There’s No Gender Gap for Winning Basketball Coaches

Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach Niele Ivey. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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Why you should care

It makes you wonder why coaching jobs overwhelmingly go to men.

At the end of last season, Notre Dame head basketball coach Muffet McGraw said she was done hiring men. Few protested: Women are underrepresented in the college basketball coaching industry compared with men. Women make up 61 percent of women’s college basketball head coaches, but that number has fallen since its high of 66 percent in the 2009–10 season, and female coaches almost never get an opportunity on the men’s side, which greatly diminishes their career prospects.

NCAA BASKETBALL: APR 01 Women's Div I National Championship - Mississippi State v Notre Dame

Notre Dame associate head coach Niele Ivey celebrates after winning last year’s national championship against Mississippi State.

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In fact, there has never been a female head coach in Division I men’s college basketball or the NBA. But recent data shows that’s not because men get better results. According to a 2018 analysis:

There’s no difference in success rates for male and female basketball coaches.

The study, published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, analyzed coaches of women’s college teams and the WNBA. The results showed that men and women achieve a similar level of success — so despite long-standing stereotypes that favor men as coaches, the bias toward male leadership may not actually have an effect on whether a team wins.

The study analyzed data from 19 WNBA seasons (1997–2015) and three seasons of NCAA women’s basketball (2013–16). Instead of simply looking at wins and losses, the researchers evaluated player improvement by coach, which allowed them to control for recruiting and talent advantages a coach might have.

“If you get to coach LeBron James and I don’t, that doesn’t make you a better coach,” says David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University and co-author of the study. “It just means you have LeBron James and I don’t. What we wanted to know is if gender truly matters, then it would be the case that men systematically make their players better than women make their players better. And that’s not what we’re seeing in the data.”

Yet, in the WNBA this past season, only five of the 12 head coaches were women, and two of them, Katie Smith of the New York Liberty and Pokey Chatman of the Indiana Fever, were fired shortly after the season. The last time a majority of the coaches in the WNBA were female was in 2010.

According to numbers from High Post Hoops, 61 percent of head coaches in women’s college basketball last season were female — but this isn’t representative of Division I athletics as a whole. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida reported in February that about 49 percent of women’s Division I athletes were coached by men during the 2018 season.

“A lot of times people will say women cannot coach on the men’s side because men’s sports are just so different, basketball is different, all these things,” says Lindsey Darvin, an assistant professor of sports management at State University of New York at Cortland and co-author of the study on coach success. “On the flip side, you have men coaching women’s programs where they’ve never played at a high level.”

But if men routinely coach women’s basketball, the question remains: Why shouldn’t women coach men’s teams?

As of last season, there were no women leading men’s basketball teams at any level within the NCAA and just one assistant coach, Edniesha Curry, at the University of Maine at Orono. There are no female head coaches in the NBA, but there are 11 female assistant coaches, six of whom have just begun their first stint coaching men in the league. The San Antonio Spurs’ Becky Hammon became the first woman to coach full time in the NBA, in 2014.

One of the new assistant coaches, Niele Ivey, was formerly the associate head coach under McGraw at Notre Dame.

“I was so excited for her to get that opportunity. I think the NBA is really starting to get ahead of the curve in terms of hiring,” McGraw says. “I think we’re heading in the right direction. But I told her to use her voice. You’re going into a new situation. These guys have tremendous experience. You’re gonna learn a lot from them. Listen, but don’t be afraid to use your voice.”

Berri thinks coaches like Ivey should be considered for more than just their strong voice. 

“There has been a movement in the last few months where they’ve hired [female] assistant coaches … keep celebrating this. But there are plenty of women who have coached basketball for a very long time who could be hired as head coaches,” Berri says. To those who argue women should pay their dues as assistants, Berri counters, “There are plenty of men who’ve been hired who never served as assistant coaches.”

WNBA head coaching salaries aren’t publicly known. But top-tier female women’s college basketball coaches, such as McGraw, Baylor’s Kim Mulkey and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley all make around $2 million or less based on the most recent publicly available figures, while USA Today reported that at least 55 men’s college coaches make more than $2 million in total compensation. Kentucky head coach John Calipari leads the pack, making more than $9 million.

Both Darvin and Berri plan to conduct a similar study that looks at male and female coaches in other sports, such as NCAA softball, which men rarely play at a competitive level. Their hope is to see a similar trend and be able to further back up the idea that men are not inherently better coaches than women, and refusing to hire women is limiting the applicant pool.

“When it comes to men’s sports, you see this clear preference where almost all of the jobs are given to men,” Berri says. “If that’s the case, because you’re excluding half of your labor pool, there have to be men being coached by coaches that probably are not particularly good and wouldn’t be there if you were considering everybody.”

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