Can we change the sexist culture of English football?

In this country, watching football matches is and always has been seen predominantly as a masculine pastime. As a woman who has attended matches very regularly for almost 20 years, I have found that this tradition very often manifests itself in both overt and more subtle deeply ingrained misogyny. Often, this gets shrugged off, even by me (I’m so used to it) but the problem remains. Why should I and other women have to put up with being treated as inferiors? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to pursue a hobby or lifestyle we love and which means the world to us without the constant risk of being threatened, abused, belittled and pushed out as if we don’t belong?

My football club, I must add, is no more sexist in its setup than any of the other 180-odd clubs I’ve visited. In fact, my club has taken steps towards inclusivity that most others have not even considered and if anything, it’s better than most. But when I examine the treatment I’ve received over the years, I think this only goes to show how deeply the problem runs. And this problem isn’t just sexism. Racism, homophobia and ableism are just as problematic, but I am going to create a separate post to discuss ways in which we can consider how to make organisations we are involved with more accessible to everyone. This time, I will focus on sexism and football because that is a specific problem I want to tackle. Note that I’m also talking about non-league football, in our case five levels below the Premier League. I have noticed that the higher up the leagues you go, the more female spectators you see. It’s probably no coincidence that those clubs have highly-paid PR people and are run as modern businesses that must be seen to embrace diversity. Let’s bear that in mind.

When I discuss the issue with other (male) supporters, I tend to receive one or more of the following responses:

“Stop trying to invent a problem where no problem exists. You are being oversensitive.”

“Football has been a man’s world for 150 years. That’s just the way it is and always has been. We can’t change it.”

“If you give women an advantage [e.g. free entry for one day, an initiative meant to encourage more women to attend] then that’s sexist. It’s sexist against men. That’s hypocritical and defeats your purpose.”

“Football is a man thing. Maybe we want to keep it that way.”

Sadly, I often find that they don’t even consider that any problem exists at all unless I point out the ways in which sexism in football affects them in ways they care about. Women don’t want to come to football because of the constant “this isn’t for you, it’s for men” messages they receive from society. Fans want bigger crowds (and thus more support and money for the club) and agree it’s a good idea to tap into the 50% of the population that generally don’t bother. For my views to get any attention at all, I have to point out that if they want to swell crowds in this way, they have to consider how to make the end product attractive to their target market. Even then, they will argue actively with my accounts of things I have actually experienced, implying that they know better than I do what it’s like to be a woman at football and why women often aren’t interested. Or they say that this is just the way things are.

I’m going to look at those arguments along with what is actually happening from my perspective as a female football fan.

First, the assertion that there isn’t a problem in the first place. I’m going to give a few examples to refute this, but I can understand where it might be coming from. If you are a man who attends football matches, a lot of this will be stuff you have seen happen but thought little of it and a lot will be things you have never thought about, not because you are sexist or thoughtless but because you have never had to.

I also wonder why some people are so defensive if there isn’t actually a problem. If that’s the case, why not just ignore those of us who are trying to raise awareness and have a chuckle at us for wasting our time? More likely, they may sense a threat to the status quo of a culture that not only favours them but actively pushes out people who they perceive as being different from themselves.

Let’s look at an example. My club (which I maintain is no more sexist than any other) holds periodic “Gentlemen’s Evenings,” at which a relatively well-known person, usually a former sportsman (always a man, note) is invited to speak. These events are basically framed as intellectual evenings where an experienced person speaks and the audience listens thoughtfully and asks intelligent questions. That sounds like the sort of evening I’d enjoy, but unfortunately I am not invited because I happen to be a woman. Once, the speaker was someone who my friend had liked and admired for a long time (and she had had some friendly chats with him in the past in sporting settings, which she’d enjoyed). So naturally, she was interested in coming to see him and hearing him speak. She spoke to someone at the club about getting tickets and was told unequivocally that women were not allowed to attend.

The problem is that this is a club trying to reach out to female supporters. Like most football clubs, the majority of attendees are male anyway! So it does seem a little illogical to shut women out completely for some events, whilst wondering why we don’t attend others. Creating an event that privileges and includes men only, when the environment already favours and is dominated by men, is totally unnecessary. It would be like having strictly women-only sessions at a knitting club, which would probably be female-dominated to begin with, and then moaning that men don’t show an interest in yarn crafts. The main reason why fewer women than men attend football matches in the first place is because we are socialised and brought up to believe that football is a man thing (and so girls often don’t grow up with any interest in it). People have said that to my face, including at football matches. And this is reinforcing that idea.

This is exactly why it’s just not correct to state that trying to even things out a bit, perhaps by giving the disadvantaged side a bit of a leg up, is “sexist against men.” NOT making any changes to a system that already favours men and disadvantages women is clearly perpetuating sexism against women. You simply can’t systemically discriminate against a group that sets the traditions, makes the rules, owns and runs the entire organisation and constitutes 95% of its service users. A one-off offer that favours the minority group whilst nothing changes in the background is hardly going to tip those scales to equality, let alone beyond. Maybe people are so used to having an advantage their way that the rare sight of one for the other side shocks them out of being able to see the wood for the trees.

Perhaps as an attempt to balance things out, the club has also arranged Ladies’ Nights. In the spirit of equality, you’d expect these to contain an equal amount of sports-related stuff (because we’re trying to get women into football, right?) and intellectual discussion. Nope. The entertainment consists of a drag artist/cabaret and disco. So we are assuming that men’s entertainment should consist of intelligent conversation and education about life from a sportsman’s perspective, and women’s should be vacuous, sensationalised and entirely unnecessary to use our brains for. That is frankly insulting, although I am sure many women (and indeed men) would really enjoy the event itself. It’s just that, fun though it might be, many of us prefer something a bit more intellectually stimulating, or at least the opportunity to choose the same level of entertainment that men are entitled to at the club. And as football fans, why assume that women’s preferred entertainment is entirely unrelated to football or sport in general? If we must segregate men and women for some social events (and let’s note here that not everyone identifies as one or the other, so some people are de facto excluded from both events), we could at least have a sportswoman sharing her experience in the same way, hopefully inspiring a stronger interest in football/sport from her audience if that is what we need.

Looking at things like this, it becomes laughable to state that there is nothing we can do about the problem. And sometimes my club gets things exactly right. They held a Women’s Day not so long ago, where then-England captain Faye White attended and participated in events held as part of the day. A very large number of women and girls attended and some continued coming for a while, but proportions of male to female supporters appear to be tending back towards their previous ratios. Why aren’t women continuing to keep up an interest? Perhaps it’s because we haven’t been doing anything to make the environment more accessible to women on an ongoing basis. We can’t invite female celebrities every week, but perhaps there are other things we need to look at in addition to one-off things like free entry to matches within the same old male-dominated environment (not a bad idea in itself but unlikely to make a long-term impact without a lot of thought and application elsewhere).

For example, in order to be inclusive of women and encourage them to participate, we also need to send the right message to men. If we only ever have male sportsmen speaking at events to which women aren’t invited, we are telling men over and over that Sport Is For Men and that we only need to involve women as part of an occasional one-off event. So what? So, this contributes to a culture where men are continually telling women, often without realising it, that football is where they don’t belong and this makes women feel unwelcome. We are using only male sporting role models at these events to speak to men about a man’s perspective of sport. “Sport is a man thing, and I’m a man here to tell you men all about what it’s like.” I don’t mean individual men, many of whom are very supportive. Culture affects us all in ways we don’t notice, and if the same messages are continually applied and reinforced, they become invisible because they are so normal.

I remember when I first developed an interest in watching my local side. I was in my early teens at the time and my mother strongly resisted the idea of me attending matches, especially without a chaperone. When I asked why, she told me I was not to be left alone with “all those men,” going on to imply that I was in danger of sexual assault at the hands of these terribly barbaric football fans, who don’t have any bodily autonomy or self-control and would clearly gang-rape me the moment they caught sight of me. I couldn’t fathom why she thought I would be less safe in a thinly spread crowd of 500 potential witnesses than I would be taking a solitary evening walk in our quiet neighbourhood (where I was subjected to almost daily catcalls and harassment no matter what I was doing), but this just goes to show that it isn’t just football fans who think that football is men’s territory. In fact, although I have been a victim of sexual harassment at football matches, my fellow fans were far more likely to be annoyingly overprotective of me when I was that age. Having said that, sexual harassment at football matches is alarmingly rife and almost universally tolerated.

Several years ago, I was approached by the person who was then in charge of commercial development and asked to take on a role of looking after match day sponsors and their guests. I was told that the reason they approached me specifically was because I seemed bubbly and friendly and was often seen chatting with away fans and making friends. Fine. The problem started when this person added that “it has to be a young lady.” When I asked why a woman and why not an older woman, I was told that the “hostess” role was to make the sponsors feel welcome and make them want to come back. And although these particular words were not uttered, it was quite plain in the subtext that my main role was to be eye-candy. I was even told to wear a “nice short skirt and high heels” for the job. I can’t imagine a man being asked to wear shorts for it, can you? This is not acceptable: women are people, not ornaments. But sadly this sort of thing is normal in football. Despite my misgivings (and I was very uncomfortable with a lot of this) I eventually agreed because I was told they couldn’t find anyone else to do it and I really wanted to help my club. I would certainly have refused if asked today, unless I could negotiate a few changes in attitude first! By not challenging this, I was myself contributing to the sexist culture I wanted to be free of.

Most of the time the role was OK, although I hated the constant leers, reactions of patronising surprise when it turned out I knew anything at all about football and the club I’d been part of since the mid-1990s, and being called “love” or “darling.” But because of my role and their contribution to the club, I could hardly tell these people outright that I was not there for their visual entertainment, that women were allowed to watch football too and that since I had introduced myself, they knew full well that my name wasn’t darling. Sometimes, it was worse. They’d put their hands on my back or shoulder (a very typical gesture of dominance) and say suggestive things to each other over my head about the “lovely young lady”, ask for my phone number and touch my bum in clearly non-accidental and VERY invasive ways. I told club officials I was being sexually harassed and was not comfortable with it (who would be?) but the firm message I received in response was “they don’t mean anything by it: boys will be boys, that’s just the generation they were brought up in” etcetera. Basically, I was told that me being harassed in ways that made me feel uncomfortable, violated and unsafe didn’t matter because the perpetrators didn’t INTEND it in that way. That is straight-out wrong, and just because people have learned that this behaviour is acceptable does not mean it’s OK if they aren’t willing to change it. Men do not have to tolerate being treated as objects who are there for other people’s entertainment and whose personal space and bodily autonomy aren’t important. I stuck it out for two seasons and decided enough was enough. Until we can maintain a safe environment for a woman to work in, the role is better filled by a man. That means women are either excluded from the job, or harassed for doing it. Neither is acceptable. The answer should not be to exclude women, it should be to stop men from harassing them.

Another incident that sticks in my head is a time where, at an away ground, I got into a debate about football with one of the home fans with whom I’d been acquainted for a while. As is often the case in sporting debates, we had a distinct difference of opinion. This was all just friendly banter, until he decided he’d had enough. He was waiting as I left the ground and he pinned me against a wall (there was nobody else in sight) and threatened to rape me. It may or may not have been the same day, but it was definitely at the same ground, where one of my fellow supporters insisted and insisted on buying me a drink until I eventually let him, then as soon as I had received it started touching me in the knicker region. When I moved away and told him to stop, he protested, “But I bought you a drink!” That’s just one instance of this “if I buy you a drink then I buy your body with it” thing happening at football matches but it has happened to me a lot.

And there are the catcalls and chants from the terraces that used to happen almost every time I walked past opposing fans when I was young, and occasionally still today. “Get your tits out for the lads!” “Does she take it up the arse?” Wolf-whistles. Last year, a group of kids who couldn’t have been older than fifteen – I’m old enough to be their mother – yelled at me to get my tits out. A lot of women would say “you shouldn’t let that bother you.” In fact, it doesn’t bother me as such, and never really did, but what does bother me is this constant reinforcement of the idea that football matches aren’t a place where women are welcome and the way even children are being taught this. You’re not “one of us” if you’re a woman, except to your own circle of football mates. And there is a line, as the previous paragraph demonstrates, where teasing becomes something that actually threatens our safety. THAT bothers me. If I were more timid and easily embarrassed, those chants would have made me want to hide and never come back. As it is, I really hate being the centre of attention and don’t appreciate being forced into it just because I’m female and happen to be doing something I love.

Even eating at a football ground seems to attract unwanted attention and my female football-attending friends agree that they’ve had the same experience. Nobody bats an eyelid when men buy and eat burgers and chips and pies and hot dogs, unless they do it a lot and happen to be fat (that’s an issue I want to look at another time). But as women, we’re not allowed to eat without a running commentary of “shouldn’t you be watching your figure?” and “dear dear, that doesn’t look very healthy” (as if it’s our fault there are no healthy alternatives available) and “are you really going to eat all of that?” Once, I was called a pig just for ordering the same burger and chip meal the person addressing me had had earlier. Another time, I had just bought a cheeseburger and was taking it back to the terrace when a chap leered at me and went, “Eating again, Sarah?” I’m not even sure what “again” was supposed to mean. Due to financial and time constraints, I actually hadn’t eaten a bite for three days. Perhaps he thought only men were allowed to have meals three times a day.

There’s an argument that football has traditionally been a haven where men can be men without fear of being judged by women, so trying to change that is unfair on men. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that men aren’t entitled to safe spaces if they need them, just as women are. But if safe spaces are maintained at the expense of other people, then there is a problem. What I mean is that if you argue that football matches should remain an environment where women are second-class because men need a space where they can let it all hang out, then what you’re effectively saying is that women don’t have a right to the same hobbies or lifestyle that men do. Nobody says you can’t have a men’s association, society or club, but football is something that a lot of women are interested in too so it really isn’t fair to exclude us. If women’s football received the same level of funding, publicity and cultural interest as men’s football, maybe we wouldn’t need to have this discussion.

If we want women to feel welcome then we need to change from the inside out. We can’t start on the outside because we can’t control people’s thoughts or behaviours that result from a constant barrage of misogynistic messages and we can’t tell fans how to speak to each other, for example. This refers to the little messages constantly telling me and my female peers that football isn’t for women, messages that are so commonplace that I sometimes don’t even notice them until I realise I’m feeling vaguely uncomfortable and stop to think about why. Mutual acquaintances ask my male friends for the lowdown on matches I went to and the male friend didn’t while I’m standing right there, then ignore me when I try to answer their questions. People come up to me and whichever male friends I’m with to give or ask for a perspective on something football related, but don’t make eye contact with me and address all conversation to the men. Often I feel like I’m rendered invisible when it comes to football talk.

Then there’s all the “Why do you REALLY go to football?” “Yeah but your dad must have taken you at first, right?” “I don’t believe you’re a proper football fan. Go on, explain the offside rule to me!” “I bet the players love you – are you the mascot?” (I am 33 years old, not 7). “Come on then: which players do you fancy? It’s those legs you’re really here for, admit it.” “Where’s your husband? Why isn’t he here?” And a thousand others. Every week. Incidentally, my husband has only been to about three of our games in the 5 years I’ve known him, yet I was asked this question three times in the first three months of the season after we got married. I have never once heard a male fan asked why his female partner is absent by someone who doesn’t know her, unless she is a regular attender herself. Not “does she like football too” or “does she ever come with you” but “where is your wife/girlfriend: why isn’t she here?” I found in the past that I didn’t even have to have a male partner: people would still ask me where “he” was.

And then we wonder why football isn’t more popular with women, and it’s the men who come up with schemes to entice them in. Not that they shouldn’t, but I know I haven’t been proactively asked for my opinions as part of this minority group and nor have other women I know. There are no women on the board of directors at most clubs, and very few women involved in development roles. Initiatives developed by our club have mostly been very positive, but are developed from a male perspective and no work has been done to address the culture behind the reasons why women are not only growing up to dislike or be uninterested in football (not that everyone should be; it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it isn’t an innately male thing and there is not a football-liking gene on the Y chromosome) but are not attending regularly even if they do like it. Getting them through the gate is one thing, but will they feel valued enough to come back? I find it really sad that so many of my fellow fans who want exactly the same things I want (better crowds and more support) refuse to listen to my suggestions and favour those that don’t address the underlying problems. Our recent initiative of giving women free entry for one day made absolutely no noticeable difference in the number of women in the crowd. How does it make sense to believe you are reaching out to a demographic group while at the same time totally refusing to listen to what people from that group are saying they want and need?

This is not men versus women and I am not saying all men do this or all men are that. I’m critiquing a culture, not individuals or men as a whole. If you are a man, it isn’t your fault that you’ve been brought up to make implicit judgements about the role/value of women and their opinions, but it is up to you if you want to unlearn those learnings. People call me oversensitive or picky but if I couldn’t take this sort of thing I would not have carried on coming to almost every first team game in nearly 20 years and put up with being on the wrong end of sexism to whatever degree at every single one of them.

We can’t change a culture overnight, but we can start small and if we start small then we can work our way up and as part of that process perhaps more women will feel welcome and enabled to join us. Most women I know who support my club started coming because their families, partners or friends brought them along many years ago and they started coming regularly with them because until relatively recently women just didn’t start going to football of their own volition. Those people might have a different perspective on this; I’m one of the few exceptions to the above rule. But we need to reach out to all women if that is indeed our goal.


3 thoughts on “Can we change the sexist culture of English football?

  1. One of the things i’ve found shocking is some of my fellow male’s attitudes to the women’s game. I’ve heard some men talk about the women players as “unattractive” or that they must be “butch lesbians” to want to play football.Much to my shame, I don’t pull them up on it even though deep down I know I should. It’s a partly cowardice (people thought i was a bit weird when I pulled someone up for disrespecting a Page 3 girl last year) and partly the hopelessness of knowing you won’t get through their thick skulls. I’ve tried to bring my own son up not to think that way and hopefully he doesn’t, but in the case of many of my generation I fear extinction is the only resolution.


  2. It’s always going against the tide when the 22 people playing on the pitch are all the same sex. Plus I’ve witnessed supporters at your club either totally dismiss your opinion or don’t even acknowledge the fact that you’ve even said one mainly due to your gender, which is wholly wrong. But you are right, there’s a big driver in the culture within the game that drives this sort of thing. But slowly and surely things CAN change. I remember a time in the past when black players were being chanted with monkey sounds, or common references to “bananas”, or even the use of the dreaded N word. But the “kick the racism out of football” initiative, along with a change in overall british culture has significantly reduced this. I can see the same thing with gender discrimination – it won’t happen overnight, but everything is hopefully a step in the right direction.

    The FA could seize on this a little better with the upcoming International Women’s Day…


    1. Yes, and that just goes to show how blinkered people are who say “that’s just the way things are and you can’t change something that’s been the same for 150 years.” Utter rubbish and the anti racism campaign proves it. This article that Mark linked me to last week is interesting: looks as if something is starting to get in motion.

      It’s a real shame that often, people have to be victims of horrendous hig-profile hate behaviour before anyone is moved to make any changes.


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