Gender and Football: Much Work to be Done

Posted by on Feb 3, 2015 in Gender and Football | No Comments
Gender and Football: Much Work to be Done
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Ronnie MacDonald

Who would you use as an example if you wanted to illustrate the worst kind of idiocy or incompetence on the football field, or indeed in sport generally?

Several names, possibly the directors of major football clubs or members of the ITV commentary team, spring immediately to mind, but the answer, of course, is Your Nan.

Ask any Lad aged between eight and eighty who they’d use as their yardstick when measuring lack of ability or understanding in football and odds on it will be their literal or metaphorical sweet little old lady grandmother. Alternatively, if we’re talking about cricket, it might be Geoffrey Boycott’s Nan – who must be very old these days as the turtle-headed, fedora-wearing former England batsman is no spring chicken himself – but generally, if you want to express utter hopelessness in sporting knowledge and ability then Your Nan is the go-to gal.

The twin failings of Your Nan are obvious. Firstly, she’s female and therefore by definition has less sporting ability than anyone else and is generally incapable of comprehending simple rules. Even this week a Birmingham “DJ,” Danny Kelly, has hit the headlines by opining that women’s football is “rubbish” and, at its best of “Sunday League standard.”

I’m uncertain as to Kelly’s credentials as a football analyst but he’s certainly no intellectual giant as he appears to be under the impression that the object of women’s football is for the players to compete against men rather than one another. Perhaps Mr. Kelly was saying these things in order to obtain some cheap publicity. Just a wild guess.

Your Nan’s second problem is that she’s old and therefore there’s no longer any possibility of her having any usefulness in the world by being decorative or sexually attractive. Heaven forfend! She’s YOUR Nan. You don’t want to think about that kind of thing. As any fool knows, women in sport come in two forms: attractive, young, slightly-scary-Stepford-wife-type TV presenter and Your Nan. Oh, and Claire Balding, who somehow manages to avoid both categories by simply being very good at what she does.

Your Nan, though, is always in the background, ready to be trundled out as an example of how “even she” could have scored that goal or “even she” could have understood that baffling offside decision that the ref just got completely wrong.

Of course, outside the banter-obsessed world of Sky and Paddy Power, the image of women in football isn’t really as reductive as that. There’s a great deal of interest both in the WSL and other women’s football competitions and also in the history of women’s football which goes back at least to the time of the Elizabethan poet, Philip Sidney, who mentioned girls playing in the street in 1580. It’s even possible that images of women playing in Han dynasty China (206BC-220AD) depict an early form of the beautiful game.

Although it’s very pleasing that the women’s game has received some serious attention with a multitude of books and newspaper articles having been published in the last 20 years, the narrative appears to have two distinct strands and if I’m honest, from where I’m standing as an average football fan, the dominant strand is not what I’d expect.

What I’d like to hear more about is the rise in recent years of some very talented female players, the pleasures of watching the women’s game whilst it remains relatively untainted by money, avarice and too much media attention, real controversies like the enforced demotion into the second tier of the WSL of Doncaster Belles in order to privilege the already-privileged Manchester City side (this still makes me want to march on FA headquarters), and Sue Smith’s ever-changing and always entertaining coiffure.

But no – the main stories about women and football that have commanded the headlines in recent years have really been mostly about (surprise!) men: Richard Scudamore’s sexist email correspondence with a colleague, or Keys and Gray’s attempts to undermine officials like Sian Massey, for example. Important issues in wider society, certainly, but a distraction from what’s really important: the massive increase in the number of girls and women playing, watching and coaching football, the improvement in standards, the increasing numbers of spectators at matches and greater media interest. 55,000 tickets were sold for the recent friendly between England and Germany at Wembley and it’s likely more would have been sold if they had been made available.

I think that is a far more important aspect of women’s football than the dubious opinions of Richard Keys.

To take a serious look at how things have developed over the last few decades, it’s necessary to get away from the media-led obsession with the “lad’s eye view” of the world and to look at how things have or haven’t progressed in several aspects of the women’s game: in the boardroom, in coaching and management and on the pitch itself.

In both aspects of administration in football, in the boardroom at club level and the highest echelons of the FA, UEFA and FIFA, the lack of representation of women probably reflects the wider “glass ceiling” in society. After all, we live in a country with an established religion that has only just allowed women to become bishops, and where they are under-represented in almost every aspect of life, including business, the arts and sport.

Even ignoring Sepp Blatter’s egregious history of cringeworthy remarks about women, the football authorities have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to allowing women to have a say in the way the game is run. This problem isn’t just about gender, though. In the FA, we could hardly find a worse example of an Establishment organization made up of a homogeneous, privileged people: male, white, apparently heterosexual, with a similar social and educational background.

The FA Board has only one woman member, Heather Rabbatts, who was appointed in 2012. Its subsidiary committees are hardly any better with a tiny number of women serving on any of them, even the Women’s Membership Committee. Although the chair (Sue Hough) and vice-chair (Elaine Oram) are female, the 12-strong Commitee has only one other woman member, plus three women who have been co-opted from other organizations. Looking at the 2014-15 committee structure at the FA, women are few and far between. It certainly raises the question as to why there are not more women willing or able to contribute to football administration at this level.

According to an article in The Independent on 25 January 2015, however, women are “stalking sport’s corridors of power” in what sounds like quite a sinister way. Even better, we are assured that FA Chair Greg Dyke is “not averse to a female candidate” to replace Alex Horne as Chief Executive.

Which is nice of him.

It’s hard to imagine that many of these appointments are much more than tokenism, especially when combined with revelations about the attitudes of many men in senior positions in the football hierarchy, like Richard Scudamore, and perhaps even more tellingly, the reluctance, and even refusal of others to criticize or condemn their sexist or misogynistic remarks. In many ways, it’s the latter that’s most depressing. I’ve no doubt that attitudes towards women such as Scudamore’s exist throughout public life, but the fact that, even under Rabbatts, the FA’s main concern appears to be about the public revelation of private correspondence suggests that little is about to change. As with allegations of racism (see Luis Sàºarez), expressions of concern aren’t very meaningful if the problems at the root are never properly addressed.

Similarly there are very few women in positions of seniority on the boards of most football clubs, although there has been a small number of appointments in recent years, such as Marina Granovskaia at Chelsea, and it’s generally believed that the situation as regards female representation at football clubs is improving.

Karren Brady is always cited as the pioneer female who provided a role model for young women in football administration, having pulled herself up by her own bootstraps, by way of a private education and not being terribly choosy who she worked for. Involvement with a pair like Sullivan and Gold who have made their substantial fortunes by denigrating and objectifying women has never struck me as a great example to young women but Brady is basically a businesswoman, a right-wing mover and shaker who could have achieved the same things in any walk of life.

It’s revealing that Brady often refers to football as “our industry” and it suggests that’s how she sees her role, more as a business leader than a participant in a great sport. I suppose that she has achieved equality of sorts by playing an important part in that money-grubbing world bent on turning everything that is good about football into saleable assets. As we should have learnt from the example of our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, having a woman at the top does not necessarily mean either that things will be very different or that things will become any easier for other women. Some of the attraction fans are finding in the women’s game undoubtedly comes from the relative “purity” and “innocence” that the lack of big bucks allows. This will change as the popularity of women’s football grows, inevitably, and those changes are already perceptible.

In fact, women have been on the boards of clubs for much longer than the existence of the Premier League. Indeed there were a few women board members as far back as the inter-war period of the twentieth century. It was never easy for women, who often had to face either hostility or bemusement, as this example, from The Hartlepool Mail in 1920, describing a proposal to appoint a woman to sit on the Luton and District Football League Management Committee, shows:

Women have scored another victory in the sporting world. Among the many outdoor games they play regularly is football, but admission to the governing circles of the game has been hitherto denied them. Luton, however, has broken down the sex barrier, and in future… [the committee] will be graced by the presence of a young woman delegate elected by one of the village clubs who are members of the league. It will be interesting to watch the development of this bold experiment. Not one spectator in a hundred understands thoroughly the offside rule, and an as-easy-as-ABC explanation of it capable of being grasped by the most disorderly brain, has yet to be evolved. What if a woman should be the first to supply this overdue explanation?

In 1929, a woman, Mrs. Pinder, became chairman of Stamford FC, then a professional club in the Northern League and, even more surprisingly perhaps, in March 1939, the very famous star of stage and screen, Cicely Courtneidge, declared that she was passionate about football, which she watched regularly, and wanted to invest money in Clapton Orient and join the board of directors. Journalists reported that there was a question about the “legality” of a woman joining the board of a football club and the secretary of the Football League, Mr. F. Howorth, commented: “I do not know anything for or against a woman being a director of a football league club. This seems to be a question more for the Football Association than for us to settle.”

Nothing seems to have come of the matter in the end but it’s one of several examples of how women tried to participate in football long before the Premier League era. In fact, it doesn’t appear that women are much better represented on football club boards than they were almost a hundred years ago.

Perhaps a better place to look for role models in women’s football might be in coaching and management. There have been some high calibre professionals in the women’s game, including Hope Powell, who can probably be credited with transforming the England national side into a credible and competitive force in world football. Powell was universally praised and won enormous respect for her achievements as the national coach.

It is when it comes to women coaching men that the happy consensus appears to break down however. When Hope Powell was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Grimsby Town in 2009, there was widespread incredulity, despite the fact that she had been so successful in the England role. Yet former male footballers are often given jobs way above their competence or experience.

Worse still, last year Helena Costa, who had been the women’s national manager of Qatar, and is an extremely well-qualified coach, caused a stir when she resigned as manager of French Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot, almost immediately after she had been appointed, citing lack of respect and “total amateurism” as her reasons. The club had signed players without her involvement or consent among other things. Clermont President, Claude Michy, perhaps unwittingly revealed something about attitudes to women at the club by making the mysterious – indeed, baffling – comment, “She’s a woman. They are capable of leading us to believe certain things.”

Nevertheless Clermont appointed another woman, Corinne Diacre, as her successor in August 2014 who is still in the post.

Other controversies have arisen when women have officiated at men’s football games, most notably in England when in 2006 Mike Newell criticized Amy Rayner after she refereed a match between his club Luton and QPR, describing women officials as “tokenism for politically correct idiots.” Although he apologized, Newell’s management career appears to have gone up in some kind of spontaneous combustion fuelled by extreme grumpiness, and he was later out-bigoted by Richard Keys and Andy Gray when they were publicly patronizing and disrespectful to lino, Sian Massey.

These periodic outbreaks of sexism probably say more about their perpetrators than about the role of women in football. What have these men to fear after all in a sport where any manager or official is under constant scrutiny as to their performance and results? A woman is not going to last long in such a role unless she’s able to do the job to a high standard. Sadly, the prospect of a woman being appointed as coach of a men’s team in Britain still seems remote, despite there being an increasing number of qualified and experienced female candidates.

Finally, what of the players themselves? Women’s football now has its own stars: Kelly Smith, England’s record goalscorer who has had a remarkable career on both sides of the Atlantic, Casey Stoney, who captained England and won 100 caps for her country, Eniola Aluko, who made her England debut aged 16 and has been described as “the Wayne Rooney of the women’s game” (she also has a first class degree in law, by the way), are just three examples. Women players are beginning to be noticed for their abilities on the pitch rather than because of their gender. There is a genuine and growing interest in women’s football, not only by female spectators but by men who are increasingly becoming disenchanted by the tedious antics and venality of Premier League players.

Even more importantly, increasing numbers of women are playing football, making it the most popular female team sport in the UK. 2013 figures suggest at least 151,000 women play football as regularly as every week. Efforts by Sport England, the FA, and the Football League, with programmes such as Game Changer, which aimed to raise the profile of women’s football, have had an impact. There’s no doubt that women’s football receives much more media attention – and perhaps more pleasingly, that attention is serious and respectful and about the game itself, rather than the peripheral issues that seem to concern the DJ Danny Kellys of this world. The prospect of the next Women’s World Cup in Canada is genuinely exciting and is likely to further improve the standing of the women’s game. If the England team do well, and they are currently a better prospect than their male counterparts, there’s no doubt it will help raise the profile in this country even higher.

The future of women’s football depends on opening the game up to more girls and women, giving them access to the best facilities (questions are already being raised about why it has been decided that à©lite women footballers can play on artificial 3G pitches which are not approved for men at a similar level), better media coverage (the BBC has done well here in making its Women’s Football Show almost as irritating as MOTD), and increasing the numbers of spectators, perhaps by playing key games in central and accessible venues. Things are looking promising in all these areas. There are lots of positives in the women’s game and it’s hoped that its detractors will eventually move on to discussing more intelligent and interesting aspects of the sport than they have hitherto.

Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, when people refer to their Nan in the context of football, it will not be about what she wasn’t able to do, or couldn’t understand, but what she did achieve. I’d like to think that one day the children of Casey Stoney’s twins will have lots of stories to tell with pride about their Nan.

Susan Gardiner
Susan Gardiner spent many years as an Ipswich Town season ticket holder while living in Norfolk. Now in Suffolk and much closer to Portman Road, she has written about social history for various publications since the 1990s and, more recently, also about football. She is on the committee of the ITFC independent supporters' trust, Ipswich Town 1st, and a member of the Turnstile Blues fanzine collective for which she edited the first issue. Her book, Ipswich Town: A History was published by Amberley in 2013 and her blog (only occasionally about football) is Twitter name is @susan1878.

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