The Good WiF

By Anna Kessel  |  30 Jan 2015

This article is taken from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. Now available to pre-order from our online store.


Is football sexist? A year ago this question may have been laughed off the agenda. But a catalogue of failures in 2014 has forced the English game to pause and reassess. From Richard Scudamore and ‘those’ e-mails, to Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and the League Managers Association’s embarrassing dismissal of discriminatory language as nothing more than “friendly banter”, the past few months have seen English football universally shamed and shaken. Those are the high-profile incidents that hogged the headlines, but what of the everyday discrimination that remains so prevalent in football? I’m talking, above all, about the chants heard at grounds around the country that endorse and promote casual sexism. The ubiquitous “Get back in the kitchen!” routinely aimed at female match officials, stewards, and club staff; the female medic who has to endure cries of “Get your tits out!” when she runs on to the pitch to attend to an injured player; the high-profile TV reporter targeted by hundreds of fans chanting “Slut!” at her during a live broadcast; or the female match official who had “Die, you slag!” screamed at her from the crowd.

What about the chants that poke fun at sexual violence? Sections of Bramall Lane roaring “She’s a whore!” in reference to the teenage girl Ched Evans was found guilty of raping and for which he was sentenced to five years in prison; or the Arsenal fans who chose to vent their frustrations at Robin van Persie signing for Manchester United by singing,“Van Per-sie, when a girl says no—moleeest her”; or the Coventry fans who railed against Marlon King’s conviction for sexual assault with cries of “She’s a ho, Marlon, she’s a ho!”

While, in the United States, debate has been raging over the NFL’s policy on domestic violence and sexual assault, here in England there are no set guidelines on these issues. We have no idea what to do with the rapists— – convicted or alleged – —among our playing staff. And we have no idea what to do about the thousands of fans who sing about them. Thus, when Sheffield United were faced with what FA chairman Greg Dyke described as a “dilemma” over whether or not to re-sign Ched Evans on his release from prison, the club seemed lost in the midst of a public storm over the issue.

As it stands, fans are not ejected from stadiums for singing sexist songs of any kind. Nor has any club ever been punished by the FA, Uefa or Fifa for sexist abuse in a stadium. It is likely that there will not even be a public discussion over whether any of this is wrong. And yet, if fans were to sing comparable songs of a racist or homophobic nature, football authorities would at least be compelled to take action – though whether or not it would be effective is another question. It remains a great irony of football’s equality work that, even in equality, there remains inequality.

Take Leyton Orient season ticket holder James McMahon, better known as the editor of music magazine Kerrang!, who tweeted his disgust at a chant, often heard at Brisbane Road, which includes the words “tits and fanny”. It’s a common football chant; you’ll hear it at many clubs. But it was only after a little girl sitting in the row in front asked her dad what the song meant that McMahon suddenly felt repulsed. Fellow supporters responded to his criticism with fury, bombarding him with messages about how political correctness, such as his, is ruining football. They also tweeted his girlfriend to ask if she “take[s] it up the arse”. After three days of offensive messages McMahon gave up his season ticket.

Happily, there are occasions where incidents can be dispelled with humour. When fans started a chant of “Get your tits out for the lads!” in Gabby Logan’s direction during a Champions League match, pundit Sir Bobby Charlton gallantly lifted his shirt and jiggled his about a bit. Brilliant. But not every woman has a Manchester United legend in their corner.

Incredibly, abuse of this kind has never prompted an enquiry from the football authorities into whether sexism in stadiums should be monitored. Football’s own anti-discrimination campaign, Kick It Out, has yet to actively campaign on the subject.

When Dr Carrie Dunn, sports researcher at the University of East London, interviewed key figures from the football authorities about sexism she was dumbfounded by their response. “They were keen to stress that this was something that fans would have to act on first, as they did not see it as something the governing bodies could intervene in directly,” she says. In Dunn’s book, Female Football Fans: Community, Identity and Sexism, she quotes one FA employee, who commented: “I think if you were to say to people, ‘What’s racism in football?’, they would generally understand it’s probably black, white, Asian abuse. But if you say, ‘What’s sexism?’, I don’t think anyone could answer that.”

Women in Football, a networking group now representing over 1,200 women employed in the football industry, grew out of this cultural conundrum. Eight years ago, covering football matches for The Observer week in, week out, I was one of very few women to be found in a press box on match days. But the more I spoke to other women, the more I realised that they were struggling. Not because they weren’t good at their jobs, but because others were so intent on putting obstacles in their way. And so Women in Football began. From seven women in a London pub one cold November evening, to a national and respected movement speaking publicly on behalf of hundreds in the industry.

WiF never did set out to be a campaigning voice; for years we operated under the radar. But the public face of WiF grew out of necessity. Because of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, because of Richard Scudamore’s e-mails, and because women wrote to us and asked us to speak out where they felt they couldn’t; because we really felt we had no choice.

Over the years football has grown ever richer, ever more attractive to commercial sponsors, to politicians, to a mainstream audience. Football has courted the family market and around 25 per cent of the Premier League’s match day revenue now comes from female fans. The Football Supporters’ Federation say women almost outnumber men as organisers of events for fans’ groups. With women accounting for 51 per cent of the UK’s population, it is an obvious growth market for football. Yet little protection is in place, either for women who work in the football industry, or for women and girls who attend matches as fans.

As Chair of WiF I have been concerned by the sexism that women working in football face. A survey we conducted last year found that more than 66 per cent of women felt there was a problem with sexism in the football workplace – of which 89 per cent said they had not reported it. Meanwhile, women remain excluded from football’s top tables: there are just six women out of 121 on the FA Council.

Following the Scudamore incident, when the Premier League Chief Executive managed to escape all sanctions for his offence, there have been hints of a redress, of a new awareness around sexism in the industry. Last month, with the backing of The FA, WiF wrote to all 92 professional clubs about tackling sexism in the workplace and sexist abuse in stadiums. At the time of going to press, four clubs have replied. With 2015 now stretched out before us, WiF is pushing for real commitment from football clubs and authorities in tackling this most prevalent and outdated form of discrimination.


This article is taken from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. Now available to pre-order from our online store.

Anna Kessel is a sports writer for The Guardian and The Observer, and Chair of Women in Football.
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