When Sue Stanley-Green walked into the training room at Purdue University as a graduate assistant athletic trainer more than 25 years ago, she knew she was negotiating uncharted territory.
"There weren’t a lot of women out there, especially working football," she said.
When Stanley-Green graduated and went to the University of Kentucky in 1982, she was the first woman to work football in the Southeastern Conference. "It was five years before I was really accepted into the SEC fraternity of athletic trainers," she said.
Now, the numbers of women in the profession have exploded, so much so that half the members of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) are female. Women are fixtures on the sidelines of every sport — including what Stanley-Green, now director of the athletic training program at Florida Southern College, called "the final frontier" for women: football.
In her program, most students are female, a result she attributes in part to the implementation of Title IX.
"The guys didn’t want to take care of the female student-athletes. That was the impression I got, the attitude I saw. It was interesting back then," she said.
Many women credit the expansion of athletic training in general with the increase in women in the field. Sally Nogle, associate athletic trainer at Michigan State University, said athletic training was an attractive career for women because it was another form of health care.
"I think in all health-care fields, women have done more over the years," she said. "There are more opportunities for them in those areas."
Julie Max, head athletic trainer at California State University, Fullerton, agreed that the unique combination of health care and athletics is more attractive to women.
And as it becomes more culturally acceptable for women to be just as interested and capable in the athletics arena, some people believe more women will look to blend their interests — athletics — with their careers.
"The orientation of females in sports is much stronger. Most of the students we have coming into our field say, ‘I love sports and I want to do something to help people,’" Stanley-Green said of her athletic training students. "More females like to be associated with sports than they used to. It’s more the norm than when I started."
As more women began breaking into the field, they slowly became more accepted. Robin Gibson, associate director of sports medicine at Florida State University, said the rise in popularity of women’s sports helped fuel women in athletic training, too.
"It’s not just a good ol’ boys club anymore. With all the curricula and the programs and the advent of certification, there’s a lot more education behind our profession now," she said. "We used to have internships, and now we have the whole certification process."
Many women in the field admit, however, that it takes a special person to do the job — regardless of gender. Candidates must be willing to work long hours and spend time away from families. They must be determined to succeed, have a well-rounded educational background and be good listeners. Jenny Moshak, associate athletic trainer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said women shouldn’t be discouraged because of the challenges they might face being female in the profession.
"There will be road blocks. I don’t think we can be naïve enough to say there won’t be gender challenges, crude remarks or even physical obstacles," she said. "Women need to stand strong and not be afraid to voice opinions. The quality of care a female athletic trainer can provide is equal to if not better than what a man can provide."
Max said the issue of being an athletic trainer and being female is tricky. When she served as the NATA president from 2000 to 2004, she wanted her gender to be irrelevant — she wanted to be recognized for her accomplishments but at the same time serve as a strong example for other women in the profession.
"I was the first and only female president of the NATA. It was critical that I made a difference not as the best female president, but to be the best president I could be," she said. "I think that I sent that message in addition to being a role model and a mentor to other females who thought they could never succeed or make it to that level."
Balancing work and life
Some female athletic trainers believe that while the training room is no longer a place where men dominate, a female in the profession has to be better than a male to succeed.
"Women have to be on top of their game and be better than the rest and be really tough because in some ways, it’s still a man’s world," Gibson said. "If you’re willing to work with it and if you have a supervisor like mine, you’ll survive. If you’re not a problem-solver and you can’t handle getting things done on a deadline and being responsible, and if you’re a talker rather than a listener, you need to find another profession."
Many women say that being an athletic trainer in a collegiate setting makes it difficult, if not impossible, to raise a family. With individual workouts in some sports beginning as early as 5 a.m. and competitions lasting late into the night, the hours can be grueling, particularly if an athletic trainer covers more than one sport in any given season. And with the athletics culture stretching into a year-round schedule, the training room never closes. The 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year nature of any athletics job often drives women — and anyone interested in having a life outside of their job — away from the field.
Stanley-Green said that while she would never go back to the campus athletic training job she held for 15 years, she wouldn’t trade the experience, either.
"My husband (former Kentucky head athletic trainer Al Green) and I had to get out of it before we realized how absolutely uninteresting we were. We were terribly boring people. Our lives revolved around the training room. We were Mr. and Mrs. Athletic Trainer," she said. "We left because we had a baby and we felt like she was going to be raised by wolves. We really just wanted to see her and spend more time with her. My husband has older children and he didn’t get to see them when they were growing up. He felt that he missed a lot and he didn’t want to miss it again. That’s when we decided, and a lot of women and more men are making that decision, too."
Despite the struggles, female athletic trainers believe it’s important for them to be included in the collegiate setting. Women, they say, bring a voice for other women and their female student-athletes.
"We bring a different point of view. I don’t like the excuse that women simply are ‘care-givers.’ I’ve seen some very good male care-givers. I think we just add diversity, and diversity in any arena is a good thing," Gibson said.
Moshak said women provide diversity the same way people of different races or religions make the workplace inclusive.
"We just bring in a different way of thinking, a different vision," she said.
Many women agree that the future for women in athletic training looks nothing but bright.
"We’re still going to keep growing in numbers. Men are becoming more aware and educated that we have to work around people’s schedules," Gibson said. "Even if a guy has to go home with a sick kid, having a child is not a curse, it’s a blessing."
Moshak said she believes more opportunities will arise for women in athletic training because of more movement toward gender equity and Title IX compliance.
Many female athletic trainers said they would never discourage a young woman from pursuing her dream to be an athletic trainer, though they would recommend she learn what she was getting into first.
Stanley-Green said she wouldn’t trade her experience as an athletic trainer for any other job in the world. Though she wouldn’t want to do it now, she’s glad she did it when she was younger.
"It gave me opportunities I would never have had. I’ve traveled with teams and been to places I would never have been, and I met people I would never have met. My life has been so full and rich because of what I’ve been lucky enough to do."