it is about the interior life. That is hard to gauge. I refuse to discuss OOW in these pages.

Edward Fido | 06 December 2020  

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