When Lauren Arnell swaps her footy boots for the magnet board as the AFLW season gets underway in August, she will make history as the first retired player to take the reins as a head coach.
After every AFLW club was coached by a man last season, three of the four expansion teams have appointed women in the top job for the seventh edition of the competition – Arnell at Port Adelaide, Natalie Wood at Essendon and Bec Goddard at Hawthorn.
"In the space of the last few months, to go from zero to three is a significant leap," said Arnell, who was Carlton's inaugural captain before calling time on her 36-game playing career in 2021 when she won a premiership with Brisbane.
Across the first six seasons of the competition, there were just three female coaches– Michelle Cowan at Fremantle, Goddard at Adelaide and St Kilda's Peta Searle, who was the only one in 2021.
"There have been some wonderful coaches across that male cohort," Arnell said.
"But ... I don't think any sensible person in the football industry could tell you that there's not another woman in the country that could do that job."
The stage is set for vast improvements to that gender imbalance as more players like Arnell come through the AFLW competition seeking to apply their priceless on-field experience to off-field roles.
Arnell has "no doubt" the number of females coaching at a higher level will grow as the pool of retired athletes increases.
Several former players have already made the transition from the field into the coach's box including Kirby Bentley, Emma Zielke, Melissa Hickey, Courtney Cramey, Leah Kasler, Jacara Egan and Sam Virgo.
Some have put on the coach's hat while still playing in the competition including Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce, Gabby Newton (Western Bulldogs), Sarah Perkins (Hawthorn) and Alicia Eva (GWS).
Arnell said these were the sort of role models who would inspire the next generation of female coaches to stake their claim in a male-dominated space.
"You can't be what you can't see," Arnell said.
"It's a big leap of faith to go from playing to being a head coach...but for players with my background, there's a lot we can give back."
Opportunities for further development also open up for AFLW players under a female head coach, who Arnell said could relate to players in ways their male counterparts can't.
"I think it will be much easier for me to be able to relate with my players and understand their day-to-day, having just come out of it."
Female coaching ranks increasing across the board
AFL Coaching Development and Education Manager Julia Lawrence said the AFL was committed to investing in the female coaching pathway and providing more opportunities for coaches to develop their skills and experience across all levels of the game.
The AFL has released an action plan to ensure women hold at least half of the AFLW's senior coaching positions by 2030.
"As more players come through the NAB AFLW competition and seek to transition to off-field roles, we expect to see more women taking on coaching roles across men's and women's programs, which is incredibly pleasing," she said.
The AFL has developed three programs to improve coaching pathways for women and girls across Australia including the She Can Coach program, which was pioneered by Arnell.
She said the initiative aimed to help female coaches transition from the grassroots level into higher performance programs.
"I felt I had a really clear understanding from being in football and doing some coaching myself; I could see where the gaps were for female coaches to succeed in the talent pathway and also in the wider AFL industry," Arnell said.
"It's been wonderful to see that program expand nationally now," Arnell said.
Ms Lawrence vouched for the program's success, highlighting the number of female coaches climbing the ranks as a result.
"The majority of the 89 coaches who transitioned through the She Can Coach program have gone onto complete high industry accreditation and coach in the talent pathway, state leagues, or AFLW," Ms Lawrence said.
Freo's inaugural coach still leading the way
Inaugural Fremantle coach Michelle Cowan, who is now head of women's football at the West Coast Eagles, said coaching pathways had improved drastically since 2008 when she vividly remembers being the only woman in the room with 76 men to do her level two accreditation.
She estimates the ratio would now be around 60-40 in favour of female coaches.
"I think a lot of clubs now have a key focus on making sure they continue to provide pathways for all players and all coaches and people in administrative roles as well," Ms Cowan said.
"It's really important that we continue to open those doors and provide the opportunities."
West Coast has started its own female coaching academy, with Cowan providing invaluable mentoring.
"We've got five incredible females coming through all at different levels of their coaching journey.
"It's great that they can walk in the door and feel part of the footy club and and grow [to] be the best possible coach that they can be."
She said it was "fantastic" to see how many women are involved with coaching now compared to when she got involved with football 22 years ago.
"I know that the AFL has got some strong visions around what [women's coaching] looks like in 2030, which is to be 50/50 by [then] with senior coaches, which is a courageous target," she said.
"But the more women we can get involved in this great game at all different levels, whether that be umpiring, administration coaching, I think the game is only going to benefit."
Still barriers to overcome, says Arnell
Arnell said there were still barriers to overcome to ensure adequate representation of women in coaching ranks into the future, including the gender pay gap and the requirement to juggle part-time work due to a shorter season than the men.
Women having less self-belief than their male counterparts could present another hurdle.
"It is a stereotypical female trait when you apply for jobs, you feel you need to more than tick every key selection criteria," she said.
"Many members of the opposite gender would not do that, they'd probably take a leap of faith on themselves when they tick a portion of those key selection criteria, and just go for the job anyway.
"Certainly, family would be the next barrier. I'm 35 myself, and the majority of the people in my life at my age have kids at home. There's the sacrifice of family time that we typically expect of ourselves as women."
Her advice to women wanting to follow in her footsteps is to build their depth of experience – for Arnell that came from years of teaching and getting involved with coaching.
"My other advice is to back yourself in and put yourself in situations where you're uncomfortable."
She said the future of women's football is bright, with endeavours to achieve parity in coaching ranks continuing to gather momentum.