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A female England footballer called Beth Mead wearing. the number 22 shirt
England player Beth Mead at the women’s World Cup semi-final against the US in 2019. Romain Biard/Shutterstock

Why football needs a gender revolution

This July the UEFA women’s Euros kick off, and women’s football will be watched by millions of people. But will this visibility help boost gender equality in the game or give rise to a further backlash of anti-women attitudes and misogyny?

The #MeToo movement has raised public awareness of issues such as misogyny, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. These issues are increasingly central to public debate about future policy change in many areas. However, football – the world’s most popular sport – remains a bastion of male domination.

But some momentum has been building towards greater gender equality in football. In 2019 a record 1.12 billion people watched the FIFA women’s World Cup. Our research has shown evidence in the UK of a “new age” of media coverage of women’s sport.

Women in football are becoming increasingly visible not only as players and fans, but also as pundits, match officials, journalists and club workers. But this does not mean sexism and misogyny, which have been core characteristics of the so-called beautiful game for many years, have disappeared.

Earlier this month a row erupted in Scotland when several women journalists walked out of the Scottish football writers awards in Glasgow following what was reported to be a series of sexist, misogynist and racist “jokes” by a male after-dinner speaker. Sports broadcaster Eilidh Barbour tweeted afterwards:

We need a gender revolution if we want to reach equality and justice on the pitch and beyond.

Sexism, misogyny and abuse

There have been several disturbing incidents of misogyny and abuse in football this year.

In late January, Spanish premier league club Rayo Vallecano announced its decision to hire disgraced coach Carlos Santiso to take charge of its women’s team, despite a recording emerging of him encouraging his staff to find a girl to gang-rape to help team bonding. Despite fans being appalled, Santiso remains in post.

This is patriarchy at its worst. Our recent research found that men continue to dominate the highest-ranking roles in men’s club football. Where women are included in leadership roles, they are typically channelled towards peripheral roles. This way women are removed from major footballing decisions and male dominance in the sport is maintained.

This is how clubs protect men’s interests, and why club presidents rarely feel obliged to take action in cases such as Santiso’s. And this is why, even in the rare cases where a player or official faces consequences for misogynistic behaviour, he often finds lucrative employment once the scandal dies down, and remains active in the industry.

Far too many clubs are willing to ignore these issues. The consensus is often that if a player, manager or director is making money, winning games and bringing in trophies, the rest is irrelevant. This is arguably the case for Scottish club Raith Rovers’ signing of David Goodwillie earlier this year.

The player was found by a civil court to have raped a woman in 2017, yet Raith still decided to hire him. After many fans voiced outrage, and the women’s team captain resigned, the manager still tried to defend the move by insisting that Goodwillie has “a proven track record as a goalscorer”.

Eventually, after sponsors started pulling out and first minister Nicola Sturgeon condemned the decision, Raith Rovers made a U-turn and announced that it would not, after all, sign Goodwillie. He is now playing for another Scottish club.

Northern Ireland women’s team manager Kenny Shiels recently made headlines by negatively comparing women players’ emotional resilience to that of men. Speaking after Northern Ireland lost 5-0 to England, Shiels claimed that in women’s football, teams concede goals in quick succession because women and girls are “more emotional”.

Shiels’ comments drew much criticism, and while he apologised, it is hard to undo the damage of senior figure in the sport perpetuating stereotypical assumptions about women. Former England and Arsenal player Ian Wright then took to Twitter to demonstrate how things get emotional for men too.

In one of our recent studies, a survey of 1,950 male football fans found that openly misogynistic attitudes still dominate football fandom in the UK.

We identified three groups of football fans: those with progressive attitudes who expressed support for more gender equality and wider coverage of women’s sports; fans with misogynistic attitudes who saw women’s sports as inferior, and its coverage as “positive discrimination” or “PC nonsense”; and finally, fans who manoeuvred between progressive and misogynistic attitudes, publicly expressing support for gender equality, but in private revealing more misogynistic attitudes.

In this study, we found that while progressive attitudes were strongly represented among football fans, the most dominant group, by far, was the one that openly demonstrated misogyny.

Time for revolution

Football does not operate in a vacuum. If misogyny is rife in wider society, this transfers to the football arena. The recent “leg-crossing remarks” about Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner show that this blatant sexism is in evidence at the highest levels of the nation.

Yet important battles are being won. Society is making it clear it will not turn a blind eye to misogyny any longer. Recent examples of misogyny in football draw a grim picture, but the media reported these incidents widely and critically, and the public voiced its objections loudly.

Yet, wherever there are advances in gender equality, there is also a backlash. And this is often more severe in environments traditionally dominated by men – like football and politics.

US women's team captain Megan Rapinoe holding the women's world cup trophy.
US women’s team captain Megan Rapinoe, celebrating their win at the women’s World Cup in 2019. Romain Biard/Shutterstock

Simply increasing the visibility of women is not enough to end sexism and misogyny in the sport. What we need to reach equality and justice on the pitch and beyond is a gender revolution. We need everyone involved, from players to managers, fans to sponsors, to take a clear and uncompromising stance against misogyny and help create a welcoming environment for women.

Equality, diversity and inclusion must be firmly embedded within clubs and governing bodies, and this is not currently the case. News this week that the US men’s and women’s teams will share their World Cup prize money is welcome. Changing this mindset will take time, but it’s possible if we refuse to excuse anti-women attitudes.

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