Last week’s International Women’s Day, and this weekend’s ‘Reclaim The Streets’ vigils as a response to the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard, wouldn’t usually find their way onto a football website and maybe some think they shouldn’t. But times have changed. The interconnectivity of all society is self-evident and profound, so they have as much to do with football as anything else.
As men, we can go to a night game on our own. Can a woman? The answer is yes, but…
As men, we can go into a pub before a game for a drink on our own, but can a woman? The answer is yes, but…
As men, do we consciously or subconsciously worry about being sexually assaulted or raped by a man on the way home from a night game? Probably not. But almost all women tell us they do when going home after anything.
Male footballers and media professionals get abused all the time, but how many times are they threatened with sexual assault and rape? Almost never. Women are.
Do men get patronised for playing football based on their gender? Never. Women do all the time.
Misogyny and sexism is rife in football because it is rife in society, indeed it is endemic on a structural level. Last October, The Guardian reported that ‘two-thirds of women working in football have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, according to Women in Football’s biggest survey. In collaboration with Sports Marketing Surveys, questions were sent to the 4,200 members of Women in Football (WiF) and the organisation’s chair, Ebru Köksal, said the results were “heartbreaking and devastating”. Only 12% of incidents were reported and Köksal said there was “still a lot of fear” of speaking out. when problems were reported they were “brushed under the carpet”, with the most common form of discrimination labelled “banter”.’
The banter defence. Football knows all about that.
In December 2019, the University of Portsmouth reported research led by Dr Beth Clarkson, at the University and it was published in the Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal. Dr Clarkson said: “It’s known very few women are appointed to elite level coaching roles, but until now, we didn’t know why. The results show most women football coaches experience discrimination and are denied opportunities to advance their careers.
“There appears to be fierce gender discrimination at all levels of football and across the full spectrum, from structure of the sport, to the social and cultural aspects of the role.
“Women coaches are missing from elite football because they face a bottleneck – as women advance, they are excluded from positions of power with limited career progression opportunities.”‘
Even when it comes to kids football, there are numerous examples of boys being prioritised over girls, from use of pitches, to teacher availability, to funding gaps. And that’s before we even get to sexual stereotyping and bullying.
Women have had the very shitty end of the stick from men forever and they’re rightly bloody sick of it. Sexist discrimination is real and embedded deep into our culture.
But point out any of these problems and watch how quickly some men will turn away a debate about fairness, equality and women’s rights, into a defence of the ‘demonisation’ of men. The hashtag popularised in the last week #notallmen is a perfect example of that. Can’t wait to start talking about ourselves again, can we? (and of course here I am doing just that) Can’t wait to excuse ourselves. Not our fault. How about you feel my pain, darlin’?
We are not listening and instead we are too often victim blaming. Victim blaming – when the subject of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them – is commonplace. Murdered on your way home? Well what do you expect to happen if you walk across a dark field or park at night? Raped? Well what do you expect going out looking like that? Sexually assaulted? Well you were drunk and you have had a lot of boyfriends, haven’t you?
The concept of men victim-blaming women was first brought home to me at college when a friend returned to her halls of residence flat to find the door had been kicked in and literally torn off its hinges. Further investigation revealed that this had been done by her boyfriend who, in a jealous rage, had destroyed the door, under the delusion she was inside with another bloke. If she had been, which she had a perfect right to be, if she’d wanted (I note that I still feel I have to say that, but I should not have to) he’d have beaten her senseless in a rage.
Totally shocked, we went to the campus officials to complain about this, report the lad responsible (he was doing Sports Studies ironically enough) and get the door fixed. I remember the man in charge saying, “Well, love, what do you expect if you lead boys on?” He went on quite casually to suggest that “girls like you, you know what you are doing to men”. He stated clearly that her sexual allure was bound to create jealous rage in young men and if she didn’t want it to happen then she should modify her dress code and behaviour. Result? He stayed unpunished, she had to move out to feel safe. It was just said to be “how things are”.
And we can’t comfort ourselves in thinking such things are in the past or just an isolated incident, or that it’s just ‘one bad apple’. It really isn’t. It’s a whole barrel of bad apples and the orchard isn’t looking too good either.
According to a survey from UN Women UK published by the Guardian, 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed.
But even in the expression of such figures, the emphasis is on women as victims and not men as perpetrators. We talk about how many women have been raped, never adding ‘by men’. There’s no mention of men in rape and assault figures, in fact. Even the expression ‘violence against women’ does the same thing because men are again not mentioned despite being guilty. This is how sexist language works to excuse and disempower. Words and expressions are the matrix which governs how we live.
The other day I heard a woman on the radio saying how even hearing men (and other women too) talking to men, saying “don’t be such a girl” and “why don’t you just man up?” just reinforced the idea that men were superior and women were weak and second class. Such language is just another brick in a really massive wall and every one of us has put a lot of bricks in that wall at some point in our lives. Now is the time to start tearing that wall down, brick by brick, if we have not already started to do so.
This is why we need to deconstruct everything we have had built into our cultural DNA, question every element and consciously surrender the power that a patriarchal society, a society constructed primarily by men for men, automatically gives us.
Football is a great place to begin. Stopping comparing women’s football to men’s would be a good start. Male is not the default, nor the standard against which to compare women; not in football, not in anything. Let’s be accurate in how we talk; it’s men’s football and it’s women’s football – or just plain football – but not football and women’s football.
Football has been home to so much sexist abuse over the years. Whether it is the persistent decrying or talking down of women’s football, the criticism and objectification of female officials, presenters, pundits, commentators, co-commentators and the rest. And to protest that in so doing, you’re just being even-handed and treating women as equals, is to be naive to the history, context and the consequences of so doing.
We do not live in an equal world, we live in a world that has systematically discriminated against women, has routinely bullied, assaulted and killed women, has suppressed and disregarded or appropriated their views, ideas, knowledge, experience and voices since the start of time. So all such criticism of women, and this applies to football as much as anywhere else in life, is immediately also part of that historical oppression of women. And that’s because both the history and the architecture of power, financial, institutional and physical, is male. We can’t conduct ourselves in football or anywhere else as if everyone and everything is and always has been equal and the long history of sexism has never happened. As a woman once told me “a social media pile-on feels very like being the only woman in any business meeting”.
Because women from an early age learn coping strategies to anticipate, prevent and deal with the full panoply of male horribleness, we’ve taken that as acquiescence or acceptance or tolerance or even as a sign that there isn’t much of a problem. We don’t suffer it so we don’t see it or understand it. It’s time we did.
No-one likes to be told that basically you’re a problem. But, take a look around: we bloody are. If I was a woman, one look at the stats on male violence against women (and other men) and I’d assume any man I didn’t know very, very well, was guilty until proven otherwise. And I would not trust the CPS, police or the judiciary to be on my side when last year only 1.5% of recorded rapes and 3.6% of all sexual offences were prosecuted in England and Wales. It’s utterly disgraceful.
The good news is that a more fair world which does not oppress girls and women is better for boys and men too. Casting off the power patriarchal society has bestowed on us is liberating. Not having to man up is a sodding relief, frankly.
We have to absorb all of this profoundly, listen and learn and change on a granular personal level and that will hopefully effect change on a societal level. It’s not a PC thing, it’s not a woke thing, it’s not a metropolitan elite thing, it’s not a feminazi thing; it’s just a human thing. And being human is the one thing we all have in common. Let’s act like we understand that truth.