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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Toni Armstrong:
I was a coach for USA Swimming for over 7 years and spent one year coaching college. I personally have felt the struggle of being a female coach in a male dominated career. I have been passed on for promotions for less qualified candidates based on my gender and marital status. I’ve even heard fellow coaches say things like “female coaches just want to be mommies” and “females cannot succeed without males to push them and keep them accountable.” It was negative experiences like these that inspired me to switch careers to Leadership Development.
My most recent employment was for The Stanford Leadership Institute at Stanford University where my husband was also employed as the assistant Men’s Swim Coach. During my time in California, I was part of the Stanford Swimming family and got a front row seat to the path that Stanford Women’s Swimming was forging from a social and professional perspective. I went to their home meets, I saw their practices, I chatted with the coaches about leadership development theories, and the swimmers became family members—especially the ones who babysat my son. I most importantly got to witness the developmental side of the program. Not the national titles or the Olympic medals, but the tears, the tough decisions, the group dynamic struggles, the learning and the growth. I got a front row seat to the path that Stanford Women’s Swimming was forging and I am not surprised by their success over the past five years. I am inspired by their story; they are an example of doing gender equality right, which I believe contributes to their high levels of success.
Stanford Women’s Swimming just accomplished their most successful season to date. They claimed this year’s D1 National Championship Title along with an undefeated season, coach of the year award, academic all American status, and a handful of American Records. Last year, they birthed two new Olympians and won 8 Gold, 5 Silver, and 1 Bronze Olympic medals. Their recent resurgence of success is exciting to swim fans around the country, but should be exciting to non-swim fans as well. Their story from the past five years under Head Coach Greg Meehan and Associate Head Coach Tracy Slusser matters to the broader feminist movement and gains momentum with each person who knows it. Here are five reasons why Feminists should be excited about Stanford Women’s Swimming.
1. Associate Head Coach Slusser was Hired While 6 Months Pregnant
When Head Coach Greg Meehan was hired at Stanford in 2012, he knew Tracy Slusser was the coach to hire as his assistant. Slusser’s career before Stanford included positions at Arizona and Texas A&M, as well as a successful collegiate swimming career at Purdue University where she competed in The Division One NCAA. Meehan attempted to partner with Slusser earlier in their careers, and her pregnancy didn’t stop him from trying again.
In a male dominated career, female coaches are uncommon—and even more rare in Division 1 collegiate women’s swimming programs representing only 18.8% of the Head Coaches and 38% of the Associate Head Coaches. Assistant coaches are more even at 42% female, but it is unknown how many of those coaches are considered volunteers and unpaid. Of this years top 10 performing women’s swimming programs, only 24% of those coaches are female; with no more than 11 out of 15 receiving payment for their employment.
Female swim coaches are often pigeonholed into age group (12 years and younger) coaching and expected to dial back their careers once they reach motherhood. Slusser coaching success over the past five years demonstrates why women should not be excluded from the opportunity to advance their career while simultaneously starting a family.
2. Slusser Proves that Motherhood and Career Success are not Mutually Exclusive
During Slusser’s first five years at Stanford, she gave birth to both of her children. Motherhood wasn’t a barrier to her career, but was part of the journey to success. She was promoted to Associate Head Coach after her second season—yes, the same years as the pregnancy and birth of her first child.
Slusser coaches in her own style and doesn’t try to overly masculinize her demeanor to fit into the male coaching stereotype (as many female coaches are pressured into from both their superiors and athletes). She doesn’t hide her role as mother or separate family and career; she embraces both of them as symbiotic pieces to her success. This is evident at the most elementary level through her coaching attire, which is professional yet feminine. Slusser proves that motherhood and femininity can be strong and successful in high achieving athletics.
3. Mentoring Female Coaches is the Norm
Meehan has mentored two female volunteer coaches at Stanford who went on to coach in powerhouse conferences. April Woo, who previously swam for Meehan at Pacific, is currently the assistant women’s swim coach at University of Notre Dame, and Jordan Wolfrum is currently the assistant women’s swim coach at Ohio State University. The mentorship both Woo and Wolfrum experienced at Stanford spring boarded their careers.
In 2015, Slusser spoke at the Women in Coaching Clinic whose mission is “to educate and empower coaches through developing support networks and facilitating dialogue.” Both Meehan and Slusser believe in the importance of female coaches and are actively involved in decreasing the gender gap in high-level athletics.
4. Team Culture of Strong and Independent Women
Stanford’s female swimmers pursue a slew of diverse majors and represent the growing percentages of females in male dominated careers including engineering, political science, and computer science. Ten out of the fourteen currently declared majors are STEM focused. Meehan and Slusser mentor athletes to know that there are no limits both in and out of the pool and that high-level athletics and high-level academics can be achieved simultaneously. Their swimmers are often given activities to reflect on personal strengths and are encouraged to discuss those assets with their teammates. Meehan and Slusser encourage athletes to know and own their assets, while supporting and respecting one another’s abilities. They have created a culture where competition is an opportunity to support one another’s growth, to forge new paths, and to break through superficial barriers, where struggle, emotions, and passion are symbols of strength regardless of your gender.
5. Meehan Demonstrates that Family and Work Balance is not Gender Specific
Feminism at it’s core is about gender equality. Women, men, and transgendered people strive for equal opportunities and respect in all of life’s roles inside and outside the home. Balance between career and family is a common struggle among all parents regardless of their gender. Claiming that gender inequality in high-level athletics is due to struggles with family work balance also suggests that male colleagues don’t value family. Stanford Women’s Swimming, and Stanford Athletics as a whole, is a very family friendly workplace. Seeing Slusser or Meehan’s children at the pool is a common occurrence—in fact their children and spouses were all in attendance at this year NCAA D1 Championships. Head Coach Meehan sets the tone on deck and in the office as welcoming. Both Meehan and Slusser’s families are involved in the team, which is a benefit to both their careers as coaches and as parents. They are tremendous role models to the women they coach, and demonstrate daily that both men and women can, and do, balance work and family.
My time at Stanford and around the Women’s Swimming and Diving Program makes me optimistic for the future of women and coaching. I hope that this story will educate men on the power of a gender balanced program as well as remind them that women are more than a ticking time bomb during their child bearing years. I also hope that it will inspire female coaches everywhere to stay in high-level athletics because being female and/or feminine is an asset. The glass ceiling has been broken; let’s make these five methods the norm.