College Coach Alleges Gender Stereotyping in Discrimination Claim

14 February 2022 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Author(s): Paul R. Monsees

A female gymnastics coach at Towson University in Maryland has filed a lawsuit claiming that the University fired her because of her gender, while she was pregnant and after she complained about being treated differently than male coaches. The gymnastics coach had tremendous success at the University for nine years, earning “Coach of the Year” honors three times, having a consistently competitive team and receiving excellent performance reviews. In 2018 however, some team members complained about her behavior and coaching style, that she was too harsh. Other complaints arose in 2019. All of the complaints were investigated by the University and the coach was placed on extended administrative leave while the 2019 complaints were investigated. She was ultimately cleared and reinstated.

During the investigations, the coach complained that male coaches were treated more favorably when more serious complaints were filed against them. For example, one male coach was accused of sexually assaulting a student athlete, but was not put on administrative leave while being investigated. Another was accused of very serious, “aggressive” coaching methods such as berating his players with foul language, but was not even investigated.

Two weeks after being told she was cleared, the gymnastics coach was fired. She was eight months pregnant.

The case is at an early stage and the University is trying to have the case dismissed. In addition to allegations about differences in whether and how men and women coaches were investigated and treated in response to complaints, the gymnastics coach raised gender stereotyping and how the types of complaints made against male and female coaches were based on those stereotypes. For example, the coach argued that female coaches (or female leaders generally) are treated less favorably when they display characteristics that are more favorably associated with males such as assertiveness, aggressiveness and conveying authority. She said that a female coach who has those characteristics is more likely to be viewed negatively and as being too harsh, unlike a male coach for whom that behavior would be praised.

It is too early to tell what impact the stereotyping argument will have on the outcome of the case, in part because the facts about how the female coach was treated compared to male coaches appear problematic enough. However, this strategy is worth watching closely because it can apply to claims about most any supervisory position where people are evaluated based on softer skills like management style.

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