Why football needs a gender revolution

The UEFA Women’s Championship kicks off this July and women’s football will be watched by millions of people. But will that visibility help promote gender equality in the game or lead to another backlash of misogyny and misogyny?

The #MeToo movement has raised public awareness of issues such as misogyny, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. These questions are increasingly at the center of the public debate about future policy changes in many areas. However, football – the most popular sport in the world – remains a bastion of male dominance.

However, there has been some momentum 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 of a ‘new age’ in media coverage of women’s sport in the UK.

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

A row erupted in Scotland earlier this month when several female journalists walked out of the Scottish Football Writers’ Awards in Glasgow after an alleged series of sexist, misogynist and racist “jokes” by a male after-dinner speaker. Sports broadcaster Eilidh Barbour then tweeted:

We need a gender revolution if we are to achieve 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 their decision to hire disgraced coach Carlos Santiso to take charge of their women’s team, despite a recording of him encouraging his staff to hire a girl for finding a gang rape to encourage team bonding. Although the fans are horrified, Santiso remains in office.

This is patriarchy at its worst. Our most recent research shows that men continue to hold the highest positions in men’s club football. Where women are included in leadership roles, they are typically relegated to peripheral roles. In this way, women are discouraged from making important football decisions and male dominance in the sport is maintained.

This is how clubs protect men’s interests, and it is why club presidents rarely feel compelled to intervene in cases like Santiso’s. And that’s why, even on the rare occasion that misogyny threatens consequences, a player or official often finds lucrative employment after the scandal has subsided 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 clinching trophies, the rest is irrelevant. Such is arguably the case for Scottish club Raith Rovers’ signing of David Goodwillie earlier this year.

The player was found by a civil court for raping a woman in 2017, but Raith still decided to hire him. After many fans were outraged and the women’s captain resigned, the manager nonetheless tried to defend the move, insisting Goodwillie had “a proven track record as a goalscorer”.

Eventually, after sponsors pulled out and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon condemned the decision, Raith Rovers did a U-turn and announced it would not sign Goodwillie after all. He now plays for another Scottish club.

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

Shiels’ comments drew a lot of criticism, and while he apologized, it’s hard to undo the damage done by a high-profile figure in the sport who perpetuates stereotypical assumptions about women. Former England and Arsenal player Ian Wright then took to Twitter to demonstrate how it can get emotional for men too.

In one of our most recent studies, a survey of 1,950 male football fans found that openly misogynist attitudes still dominate the UK football fan base.

We identified three groups of football fans: those with progressive attitudes, who have expressed support for more gender equality and wider coverage of women’s sport; Fans with misogynist attitudes who viewed women’s sport as inferior and its coverage as “affirmative action” or “PC bullshit”; and finally, fans, who maneuvered between progressive and misogynistic attitudes, publicly expressing support for gender equality but privately revealing more misogynistic attitudes.

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

time for revolution

Football doesn’t work in a vacuum. When misogyny is rampant in the wider society, it spills over into the football arena. The recent “cross-legged remarks” about Labor Deputy Leader Angela Rayner show that this blatant sexism is evident at the highest levels of the nation.

Still, important battles are won. Society is making it clear that it will no longer ignore misogyny. Recent examples of misogyny in football paint a bleak picture, but the media have given wide and critical coverage to these incidents, and the public has been vocal in its objections.

But where there is progress in gender equality, there is also backlash. And this is often even more serious in traditionally male-dominated environments – like football and politics.

USA women's team captain Megan Rapinoe holds the women's World Cup trophy.
USA Women’s Team Captain Megan Rapinoe celebrates her victory at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Romain Biard/Shutterstock

Simply increasing the visibility of women is not enough to end sexism and misogyny in sport. What we need to achieve equality and justice on the field 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 need to be firmly embedded in clubs and governing bodies, which is currently not the case. This week’s news that the US men’s and women’s teams will share their World Cup prize money is welcome. It will take time to change this attitude, but it is possible if we refuse to condone misogynistic attitudes.

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