In light of the recent Euros, it is important to highlight the barriers and stereotypes women face in football, and have always faced historically.
The ‘Men’s Euros’ recently ended, once again making it clear that men’s football is seen as the norm, much like in other sports. The official name of that tournament is UEFA Euro 2020, whereas the official name of the upcoming women’s tournament is Women’s Euros 2022. This imbalanced way of naming tournaments sets the precedent for the views that women’s football is different.
Stereotypes about women’s football include it being ‘bad’ and ‘not as exciting’ as men’s football. Some also claim that women are physically less capable of playing football, and that women cannot think as tactically or creatively as men. These stereotypes echo stereotypes women face in the sporting world in general, as well as in other areas in life, and make women feel both uncomfortable and unwelcome in sporting environments: 80% of girls feel like they don’t belong in sport and only 10% of girls age 13-16 achieve the recommended 60 minutes of activity every day. The problem persists into adulthood, with 4 in 10 women not active being enough to ensure they get the full health benefits and the number being even higher for BAME communities.
While women’s participation in sport is a complex problem which needs to be addressed at many levels, one issue is that there is a lack of both historical and current representation of professional female athletes who can show women and girls that sport is a female sphere too. However, women’s sport often lacks the resources and structural support which is offered to men’s sports. Taking football as an example, women were banned from football in England from 1921-1971. When the ban was lifted, a women’s tournaments were organised on un-official pitches barely fit for play, and there was no women’s kit available, so women had to buy men’s boots and stuff newspaper in the toes to make them fit. It was not until 2000 that the first European professional women’s team was set up, but it was disbanded in 2003 because it was not “economically viable”. Only in 2018 did the Women’s Super League become professional.
Though women no longer need to buy men’s boots to play, women still face many inequalities within professional football. The main one is the gender pay gap, which is unfortunately worse than in most other sectors, including politics, medicine, and space. For example, in the English Premier League, the average male player is paid 99 times more than the top-earning female players. Most female players are paid less than $1000 (roughly £720) per month by their clubs, which is not enough to cover their expenses, much less obtain financial stability. As such, women are faced with the need to juggle a day job, training at an elite level, as well as any family commitments, and still be able to perform in their sport. With such conditions, it is no wonder that less than 1% of the professional football players in the world are women and that there is a lack of high-level representation.
The most commonly stated reason for paying female players less is that women’s football generates less revenue, since there is less interest for it. However, this argument fails to recognise the need for investment in women’s football in order for it to grow and develop. Additionally, there is already great interest in women’s football: in 2019 the Women’s World Cup semi-final between England and the US was the highest viewed programme in the UK. The interest in women’s football may not have been tapped into enough, but it is already there. Therefore, the gender pay gap is less about revenue, and more about long-standing sexism in the football industry.
BAME women also face particular barriers in football. In the Women’s World Cup 2019, the English squad only had two non-white players, and only 10-15% of women in the Women’s Super League are BAME. The lack of resources in women’s football has definitely contributed to the problem, however, the lack of representation both amongst players and amongst management, compounded with incidents of racism — like the firing of British Nigerian Eni Aluko after she called out racism from the team’s management — and stereotyping, has created an unwelcoming atmosphere for young BAME women and girls and discourage them from taking part in the sport.
So, women’s football is not ‘bad’ — it has just lacked funds, resources and support for decades, much like other women’s sports. Addressing this problem is important in order to show women and girls that they are capable and welcome in sports, and inspire them to take part.
At JAN Trust we work to empower women from marginalised communities, and speak out against all forms of racism. We also believe that women should have equal opportunities to succeed in all areas of life, be that professional sport or otherwise.