Where Are All the Ladies At?

On a Monday afternoon in July of 2023, I was fired from my position as head coach of Jefferson High School’s track and field program.

The virtual meeting with the principal and the assistant district athletic director took less than five minutes and while I knew it was coming, it was impossible to shrug off the unsettling feeling of shock that was burrowing into my chest. It was just the latest in a series of meetings and interactions that confirmed to me what I had always known was true: the men that ran our district athletic office and school athletic programs did not want a woman as head coach, and they’d do what they could to get rid of me.

A month before “my position was not renewed” as they put it, I was told to “cheer up” and “see the glass half full” by another male supervisor from the district office in a zoom call with other head coaches. I had asked for a protocol for ordering equipment. Two years before that, the same supervisor told me not to “feed into the negativity of other women” when I asked what the district was doing to remedy inequities between program facilities. By summer of 2023, I had lost count of the misogynistic comments thrown my way by peers and supervisors alike. And all I had accomplished, all that I had been so proud to put my name to, was suddenly stained by a termination that I knew was wrong but felt powerless to fight.

 Twenty-six years old, and fresh out of my teacher licensing program, I became the first female head track and field coach at Jefferson, a Northeast Portland public school that had historically served the Black community. I’m certain I was also the youngest head coach in both school history and Oregon’s largest school district at the time, regardless of sport. I’d spent my early twenties as an assistant coach for two other schools, knowing that ultimately, I wanted to take on the role of head coach when I’d amassed the knowledge and experience necessary. The chance came earlier than I had anticipated. At the time, my excitement at finally having that opportunity was fueled by the naivety that all I needed was to be surrounded by coaches and mentors that cared about our sport and even more about the kids we worked with. How silly of me.

This hopefulness was slowly eroded by the reality of working alongside male dominated staffs, almost exclusively reporting to male superiors in district and building administrations, and being one of very few female sprint and hurdle coaches. It was a stark contrast to see me standing at an intimidating 5’4” at the start lines for races between my colleagues, all male and dwarfing me at no less than 6’0,” not to mention the years of experience and knowledge they had on me. There was a running joke that I could be passed off as one of the athletes in case of injury, and no one would notice. Workshops and coaching seminars found me in rooms that were overwhelmingly male, the free t-shirts they gave out in sizes and cuts that obviously didn’t consider that women may be in attendance.

At the beginning of my tenure as head coach, I watched as my program was pitted against the other eight in the district for resources and equipment, often being told not to “tell [insert school name here] that you got [insert required piece of equipment] because then we’ll have to get them one too.” And while I watched the power that came with opening more consistent lines of communication not only with the one other female head coach, but all eight head coaches, it also meant forcing the glaring inequities into the light. The district office, almost exclusively staffed by men with football and basketball backgrounds (save the woman who acted as office manager), made a habit of routinely responding to my male peers while leaving my calls and emails unanswered. One thread asking for pole vault equipment that met safety standards and wasn’t nested in by rats went on for multiple years with little to no response or action taken; I made a point of emailing every week just to “see what the status of the request was.” At five years in, I had become a pro at the game of “following up,” “circling back,” and “find a creative solution” that the athletics office required me to play.

As the seasons came and went, it was nearly impossible to believe that what I was experiencing was anything but a direct result of being a woman. In addition to working at a historically underserved school, it not only felt personal but systemic and intentional. As I was attempting to rebuild a program that had long been neglected, I began to look more widely not only at track and field, but at data around women in coaching and sport overall. I wanted to know why there weren’t more of us in the head coach meetings, the athletic director retreats, on the track. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by what I found.

For the 2022-23 season, I was effectively on my own as my athletic director left her job to work in another school district. She was one of two female athletic directors to leave mid-year (both have since been replaced by men). The other male head coaches had athletic directors who acted as interference between them and the district office, administrators who were paid to meet the needs of the head coaches and programs they oversaw so that coaches could do exactly that: coach.  I was alone to run my program, my staff, coach hurdles, and do the duties of an athletic director with little to no direction and certainly no pay. It became untenable.

By April, just two months into the season, I had filed a formal complaint against the district office and the assistant athletic director for the district for discrimination based on gender and the creation of a toxic, hostile work environment. The figurative straw that broke the camel’s back was their insistence that I “must be missing information” when I reported that our boys had broken a twenty-year-old school record. Coming after me and invalidating my work was one thing, diminishing the accomplishments of the kids we were charged with serving was another. And I was tired of staying silent, feeling complacent in an athletic department that was inequitable and harmful. This move, my decision to go to Human Resources, wasn’t allowed in their game, my pushback was not accounted for in the Boy’s Club rulebook so I had to go. Simple as that.  


On paper, the Paris 2024 Olympic Games is set to become the first to see true gender parity for athletes competing, according to The International Olympic Committee. There will be 5,250 men and 5,250 women competing. One-hundred and twenty years after women were first invited to participate in the most celebrated international sporting event, Tokyo 2020 boasted 48.7% of its competing athletes were women. Just four years later, it’s nearly poetic that Paris will once again host this sort of historical moment in women’s athletic; the 1900 Paris games was the first to invite women to compete, 20 to be exact.

But I’m more interested in what’s happening behind the scenes. As exciting as the Tokyo Olympics proved to be, less than 13% of all athletes, regardless of gender, were coached by women. I don’t need to see the exact numbers to know that the number of female coaches of male athletes is even lower. It would be negligent to stop my investigation here. The Olympic Games are international events that highlight the literal best of the best in each sport.  What about the more foundational levels of athletics, the years between seven and seventeen where individuals learn and develop the skills they need to become that top 1%?

Looking at these numbers is imperative in qualifying and solidifying my own experience in the world of sport, and that of so many other women, and unfortunately statistics and data is often the only way to get people to acknowledge a problem. As we know, historically the word of women alone is not enough. When I was fired at the end of the 2023 season, a peer and my former boss asked if “there was anything I had done to precipitate the decision.” An athletic director at another school asked over drinks “why I felt I needed to defend myself” and that “I wasn’t always being attacked.” I had just finished explaining that none of my meet fees had been paid — his were — and my uniforms were chewed through by rats — his team had new t-shirts for every team member designed and printed at the school. Women must provide evidence; we are guilty until proven innocent.

Even though I am an English teacher and writer by trade, when it comes to my work as a coach, I am obsessive when it comes to data and research. I dig into the numbers. I initially earned some acclaim in our school district (before they realized my attention to detail would become a problem) for my three-page argument for why my program needed more stipends for coaches. Thinking about the United States as one case study, one would assume that there would be more female coaches than ever before thanks to the passage of Title IX in 1972. Title IX is federal legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate based on sex in any educational program that receives federal funding, including athletics. That was just 52 years ago.  And while Title IX accomplished a lot, in sport it had two major, noticeable impacts: 1) participation of female athletes rose from 15,000 to 200,000 across all levels of collegiate sport, and 2) women coaching collegiate women’s teams dropped from 90% prior to 1972 to 58%, and then below 50% by the 80’s. There were more women competing, but women had lost control of the programs they had built and pioneered for years.  As soon as money entered the picture, leadership roles went to the men.

Fast forward to 2019, only 2% of the nearly 2,000 athletes at the IAAF World Championships for Track and Field were coached by women. That’s less than 50 individual athletes. But it isn’t just professional sports where the lack of female coaches is evident. According to The Institute of Diversity and Equity in Sport (TIDES) and the Tucker Center in Minneapolis, who conduct research focusing on NCAA programs, only 4.8% of men’s teams had a woman as the head coach, while 55% of women’s sports across all divisions had a man as the head coach. Track and Field, like other combined practice sports (who often do not split staffs between genders), is one that scores the worst on the Tucker Center’s Report Card for having women as head coaches for women’s teams. It’s an even smaller number for women coaching men’s teams.

The data is indisputable.

And that isn’t even all of it. There are not nearly as many women in leadership positions, like program directors or athletic directors, as there are men; the number is even lower for women of color. Women’s basketball is one of the few collegiate and professional sports that has more female head coaches than the standard. Muffett McGraw, the head coach for Notre Dame’s women’s team is known for declaring that she will never hire a male assistant coach. I’ve said the same thing, or rather I’ve “joked” that one day I’ll have a fully female track and field staff. While it’s not really a joke, it is incredibly difficult to find women to coach with me, and this isn’t because they don’t exist.

In conversation with the Female Coaching Network about how few female coaches there are in elite track and field, Olympic Hurdler Joanna Hayes and Coach/FCN founder Vicky Huyton, pointed to lack of opportunities for women not just in coaching but at conferences and workshops. They explain that within athletic departments women often feel undervalued, that there are no advancement opportunities (the stats for female athletic directors is even worse than for coaches), and when they do coach elite athletes many of them are coaxed away to work with male coaches.

 I’ve experienced the latter myself: a male hurdle coach who had refused to join my staff as an assistant coach approached my best male hurdler (who I’d coached for nearly three years) about working with him as soon as he broke top three in the district and was on the verge of qualifying for the state championship meet.

Most notable though is the lack of female coaches at the youth level; young girls need to see that women can be coaches, can be head coaches and athletic directors, so that they know it’s possible for them too.In my nearly 17 years in the sport of track and field, I was only coached by a woman twice. Both were sprint coaches at my high school, and both were only part-time and did not coach me for the full four years I ran. Neither of them was the head coach. My collegiate team had zero women on the coaching staff. The idea that I could become a head coach was not inspired by some powerhouse female coach I wanted to emulate, though I wish I could say that was the case. I just loved the sport.

And it’s not just track and field. One of my best friends, a current professional soccer player, had a female head coach at her Division III college, but since then has had only one female strength coach across three countries, four different soccer clubs, and seven seasons. I field phone calls from her constantly and are unfortunately validated when I hear that my experiences in the United States are also impacting female athletes overseas, that it’s not just in the U.S. that we see a lack of female coaches. There is a remarkable lack of data on women in youth sports coaching, so I can’t share those numbers. And over the past few years, I have seen the organizations like the Women Sports Foundation, WeCoach, and others implementing programs to recruit, train, and support female coaches across sports, but I have to wonder if this is enough.

Where are all the women who could or should be coaching our Olympic athletes?


After accepting the role of head coach, I spent five years recruiting female coaches across events, and specifically coaches of color. There was no support from the district or school to post job openings, so I did it myself on LinkedIn, Indeed, and any other platform I could find. There also wasn’t a protocol for interviewing and hiring assistant coaches. So, I created one. I scoured the hallways of the school selling my sport to every kid I could find. “There goes Ms. Seekamp talking about track and field again.”

By spring of 2023, five out of my eleven coaches were women, six were coaches of color, and three out of the five female coaches were women of color. At a school that historically served the Black community in Portland, and a team that was primarily Black girls the first two years under my leadership, it was important to me that our staff reflected the demographics of the team, especially since I was a white woman brand new to the school. I recognized the limitations of my experience, and dedicated my energy to hiring and paying women and coaches of color who our athletes could see themselves in. Everyone knew that having women on my staff was not only important but non-negotiable. It wasn’t easy getting to that point. I was pressured to hire football coaches who had no experience in my sport (my response was always “as soon as you put me on the football staff as the speed coach, I’ll add a football coach to my staff.” I was laughed at).

As a result, my coaching staff was successful. Our team, over five seasons (including those interrupted by a global pandemic), saw the best performances across events, breaking over twenty school records and setting all-time highs for team points than had been seen in recent school history. We started winning against some of the teams in our district who had more than twice as many kids, more coaches, helmed by men, and unwaveringly supported by athletic directors (remember, my last season I didn’t have one). On paper, we shouldn’t have been able to compete, but we did. Hiring women worked. Hiring coaches of color, coaches that looked like and had the same experiences a our kids worked. More girls participated in organized sport, many of whom had never done athletics in their life, and kids felt seen and heard as members of our team. They felt safe. We often had to force them to leave the track and field at night when practice ended; they began to ask for post-season opportunities to work out and compete. Our data reflected what I had hoped would be true.


The summer after I was fired, as I began working with the teacher’s union to appeal the decision, I began watching Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The series follows the titular character, a 1950’s Jewish housewife, as she establishes her career as a standup comedian. Over the course of five seasons and a total of forty-three episodes, the audience watches Midge (a fictional character heavily based on Joan Rivers) work through the collapse of her marriage (her husband, Joel, tells her that he’s leaving her for his secretary) and the aftermath of one drunken rant in her nightgown at a New York dive bar. It is immediately apparent to the audience and Susie Meyerson, her future manager, that Midge is going to be a phenomenal comedian. But she’s a woman.

And as I’m watching episode after episode of Midge navigating a male saturated industry, I’m thinking about my five years of coaching, my lifetime in sport. I’m thinking about the questions I was asked in my interview for head coach while Susie, Midge’s manager, argues with a booker that she is better than the other male comics, yelling at this gatekeeper who is the latest in a long line of men who stands in the way of Midge’s big break. I’m thinking about being asked if I’d be able to bring out male athletes or if I’d be willing to be “assistant to the head coach” (a position that did not come with head coach pay or the title of head coach) and oversee the girls team “if” they hired a male head coach. In typical snarky fashion, I pointed out that if they couldn’t hire a man to coach both the girls and boys teams then it sounded like they should just hire a woman. Thank god they did.

Every time Midge gets arrested for her language, every time it is implied that what she is doing is unladylike, the comments from my male supervisors and district athletic staff come back to me. Every time she loses an opportunity to a man, I remember how quick the hiring team was to assume that the new head coach would be a man.

And in retrospect, it wasn’t a risk for them to hire me. At the historically Black school that had always been neglected by the district, for an athletic program that was for all intents and purposes failing and not one of the “important sports” (i.e. football, basketball, baseball, etc.), it was not a high stakes hiring situation. If I failed, they could say they tried out the whole female coach thing and pat themselves on the back before hiring a man to replace me. If I was successful, then it was assumed that they’d take credit for the revolutionary idea of hiring me.

 After I was fired, it took them three days to fabricate reasons for my dismissal despite an exemplary teaching and coaching record. It was another six months before they found a replacement. They hired a man and did not interview any women. Only one of my female assistant coaches was asked to return for the 2024 season and she quit after two days; they didn’t have payroll paperwork for her to sign (which meant there was no guarantee she’d be paid for her work), and she felt discouraged as the only woman on staff with no throwers to coach.

At the end of the day my success, the creation of the largest track and field team in school history that accomplished more in five seasons than the past twenty years combined including qualifying for Junior Olympics, was not enough to overcome the problem at hand. I was a woman. I was a vocal woman, with glitter on my face, long manicured nails (à la FloJo), with a knack for asking questions and not taking no for an answer. I was a woman who refused to smile or cheer up and roll over in the face of adversity and roadblocks. And the data showing what my staff and I accomplished was not enough to grant me full membership to the boy’s club or even the respect to pretend they weren’t firing me for complaining and attempting to hold them accountable.

My athletes and assistants offered to petition the district and leadership; I had to beg my male peers and those in power at other schools to fight for me. At the end of the day, my female colleagues and assistants advocating for me wasn’t enough and as I read about the work that the IOC and other non-profits are doing to address the notably minuscule number of female coaches of high-level and youth athletes alike, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was supposed to feel or do next. I still don’t know what to do next. As the woman who always has a plan, a solution, a set of data and carefully laid out arguments, it’s an uncomfortable place to be.


Spoiler alert: in the last episode, after being utterly screwed over by Gordon Ford (a Johnny Carson-esque character), who gives her less than five minutes of screentime and as a writer for his show and not a comic, Midge does what she does best: she takes what she wants with style and no apology. She co-opts the show and does her act. Her last words to Ford before the broadcast returns are “I’ve never been good at following rules.”

I may not know what comes next in my career as a coach or where I’ll end up, though the idea of coaching Olympic hurdlers some day is a seed already beginning to germinate. Coaching collegiate and master’s athletes on a volunteer basis in another country is scratching that itch in the meantime. My dismissal from Jefferson has not prevented me from combing through data and asking the important questions: why aren’t there more women in leadership positions in athletics? What are we doing at foundational levels, beyond posts on social media and other performative gestures, to address the gap between female athletes and female coaches, especially in leadership positions (because as my student-athletes will say “the math ain’t mathing”)?  Where are all the men who are in positions of power, who have seats at the table and the Big Bosses on speed-dial, who have much less to lose when they argue on the track or field or court? Because I already know where the ladies are.

Sarai Seekamp

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