When Lauren Arnell swaps her football boots for the magnetic board as the AFLW season kicks off in August, she will make history as the first retired player to take the reins as head coach.
Most important points:
- The number of female AFLW head coaches rises from zero to three
- That is expected to increase as retired players transition to off-field rolls
- But there are still barriers in the quest to improve gender inequality
After every AFLW club was coached by a man last season, three of the four expansion teams have recruited women for the league’s seventh edition: Arnell in Port Adelaide, Natalie Wood in Essendon and Bec Goddard in Hawthorn.
“In the past few months it’s been a huge leap from zero to three,” said Arnell, who was Carlton’s inaugural captain before taking her 36-game career path in 2021 when she won a premiership with Brisbane.
For the first six seasons of the competition, there were only three female coaches: Michelle Cowan in Fremantle, Goddard in Adelaide and St Kilda’s Peta Searle, who was the only one in 2021.
“There have been some great coaches in that male cohort,” Arnell said.
“But…I don’t think any sane person in the football industry can tell you that there isn’t another woman in the country who could do that job.”
The stage is set for massive improvements to that gender imbalance as more players like Arnell come through the AFLW competition and look to apply their invaluable on-field experience to off-the-field roles.
Arnell has no doubts that the number of senior female coaches will grow as the number of retired athletes increases.
Several former players have already made the transition from the field to the coach’s profession, including Kirby Bentley, Emma Zielke, Melissa Hickey, Courtney Cramey, Leah Kasler, Jacara Egan and Sam Virgo.
Some have donned the coach’s hat while still playing in the league, including Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce, Gabby Newton (Western Bulldogs), Sarah Perkins (Hawthorn) and Alicia Eva (GWS).
Arnell said these were the kind of role models that would inspire the next generation of female coaches to stake their claim in a male-dominated space.
“It’s a big leap of faith to go from playing to head coach… but for players from my background, there’s a lot we can give back.”
Opportunities for further development are also opening up for AFLW players under a female head coach, who Arnell says could interact with players in ways their male counterparts cannot.
“I think it will be much easier for me to interact with my players and understand their daily lives now that I’ve just come out of it.”
Female coaching positions are increasing across the board
AFL Coaching Development and Education Manager Julia Lawrence said the AFL is committed to investing in the female coaching journey and providing coaches with more opportunities to develop their skills and experience at all levels of the game.
The AFL has released a plan of action to ensure that women occupy at least half of the AFLW’s senior coaching positions by 2030.
“As more players come through the NAB AFLW competition and try to move into positions off the field, we expect more women to take on coaching roles in men’s and women’s programs, which is incredibly pleasing,” she said.
The AFL has developed three programs to improve coaching journeys for women and girls across Australia, including the She Can Coach program, which was developed by Arnell.
She said the initiative was designed to help female coaches transition from the grassroots level to higher-performance programs.
“I felt I had a very clear understanding of being in football and doing some coaching myself; I was able to see where the gaps were for female coaches to succeed in the talent journey and also in the wider AFL industry,” said Arnell.
“It was great to see that program now expanding nationally,” Arnell said.
Ms. Lawrence vouched for the success of the program and highlighted the number of female coaches who have climbed the ranks as a result.
“The majority of the 89 coaches who have completed the She Can Coach program are fully industry accredited and coach in the talent track, state competitions, or AFLW,” said Ms. Lawrence.
Freo’s inaugural coach still leads the way
Inaugural Fremantle coach Michelle Cowan, who is now the head of women’s soccer for the West Coast Eagles, said coaching trajectories had improved dramatically since 2008, when she vividly recalls being the only woman in the room with 76 men who reached her level two. achieved accreditation.
She estimates the ratio would now be about 60-40 in favor of female coaches.
“I think a lot of clubs now have a major focus on making sure they continue to provide pathways to all players and all coaches and people in administrative positions,” said Ms Cowan.
“It’s really important that we keep opening those doors and providing opportunities.”
West Coast has started its own academy for women’s coaching, with Cowan providing invaluable mentoring.
“We have five incredible women who are all coming through at different levels of their coaching journey.
She said it was “fantastic” to see how many women are involved in coaching now compared to when she got involved in football 22 years ago.
“I know the AFL has some strong views on what… [women’s coaching] looks like in 2030, that will be 50/50 by [then] with senior coaches, which is a brave target,” she said.
“But the more women we can involve in this great game at all different levels, whether that’s refereeing, or administrative coaching, I think the game will only benefit.”
Barriers to overcome, says Arnell
Arnell said there were still barriers to overcome to ensure adequate representation of women in the coaching ranks in the future, including the gender pay gap and the requirement to combine part-time work due to a shorter season than men.
Women who are less self-confident than their male colleagues can pose another hurdle.
“A lot of members of the opposite sex wouldn’t do that, they would probably take a leap of faith if they ticked some of those key selection criteria, and go for the job anyway.
“Certainly, family would be the next barrier. I’m 35 myself and the majority of people in my life at my age have children at home. There’s the sacrifice of family time that we normally expect from ourselves as women.”
Her advice to women who want to follow in her footsteps is to build their in-depth experience – for Arnell who grew out of years of teaching and getting involved in coaching.
“My other advice is to withdraw and put yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable.”
She said the future of women’s football is bright, with efforts to achieve equality in the coaching ranks gaining momentum.