Is the time really right for Women’s Football?

By Trinity Handley

In April 2017 Notts County Ladies FC folded two days before their first match in the Women’s Super League. The owner Alan Hardy said “I am devastated that we cannot continue the Ladies project but the numbers simply do not stack up.” ‘Project’ is the operative word here – a top flight team with several players on the senior England squad was just a ‘project’ and therefore expendable when finances were tight. The attitude that led to this decision can be traced all the way back to the moment the FA banned women from football in 1921, claiming it to be:

‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’

Whilst women’s football is now a growing sport, the FA has done little to change the entrenched opinion that men’s football is the standard for all football to aspire to. I think the FA needs to do better to right its wrongs. 

In the FA’s 2017-2020 strategy for women’s football, the chairman recommitted the FA to the development of the women’s game, admitting that they have been ‘slow to react’ to changing societal attitudes regarding women’s sport. This would be convincing were it not for the fact that in all three of the previous strategies the FA clearly stated that they believe the time is ‘now’ to take action. In the 2008-2012 strategy, the executive summary states ‘the time for action is now’. The 2013-2018 strategy states ‘the time is right’ and ‘there has never been a better platform on which to build women’s football in England.’ This motif is repeated a number of times in the current strategy: ‘I believe the time is right to take [women’s football] to a higher level’ and Baroness Sue Campbell ends her introduction with ‘the time is right and the time is NOW!’ It’s almost laughable to think they’ve been publishing this same statement since 2008 without realising the irony in its need for repetition.

Another fairly problematic aspect of the FA’s strategy is the way in which it has decidedly kept women’s football separate from the men’s game. Their research has identified that women and men have different motivations for playing: women and girls participate for ‘fun, friendship, fitness and family’, whereas boys play because ‘they want the competition, they want to win, they want to become a professional player.’ In order to maximise the efficacy of different participation strategies it is important to take this kind of research into account but this distinction appears to be more about femininity and masculinity rather than men and women. Generalising participants along gendered lines from a very young age guarantees that the opportunities provided for girls and women remain different to men regardless of attempts to create parity.

My favourite example of this preoccupation is a document titled ‘Considerations for increasing participation in women and girls football (aged 12+)’, produced by ‘national and regional FA staff with input from Women in Sport and StreetGames US Girls’. A section on ‘Incentives’ for participation includes 11 images of different branded sports products of which only 2 are not pink: 

Further suggestions included:

  • ‘Advertise in places where girls go i.e. coffee shops or on the back of toilet doors’
  •  ‘Use colourful bibs – make sure that they’re clean and smell nice!’
  • ‘Allow girls the time to check their phones within a session or incorporate a twitter break so participants can tweet about the session’

These suggestions provoked bemused and angry responses from women and girls, one of whom said “Phone breaks are not part of the game, players in the Premier League don’t stop for phone breaks so why would we want to do that?”. Another player wrote:

There’s a bullet point about placing advertisements in “places where women go”, like coffee shops. The sexism in that statement is so deeply engrained that I acknowledge it might be difficult to see, but I assure you it’s there. It’s hiding in the triviality of its implications and in the complete categorisation of women that you would never see in a document for men.

By maintaining a distinction between men’s and women’s football and keeping the games separate, the sentiment behind the decision to ban women from playing in 1921 is subtly perpetuated by the FA despite the ban being lifted. The women’s game seems unable to shake off the historic confusion about how/where women should be allowed to play sport and its progress has been directed by a largely male administration whose former leader (Blatter) unashamedly suggested that making female players wear ‘tighter shorts’ may be better than direct investment to increase the popularity of women’s football. 

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. England’s top women footballers are reaching new heights despite the consistently inconsistent attitudes to their sport. 11.7m people watched England’s final match in the 2019 World Cup, a staggering 192.5% increase from the 2017 tournament. The progress and initiative that has come from the FA in the women’s game has been directed by a number of dedicated women and a few men and their efforts must be applauded. Indeed, it is impossible to know what the situation would be like without their drive for equality. With almost 20 years of experience working within the FA, Rachel Pavlou spoke persuasively to me in favour of the FA’s new commitment to women’s football:

“Everything to do with FA support for women’s football is the best it’s ever been. And I’m not just saying that, I absolutely, 100% believe it. Because we’ve got a chief executive in Martin Glenn who absolutely promotes and supports the game.”

Rachel Pavlou

Pavlou was banned from playing football for her primary school team aged 7 because she was a girl and didn’t return to football until she was in her twenties. She is now the National & International Women’s Football Development Manager at The English FA. 

I’ll be watching the FA’s commitment to continue the growth of Women’s Football with great interest, and I hope that the time has finally come for these amazing athletes to be taken as seriously as they deserve. 

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