In the Title IX success story, women’s opportunities in coaching jobs have not kept pace with the striking gains made by female athletes. Women’s share of jobs coaching female athletes has declined substantially in the years since the law was enacted, moving from more than 90% to below 43% today. As a case study, the situation of women coaches contains important lessons about the ability of discrimination law to promote social equality. This Article highlights one feature of bias against women coaches—gender bias by female athletes—as a counter-paradigm that presents a challenge to the dominant frame of discrimination law.

The predominant legal model views discrimination as a top-down, inter-group phenomenon. In discrimination law, the paradigmatic case is intentional bias directed by an in-group superior toward an out-group subordinate (e.g., a male boss discriminates against a female subordinate). Shifting either one of these dimensions to involve within-group bias or contra-power bias complicates the discrimination claim, resulting in new doctrinal demands. Shifting them both creates space for productive theorizing about the complexity of discrimination and the adequacy of the law’s response to it.

The case of bias against women coaches is an especially interesting one because it turns upside down both of the typical trajectories of the paradigm. Research has shown a troubling preference by female athletes for male coaches. To the extent that the hiring process takes into account athlete preferences, this resistance to having a female coach can make it harder for women coaches to get hired; it can also make it harder for women coaches to succeed once hired. Similar within-group, upstream biases have been found in literature on women in leadership, with many women in subordinate roles expressing ambivalence about women bosses and leaders. Exploring within-group, upstream bias as a form of discrimination sheds light on important issues of animus, essentialism, intersectionality, and agency at the heart of discrimination law. This Article uses the phenomenon of bias by female athletes against women coaches as a case study for rethinking the promise and limits of discrimination as a tool for social equality.

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