By Erin Valois
Jean Kennedy first felt the sting of sexism in sport when she applied to be the head of physical education at a Toronto area high school.
Now Ryerson’s interim athletic director, Kennedy already taught P.E. at the school and thought she’d be an ideal candidate. The principal, though, assumed she wanted to start a family.
“In the interview, he asked me if I was going to get married and have children,” she says. “That was a common question that was asked at that time. I was a little ticked.”
Kennedy didn’t get the position. For women’s basketball coach Sandra Pothier, the imbalance was prevalent as a high school athlete, when she watched from the sidelines as the men’s teams ruled the court.
“We were underfunded. I felt like a second-class citizen,” she says. “In high school, the football team would have the nicest uniforms and we were stuck with the track and field uniforms that looked to be from the 1920s.”
At Ryerson, these women found the opportunity to strike back.
Both Kennedy (hired in 1971) and Pothier (hired in 1992) say the school’s progressive attitude have made it so female athletes are no longer forced to take the second-rate equipment, the gym time at midnight and the empty stadiums. It is an attitude that has spread across the city.
Out of the ten female athletic directors at Canadian universities, four are from schools in the Greater Toronto Area. With these women now calling the shots at some of the best universities in the country, female varsity athletics are beginning to get noticed in the world of interuniversity sport.
One of the most talked about Ryerson teams is women’s hockey, who were undefeated this season. Even though most players on the aquad won’t be around when the team reaches varsity status in 2010, members of the undefeated squad are sacrificing their years of eligibility to pave the way for future generations of hockey players. Captain Stephanie Poulin thinks it is the best time to start a team, even if it means she won’t be able to bring a championship home to the school.
“I think it is important for Ryerson to offer enough opportunities for everyone,” she says. “Women’s hockey is the most popular female sport in Canada.”
Because of this Poulin feels like she came at the right time to ensure the sport would be successful at Ryerson. The university has helped this momentum by giving the team over $16,000. In the past, women’s sports were not as fortunate.
“Looking at the budget 25 years ago, it wasn’t the same,” Pothier says. “The women’s teams would have been happy to get half of what the men had for funding.”
When Kennedy started at Ryerson, she was the only woman working in the athletic department. With four men and Kennedy working as the assistant athletic director, she was the only woman at Sports and Recreation for fi fteen years. Then it all changed. “When Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) became the umbrella organization for all the universities in the 1980s, they made a rule that there had to be male and female representatives at the meeting,” Kennedy says.
“Even Ryerson said later that we had to have an equal number of men’s and women’s teams.”
This helped Ryerson snag Pothier 16 years ago, when she stepped into her role as the first female coach for the women’s basketball team. She chose Ryerson because the university gave the same opportunities for both genders in sport.
“Coming to Ryerson, I was surprised,” Pothier says. “It made me want to coach here because women were on equal footing.”
Despite this, there is still room for improvement. Karen Hood-Deshon, acting manager of interuniversity sports, wants to become an athletic director in the future. However, she says one of the biggest obstacles that women face is that there are few spots to fi ll.
“There are many opportunities in sport, but there are only a few available in sports administration,” she says. “A lot of these people stay for a long time and you could be waiting 33 years before it’s your turn.”
Yet, the most significant spot in interuniversity sports is occupied by a woman. Marg McGregor is the chief executive offi cer of CIS and she knows the importance of gender equity when it comes to interuniversity athletics. McGregor thinks additional female involvement in university sport will improve women’s teams — and the men’s teams too.
“Women in senior positions understand the need to create programs and budgets that benefit both genders,” she says. “There is a different perspective and this added diversity enriches decision- making.”
After working with men for 25 years, years, Kennedy is enjoying a change of attitude when she meets with her fellow Toronto-area athletic directors. She says that the tone of the meetings has changed now that men no longer dominate.
“Before, you wouldn’t admit you had a problem,” she says. “Now, I fi nd that we are sharing more. We help each other out with our problems.”
At Ryerson, there is still a chance for another woman to take the reins. Kennedy will end her term as athletic director at the end of this year, and the search for a replacement has already started.
But Kennedy isn’t just concerned about the future of women in sport — she wants to ensure there are opportunities for all women, like her daughter.
“She’s a surgeon, she’s gone through the residency and everything else. She’s over at Toronto General Hospital and there’s a glass ceiling for women still,” she says. “It hasn’t disappeared but I think we are making wonderful roads in and I hope that the next generation appreciates that.”