Dayna Kanis on the ice for the Guelph Gryphons

Dayna Kanis began the NHL playoff season rooting, as usual, for the Pittsburgh Penguins. With her team eliminated in round one, she’s still watching but her attention is more divided than ever between action on the ice and on the bench. She can’t help noticing who’s behind the players’ bench − or, rather, who is not behind them.

What stops women from coaching men’s hockey − and how to remove those barriers − is the topic of her master’s thesis defended last month in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD).

Kanis, a member of the Gryphons women’s hockey team, hopes her study will help spark debate about gender behind the bench and help to even out the balance, especially by pushing for sports-funding laws. She also hopes to help make sports administration more effective and efficient.

“Imbalance” is the better word to describe the male-female coaching split in most sports, let alone hockey, she says. Think about top female coaches in national sports, and only one name comes to mind for Kanis: that of Melody Davidson, who led the Canadian women’s hockey team to the winter Olympics in 2006 and 2010.

Focusing on Ontario universities with men’s hockey teams, Kanis sent questionnaires and interviewed athletic directors, coaches and players − both male and female. She asked about attitudes toward women in coaching, including general questions about job titles and descriptions and respondents’ reasons for joining their institutions.

Barriers to women coaches in competitive hockey cropped up in three main areas: economic opportunities (salaries, an “old-boys’ network,” opportunities for women in other fields); negative perceptions (stereotypes, locker-room dynamics); and lack of media support.

Voicing some of the key stereotypes, respondents said coaching was considered as a male occupation, women were believed to lack good coaching qualities, and better male athletes were perceived to make better coaches.

In coaching competitive sports, Kanis says, gender shouldn’t matter. “There’s a perception that we have to coach differently, but at this level athletes are athletes, and we need to coach away from gender factors.”

She wants to see Canada introduce its own version of Title IX legislation passed in the United States in 1972. That law bans sex discrimination in activities receiving federal funding.

In that year, about 16,000 female athletes played on American intercollegiate teams. By 2004, there were 8,200 varsity women’s teams alone.

In 1972, about 90 per cent of women’s teams were coached by women. Today two out of three women’s teams are coached by men.

Referring to higher female sports participation in the past three decades, Kanis says, “Title IX was supposed to have the same effect on women coaches.” But she says that period has also seen many more opportunities open up for better-educated women in other fields. As well, more men have taken coaching jobs on women’s teams where the position had been largely unpaid in the early 1970s. “Although Title IX has not yet been successful at increasing women coaches, this is about to change in the next decade as more women have grown up playing sports.”

She says laws alone won’t work. Kanis says sports need more female role models and continued development of professional women’s leagues. Media can also play a role: about two per cent of TV sports time is spent on women’s sports, compared to 56 per cent for men’s sports and 42 per cent for sports in which both men and women compete.

Eighty per cent of the top varsity programs in American universities are run by male athletic directors. In Ontario, 70 per cent of athletic directors are male. Kanis says statistics show that male athletic directors hire more male than female coaches.

She says her results extend to other team sports such as basketball and volleyball, but not necessarily to individual sports like track and field or to gender-dominated sports such as football or synchronized swimming. She says future studies might look at possible legal changes and analyze women coaching men in hockey and other sports.

Kanis pursued a hockey scholarship in the United States but returned to Canada after her first year. She was an award-winning forward for the Gryphons for four years and completed an undergrad in psychology with a minor in criminal justice and public policy.

Her interests in sports, gender and leadership led her to investigate SEDRD’s capacity development and extension program. That, she says, plus “sitting and watching NHL games and thinking there has never been a female coach.”

Societal perceptions might be changing, says Carly Haggard, interim head coach of the Gryphon women’s hockey team. But not that fast. “I believe that it is completely fine for men to coach men and women to coach women,” she says. “In ice hockey, both games are very different, so there is no reason why there should be an opposite-sex coach.”

Still, Haggard would like to see more opportunities for women to coach, particularly in universities. Her own best coach was female.

“She could relate to us better,” says Haggard, “and, having played herself, understood the women’s game. I have had a few really good male coaches as well, so I am not completely against them, but to me it just makes sense − if both are equally qualified − to have your own gender coaching.”

Kanis says she’d also like to coach one day, although not necessarily as the first-ever female coach of a major-league men’s team.

Her supervisor, Prof. Jim Mahone, teaches advocacy and leadership skills. He says Kanis’s study uses those skills to address equity issues. “There aren’t any women coaches getting paid well. If a woman wants to make money, it needs to be a male team,” says Mahone. “We’re wasting half the talent out there. Can we really afford not to have half the population engaged in something important?”