International Women’s Day saw clubs putting their women’s teams front and centre. There were powerful messages from players and moving videos from the Football Association about different journeys taken into the national game. Manchester City even went as far as changing their Twitter handle to Womanchester City for the day – joining other organisations across the city.
And it is right that, on such an important day for women globally, those invested in women’s football promote both the game and those who have fought over the years for the right to play. Because if you look beyond the newest generation of players, every woman that has laced up boots in the past century has done so against a backdrop of hostility.
Although equality in sport may seem trivial alongside the wider issues faced by women in society, how women view themselves, how they move and how they interact with their bodies says much about their position in, and relationship to, society. That is why it is no accident that in the Commons IWD debate both sides referenced sport in their wider discussion on equality, and in particular a need for greater equality for female footballers as the game develops. Because fit, confident, healthy, empowered women who have reaped the rewards of team sport are proven to do better in workplace teams, in boardrooms and will challenge things.
The growth of women’s football in England in recent years is to be applauded but there is still a mountain to climb if it is going to claw back to the height it reached before the FA’s 50-year ban in 1921.
And it is clear that although there are plenty of good initiatives, from school to adulthood, football – and society – is not doing enough to engage women with sport and transform attitudes.
Because even those at the top of the game still find that being a professional is a struggle. Last December a FifPro survey of women footballers revealed that 88% of Women’s Super League players earn less than £18,000 per year and that 58% have considered quitting for financial reasons. There are huge resources within football and yet a majority of top professional women footballers are paid less than the top Fifa eSports players – the top 10 earning an average of £55,911 in 2017 – despite women’s football providing the biggest pound-for-pound return on FA investment.
As the England Lionesses returned from their most successful finish at the SheBelieves Cup in the United States, new manager Phil Neville outed the fact that the team have to fly economy outside of major tournaments. It is a decision now under review. But it is a position that should never have existed. FA chief executive Martin Glenn makes much noise about it being not for profit and “for all”, yet its travel arrangements for the national women’s and men’s teams shows a more successful women’s team being treated as second best, in this case for no discernible reason other than financial.
The same scenarios crop up time and again in the women’s domestic game. The Continental Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester City is taking place at 7pm on Wednesday at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park. It’s hard to envisage such an anti-social set-up for a cup final in the men’s game. Yet this is not the flagship Women’s FA Cup, and heaven forbid we aim to make every major women’s final a showpiece event.