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Football’s last Taboos: Part Three - Sexism and the Beautiful Game

Whether it’s on the terraces, in the board room, or within the FA itself, women’s football and women working in football still have a mountain to climb.

England v Scotland - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group D Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

A number of years back when I was considering getting married, I foolishly asked my elderly neighbour for advice about the perils and pitfalls of such a commitment. Perhaps there would be some golden nuggets of reassurance, indeed even descriptions of freedom and life affirming zest. The man himself had been married for decades and in my excitable mind this meant his level of expertise was worth sourcing. He concluded:

Never marry a woman with ambition or more intelligent than you.

It only causes problems in the end.

This was a problem. My fiancé was a newly qualified barrister, a considerable leap in intelligence over me- and ambitious? Certainly. In fact those two impressive character traits were some of the reasons I found my soon to be wife so interesting and engaging. Her exotic middle class roots were a source of relentless curiosity for me.

Old Tom finished off his world weary advice with:

Love the lass by all means but the man should always be in charge.

That was 15 years ago and the old boy was in his 80’s then, so I put his out-dated mantra down to a generational chasm I couldn’t quite understand.

Needless to say I married my fiercely independent and feisty fiancé and both her brilliance and liberating smartness are two of the many reasons she thrills me still- many moons into our relationship.

When I told her I was writing an article about women in football, her empathetic and reassuring words of wisdom were:

Can’t wait to read it. DON’T SCREW IT UP!

I started my interest in the subject due to the relegating of our Elite women’s team from a beacon of competitive light under the umbrella of Sunderland AFC to a side-lined circus act - a somewhat down trodden life partner never allowed into the main bar to drink with the men. Then the drama of the Elite ladies national team unfolded and the article expanded into the dark underbelly of sexism that damages the women’s game from top to bottom.

Women’s participation in football has been a topic of intense controversy and dispute since the early 20th century and continues to cause fiery debate nearly 100 years later. Astounding considering the steps forward towards gender equality we have taken in that time.

Back in the 1920s, as a consequence of the First World War, women’s football was for a short period of time bigger than the men’s game, drawing crowds of 60,000 and raising a fortune for post-War charities. While millions of men were injured physically and damaged emotionally, the women’s teams were formed and for a while played to raise money for a host of charities linked to veterans and post war societal issues such as housing and welfare. But ultimately and perhaps as a consequence of its short lived popularity, the FA outlawed the women’s game.

The most well-known team of the day, the Dick Kerr Ladies played at Goodison Park in 1921 in front of 53,000, with another 14,000 more unable to get into the ground. Such boundary breaking episodes must have frightened the all white, all male, and all elderly grandee’s of the Football Association. In the minutes of the FA’s monthly leadership meeting from December 1921 the wise guardians of the game concluded:

“The game of football is quite unsuitable for females” and decreed that “it ought not to be encouraged”.

The FA council also found that “a high percentage of receipts were donated to charitable objects.” They outlawed it.

Professor Jean Williams, Sports Historian at the University of Wolverhampton explains:

The FA wanted the money. A way of corralling the money into men’s football. The ban had a dramatic effect: women were no longer allowed to play on grounds that were FA-affiliated, and had to go from stadiums to playing in parks or borstals.

It fundamentally changed the nature of women’s football to be ad hoc, self-regulating and not condoned by the football establishment. It was a pretty spiteful way of trying to discredit women who had done their war work.

I know what you are thinking. The FA grabbing filthy lucre over the long term benefit of the game? So glad things have moved on...

Experts of the women’s game, far more qualified than I, argue this decision made by men in stuffy suits in 1921 was tantamount to a declaration of war on not only the women’s game, but the role of women in society, which faced a direct challenge from girls in shorts with footballs at their feet. Many in women’s football believe that the ramifications of that masculine edict are still being negatively felt today- some 96 years later. Indeed some suggest that even the outmoded views on gender have also remained in the backdrop of football’s hierarchy, like a sexist spectre determined to ghoulishly haunt the advancement of societal progression.

Southampton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
Sian Massey
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Thank goodness we live in more enlightened times right? When we don’t have to tolerate sexism and gender inequality as a part of the tapestry of our beautiful game.


A survey carried out in 2016 by equality group Women in Football, uncovered an alarming growth in sexism and inappropriate behaviours that face women who work within the framework of football. In fact the leap towards archaic views long thought to be decreasing has actually spiked since their last survey in 2014. The author of the survey is Professor Sue Bridgewater who runs the League Managers’ Association diploma course for football managers:

Sexist incidents occur daily due to the culture of the environment we work in and there are far too many sexist incidents to describe. It’s endemic.

The survey uncovered an almost innumerable amount of serious issues such as this:

A teenage female referee who had to travel to games with an older male official was sexually harassed, with inappropriate touching, on the journey.

He told her that there was no point complaining because she was so young no one would believe her. The referee was afraid for her career.

Episodes such as this are not only wrong in terms of the balance of gender equality, but are illegal and they paint a depressing picture. Neither is it isolated to the nether-regions of amateur football. Indeed we don’t have to look very far from the top of the tree to see that sexism is a real problem.

The survey found that a top premier league manager had called a bullish female reporter ‘a dyke,’ when she asked him questions he didn’t like. Sound familiar Sunderland fans? Our very own disastrous manager of mayhem, David Moyes was fined this very year for threatening to ‘slap’ a female report for doing the job she is paid to do - you know… ask questions.

515 women who work in football at all levels from PAs, Physios, Doctors, club secretaries, referees, Chief Executives, Chairwomen and all in between took part in the survey. An incredible 46.2% declared they’d been victims of sexism and 38.2% receive consistent derogatory remarks about their ability to do their jobs based on their gender. Even more troubling is the 14.8% of these talented female professionals who have suffered all out sexual harassment in the work place.

Only last week at the very top echelon of our women’s game, our national manager Mark Sampson was fired due to accusations of consistent inappropriate behaviour dating back to 2014 when he was managing youth teams in Bristol. The man will have his time to disprove those accusations and hopefully he will and thereby restore some faith back into the slanted system. But either way, it proves the cancer of sexism and inequality is not confined to rural backwaters or isolated incidents involving one or two morons. As Professor Sue Bridgewater indicated - this issue is endemic.

What of Sunderland Ladies? A once thriving team who without apology smashed its way into the parade of professional royalty at the top women’s league.

The decision of Sunderland to relocate their women’s team miles from home – turfed off the Academy of Light training pitches and out of their home ground – follows a worrying pattern. The move, from the club that kick-started the careers of a host of England internationals such as Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott, Demi Stokes, Jordan Nobbs and the Manchester City and England captain Steph Houghton, is a further blow to a team who seemed to be thriving in recent years and on a broader scale is a kick in the teeth for the women’s game at large, where the message seems to indicate that male youth teams take precedent over the elite women’s team every time.

Sunderland AFC Ladies now play at the home of South Shields FC

Although don’t fear Sunderland fans, our great and illustrious leader Martin Bain assures us that the cutbacks, restrictions and negative restructure is actually for our good:

We are reviewing the operation of every aspect of the football club as we aim to improve, both on and off the field. Our support for women's football remains and we believe this structure is a more effective way forward for all of us.

The players have been reduced to part time, moved from their home ground and fell behind their peers. Their gate has gone down by 30%, but don’t worry all - comrade Bain is on our side and believes that less pay, smaller budgets and reduced crowd sizes is ‘a more effective way forward for all of us.’

In fairness this is no proof of inequality in and of itself. Bain is just as happy to destroy the men’s elite club. But there is a trend of casting aside the Elite women’s team the moment things get dicey.

It’s such a shame because our Elite women’s team were genuinely competitive and perhaps our shining light when it comes to success at the club, yet they’ve been marginalised.

Dame Heather Rabbatts, the FA’s first ethic minority female director, said: “We still have a considerable way to go before there is a level playing field for women working across the game.”

The regression of the Black Cats Women’s team, alongside the collapse of Notts County came on the eve of the Spring Series just weeks after the FA announced its high and mighty Gameplan for Growth which aims to double participation and support for women’s football by 2020. This shows some of the huge hurdles women’s football face on the path to long term sustainability and acceptability. Despite moves forward, some are still held back.

England Women Training Session Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

The news last year that the FA is pondering on whether to transform the Women’s Super League into a fully-professional one-tier division is on the one hand excellent - but also presents major challenges to those outside the top 6. Don’t get me wrong, I want women’s football to be more professional. The intention is entirely right and correct in principle: The more professional sides in the top tier will help increase the competitiveness of the league across the board. Exciting leagues that retain tight competition are more attractive for sponsors and spectators and therefore increase the spotlight and pay for hard working women in those leagues who deserve every success and every penny that comes with it. But clubs lower down the ladder and at grassroots level, those very much required for long-term growth won’t be big beneficiaries of this move. In fact some may argue the gap between themselves and the top will look increasingly large.

Sunderland could find our league status under threat. Whether this move would motivate our hopeless board to meet the FA’s licensing requirements and seriously commit to the growth of women’s football or just pack the women’s team in altogether is difficult to tell. But our recent track record offers some clues regarding attitudes at the club. With women’s teams reliant on men’s clubs it’s very difficult to see a time where our women’s team won’t be the first thing to face the axe when difficult decisions need to be made.

So whether it’s on the terraces, in the board room, or within the FA itself, women’s football and women working in football still have a mountain to climb. Yes we’ve come a long way since 1921, but the road to equality and the journey to a time where the women’s game itself and the women who work in football aren’t seen as strangers in a foreign land is still some way off. However progress is taking place and should be rightly lauded. We too can maintain that progression, for equality is not just a football issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a people issue, it’s a community issue. We all have a role to play and we should definitely play it.

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