With the Women’s World Cup commencing imminently, this article will reflect on the rise in women’s football since the Football Association (“The FA”) lifted its ban on women playing football 50 years ago and explore the different international, regional, and national initiatives that have been implemented to tackle gender and sex discrimination ingrained in the culture of women’s football.
The Rise In Women’s Football: Recognising Change
The English Lionesses’ victorious legacy following the 2022 Women’s European Championships early last summer has resulted in greater support, attention, and participation in women’s football. With over 87,000 spectators watching the Women’s Euro final at Wembley stadium and 17.4 million people tuning in to watch the match live on various screens, Leah Williamson, England’s captain, spoke of how “success at a major tournament directly correlates with the growth of the game”.
Recently, the United States Soccer Federation announced a landmark settlement in the long-running equal pay dispute with the women’s national team (to read more, please see this LawInSport article) and the Spanish women’s national team signing two historic agreements with the Spanish Football Federation regarding their training camps, prize money and image rights (to read more, please see this LawInSport article). In March 2023, the UK government pledged that girls will get equal access to football in schools.
However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that in 1971 the FA overturned its 51-year ban on women’s football. It was in those 5 decades that the game suffered a devastating blow in popularity with the belief that football was a ‘man’s game’ firmly taking hold. Many would argue that the reason for women’s football has been playing “catch-up” has been this ban. But back in 1920, this was not the case.
At the turn of the 1920s the women’s game was thriving. On the 26 December 1920, the Dick, Kerr Ladies, a famous factory team from Preston, beat rivals, St Helens 4-0 at Goodison Park, home of Everton Football Club. A crowd of 53,000 fans were packed inside the ground and a further 10-15,000 fans were turned away due to the packed stadium. Receipts of over £3,000, exclusive of tickets: this is the equivalent of about £140,000 today. This hugely successful game would trigger the devastation of the women’s game.
A year after this hugely successful match the FA voted to ban women’s football: all women’s games were barred from FA-affiliated football grounds. This ban would last for 51 years. The FA’s Consultative Committee’s ruling stated:
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”
This ban lasted until 1971.
Viewing Figures And Social Attitudes
Was it the competition or was it the game?
The 2022 European Championships final where England beat Germany broke the record for being the most watched women’s football game on UK television with a staggering number of 17.4 million people tuning in to BBC One. Whilst this statistic hit newspaper headlines and represented a step in the right direction, when compared to men’s football, there is still a huge disparity in the popularity of the game. Broadcasted on both ITV and BBC, the UEFA’s Men’s 2020 Euro final (which took place in 2021), was watched by over 29.85 million people.
However, it must be asked whether the popularity of the 2022 final was because it was a women’s game or because it was a Euro final? To answer this question, it is imperative to situate the popularity of the women’s final within the context of the popularity of the entire women’s tournament. In the group stages, the women’s tournament was followed closely by only 27% compared to 53% of the men’s 2021 tournament based on 1,000 Online British adults aged 18 to 75. The BBC reported that 11.3 million people watched the Lionesses beat Sweden 4-0 in the semi-finals. In contrast, ITV reported that 29.85 million people tuned in to watch the Lions beat Denmark 2-1 in the Euro’s 2020 semi-finals played in 2021. The figures show that it is not the stage of the competition or the competition itself that causes the large inequalities in figures between the men and women’s game. It is whether the game is a men or women’s match. This begs the question as to why the sport is more popular when played by men.
Why do more people watch men’s football?
Over 1.12 billion viewers tuned in to watch the official broadcast coverage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup held in France compared to 5.4 billion people who watched the men’s competition in 2022. One of the reasons why more people watch men’s football is that there is a perception and stigma that the game is not as interesting when played by women. During both the group stages of the UEFA European Championships, roughly 3 in 10 Britons said that women’s football is less exciting than men’s football. But is that based upon facts and statistics or prejudice and discrimination? A study conducted by Durham University, based on 2,000 male football supporters, found that two-thirds harbour hostile, sexist or misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport. However, in a 2021 study which compared events in matches across genders, it found that women’s matches have, on average, more free kicks, duels, accelerations, clearances, ball touches and passes, but also fewer fouls than men’s matches. Women in Sport’s 2018 study revealed that on average, only 10% of sports was focused on women’s games: therefore, 90% of all sports concentrated upon men’s sports. Perceptions, such as the one described above reveal how sex and gender discrimination prevails in women’s football.
Discrimination in schools
The objectives, early participation, and development participation, highlight how important schools are in the development of attitudes and perceptions of women’s football. An important environment for primary socialisation, school is where children learn societal values, norms, and attitudes. The ongoing use of phrases such as “Football is a men’s sport”, “you can’t play because you’re a girl”, “that isn’t what girls are meant to do”continue to be common ‘playground talk’. Arsenal Women’s skipper, Leah Williamson recollected of what it was like growing up and having an interest in football: “growing up in England, even in PE, you would get fewer and fewer girls joining in each week because it was almost a chore to go out and do sport”.
FIFA’s 2019 Women’s Football Member Association survey reported that in The FA, there were 76,625 registered female youth players (> 18) playing organised football, dropping to 43,934 registered female adult players (18+) playing. Research shows that broad access to girl’s football drops dramatically from primary school (72%) to secondary school with only 44% of girls in secondary school having the chance to play football in Physical Education classes. One of the reasons for this is the unspoken taboo of the anatomy of a female’s reproductive system. Over half of girls (65%) have missed Physical Education classes due to their period.
Normalising people openly talking about periods requires a collective societal effort and includes educating young girls and boys on how to deal with periods, to not feel ashamed and/or embarrassed and how to cope when playing sports. In July of last year, the England women’s team asked Nike to change the colour of the white shorts as these were impractical whilst they were on their periods. And at the beginning of October 2022, West Bromwich Albion Women confirmed that they would no longer wear white shorts due to their impracticality for women who were on their period. It begs the question, do the kit designers not consider the question of the period when designing the kit or even consider that the kit is being made for women?
Discrimination in the workplace
Gender discrimination and the belief that ‘women have no place in football’ is not limited to school playgrounds and the education system but extends into the workplace.
The Women in Football (WIF) 2020 survey of women in football found:
· 66% of respondents had personally experienced some form of gender discrimination in the football workplace, but only 12% had reported it
· 82% of respondents said they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that they’ve faced obstacles in their football career
· 81% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that they’ve faced gender stereotyping in their career
· 52% had been overlooked for career progression (agree/strongly agree)
· Only 45% believed that the football sector is one where women can excel (agree/strongly agree)
· Only 14% believed that women are encouraged to forge pathways to the highest-level careers in football (agree/strongly agree)
Article 4 of the FIFA statutes strictly prohibit that:
“Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
In a 2020 survey, Women in Football revealed that two-thirds of women working in football have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace. The wide attention the success of the Lionesses last year has generated was accompanied by heavy online and verbal abuse following matches, due to performance. In an article published by The Independent, Demi Stokes, England’s left-back, spoke of how the misogynistic abuse on social media “really affected” some of the Lionesses’ ability to play football. The social media movement, #HerGameToo, conducted a survey based on 371 women which revealed that: 91.9% have experienced sexist online abuse towards a woman in football; 63.1% have experienced sexist online abuse themselves because of football; and 58.4% have experienced abuse in real life at a football ground or in a pub while watching football.
Whilst online abuse is not new to football and undoubtedly prevails in men’s football, there have been, until recently, minimal attempts from governing bodies to tackle the sort of discrimination the Lionesses have faced such as a social media boycott. Leah Williamson, spoke out against the gender discrimination many of her teammates faced and exclaimed that “Absolutely nothing is being done and its unacceptable”. 
On the United Nations International Day for Countering Hate Speech, (18 June 2023), FIFA and FIFPRO reaffirmed their commitment to tackling online abuse by releasing a report into the levels of online abuse aimed at participants during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. For the Women’s World Cup 2023, there will be, Social Media Protection Service support, with several participating teams having agreed to implement the moderation element of the service to limit visibility of online abuse. This follows the comprehensive study by FIFPRO and other partners of the online abuse of players and obtaining the collective responses by players and unions.
Eva Carneiro, the former Chelsea Football Club (“Chelsea”) physiotherapist, took Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, (then manager of Chelsea), to the Employment Tribunal having left the
club after being banned from the first team bench. This was following Mourinho’s suggestion that she move to working with Chelsea Ladies. Whilst Carneiro agreed to drop her dismissal case, in the hearing, Carneiro spoke of how she was constantly scrutinised that “I think sexism is the least challenged form of discrimination (in football).”
In 2020, The FA launched Inspiring Positive Change, a four-year strategy which pledged to create a sustainable future for women’s and girls’ football in England. The strategy outlined eight transformational objectives to be achieved by 2024:
1. Early Participation – Every primary school-aged girl to have equal access to football in school and in clubs.
2. Development Participation– Every girl to have equal access to participate for fun, for competition and for excellence.
3. Club Player Pathway– Collaborate with clubs to develop an effective high-performance, inclusive player-centred pathway.
4. Elite Domestic Leagues and Competitions– Create the best professional women’s sports leagues and competitions in the world.
5. England– Win a major tournament.
6. Football For All– Recruit and support a motivated, diverse range of local leaders organising football for their communities.
7. Coaching – Support the development of exceptional coaches at every level of the game who are representative of our society.
8. Referencing– Ensure that every female referee afforded high-quality bespoke learning and development opportunities from grassroots through to the elite game.
What Is The Position Internationally?
Article 4 of the FIFA Statutes makes it very clear as to the strict policy against discrimination. The UK has several statutes against discrimination in the workplace; the law criminalises those who are found guilty of discrimination and as part of the English games drive against discrimination, The FA are pushing towards more rights for women in the game of football: although the protections are there in statute, it has rarely been tested by those suffering discrimination.: one recent example where this is the exception is the case of Eniola Aluko, who suffered discrimination at the hands of the then Lionesses Manager. However, the position is very different abroad. We have seen success from individual and collective action from women protesting equality in pay in football.
In 2016, players from the United States women’s national soccer teams filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint over equal pay gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”). In February 2022, in a landmark agreement, the USSF agreed to settle the lawsuit for a total of US$24 million. This ended a six-year-long legal battle which followed on from an appeal against the May 2020 judgment that there was no basis to prove the players’ claims that the USSF financially discriminated against women based on their gender. Most significantly, the USSF committed to providing an equal rate of pay going forward for the women’s and men’s national teams for friendliness, tournaments, and World Cup. This settlement signified a momentous step forward in the battle of equal pay in football for women in the US which has grown substantially following the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France. It was the most significant and high profile legal challenge of gender discrimination in women’s port to date.
Beyond the United States, Ada Hegerberg, a 23-year-old Norwegian who was recognised as the best female soccer player in the world and first woman to win the Ballon d’Or award in 2018, boycotted the Women’s 2019 World Cup in France in protest over gender inequality within the Norwegian Football Federation (“NFF”) and overall lack of support for women’s football in Norway. In the summer of 2017, Hegerberg stopped playing for the Norwegian national team, beginning her five-year period of boycott. In response, as soon as October 2017, the Norwegian Football Association made significant improvements and became the first MA to promise equal pay for men and women.
Another boycott against women’s inequality in football is highlighted by the actions of French stars Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoionette Katoto joined their captain Wendie Renard in initially refusing to represent France in the upcoming Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand later this year. Diani announced that she would be “suspending my international obligations” unless “the profound necessary changes finally arrive”. Renard’s retirement was partly motivated by the absence of specialist coaching and adequate medical care stating that “In the beginning, you had to be injured to qualify for a massage or treatment session like you would have in a club.” The players reversed their boycott following the appointment of a new Head Coach after the previous incumbent was dismissed by the French Football Federation.
In a further notable case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) found the Asian Football Confederation (“AFC”) guilty of discrimination against female candidates. The case was brought forward by Mariyam Mohamed, a former Maldivian footballer and coach, who was running for a seat on the AFC’s executive committee and possible nomination to FIFA’s council (to read more about the case, see this LawInSport article). Reportedly, two days prior to the AFC’s elections, certain officials, attempted to bribe her to withdraw her nomination otherwise she would never work in football again if she did not. Despite the CAS findings, there have been no repercussions for anyone at the AFC. The CAS panel did not uphold Mariyam Mohamed’s requests for an order annulling the results of the 2019 Elections.
With some of the above above examples and many other prejudices in mind, FIFA introduced “Minimum Labour Conditions for Players” that specifically introduced a minimum set of working conditions for female players and working conditions globally. Other examples of FIFA seeking to both accelerate the growth of women’s football and support its growth are the publication of the reports, “Setting the Pace – FIFA Benchmarking Report Women’s Football” and FIFA’s “Guide to Club Licensing in Women’s Football”. As a further development in Europe to that document, the UEFA Executive Committee in May 2022, approved the “UEFA Club Licensing Regulations for the UEFA Women’s Champions League”
The gender pay gap and difference in prize money for female footballers and women’s football compared to male footballers and men’s football is significant. The maximum salary in The FA Women’s Super League is reportedly £210,000, in contrast to the average salary in the English Premier League which stands at around £3,090,200 (ten percent of the average women’s salary). Additionally, when Chelsea won the Women’s FA Cup (2018), the club was awarded £25,000 in prize money which is just over 1% of the £1.8 million prize money awarded in the men’s competition. Undoubtedly, gender pay gaps extend beyond the remits of The FA and the UK with the start of Spain’s professional women’s league being halted due to strike action by football referees to wanting payment akin to La Liga officials.
The Equality Act 2010 renders that men and women in the same employment performing equal work must receive equal pay unless any difference in pay can be justified. The FA has claimed that, since January 2020, they “pay its women’s players exactly the same as their male counterparts for representing England, both in terms of match fees and match bonuses.”
According to The Telegraph, England’s win at Euro tournament saw them receive the ‘most generous’ bonus in the FA’s history which stood at £1.3m. This is still significantly less than the men would have received had they won the 2020 tournament, with Gareth Southgate’s team set to receive a £5m bonus. National attempts at tackling the gender pay gap have been minimalistic and represents a trend in the lack of funding pumped into women’s football with great disparity in prize money being offered by FIFA and UEFA. Additionally, FIFA’s 2018 Financial Report also revealed that the prize money awarded in the women’s 2019 World Cup stood at US$30 million compared to US$400 million for the men’s 2018 World Cup.
Does the Human Rights Act provide Protections?
Modern judges commonly use a purposive approach to interpret rules, considering the purpose of the provision in accordance with that purpose and the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”) has often been interpreted in relation to its purpose to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). The HRA protects you from discrimination in the enjoyment of those human rights set out in the ECHR. Section 3 of the HRA states that “primary and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights”. UK courts can issue a declaration of incompatibility (section 4) if legislation is found to be in incompatible with the ECHR.
Article 14 of the HRA requires that the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
Protections are existent to tackle discrimination on a national level. Once again, the true picture is that neither wages, funding, provisions, grants or other resources are distributed equally.
What is the UK Government’s Reaction?
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (“DCMS”) response has been heavily influenced by the Lionesses’ promotion of the Let Girls Play campaign which encourages gender equality in football provision and aspires to achieve equal access for girls to football in schools and communities by 2024. Additionally, the UK government launched a Review of the Future of Women’s Football after the 2021 Fan Led Review of Football Governance recommended that women’s football needed its own dedicated review. The government’s review will investigate three key themes: audience and growth, commercial and broadcasting, and structures and governance. Chaired by senior officials from the DCMS and the FA, the review will assess the potential audience reach and growth of the game, examine the financial health of the game, and examine the structures within women’s football. In a letter address to Karen Carney MBE, the secretary of state for DCMS, Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP, appointed Karen to chair the review with the central aim of making “sure everyone can enjoy the benefits of team sport and there is a robust infrastructure to sustain women’s and girls’ football for the future. A thorough review of the game will help ensure it is here for the long term”.
The DCMS has launched calls for evidence in girls’ football on issues including barriers to equal access to football for girls and boys.
Has there been any change recently?
There have been two major developments to contracts for female footballers. Firstly, female footballers are now protected from dismissal for injuries with the Professional Footballers’ Association (“PFA”) and The FA agreeing to bring a female player’s contractual protection from dismissal for injury and illness in line with the men’s game. Secondly, from the start of the 2022-23 season, the PFA and The FA have decided that all employed players playing in the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship will be entitled to 100% of their weekly wage and benefits for the first 14 weeks of maternity leave. This has increased from the 90% statutory maternity pay employees are entitled to.
Although change in the United Kingdom seems to be slower than other countries and teams worldwide, the governing bodies and various organisations are attempting to ensure that the women’s game is treated more equitably throughout the world: UEFA, FIFA, FIFPRO and other organisations have published various documents, strategies and policies to underline their commitment to achieving equality.
On the 16 March 2023, FIFA promised that $152 million for the 2023 Women’s World Cup with the aim of achieving full equality by 2027
UEFA’s key publication, “#Time for action – Women’s Football Strategy 2019 – 2024” details the key strategies in women’s football including the vision, mission, values and the goals of increasing participation, developing the game, transforming competitions, enhancing governance structures and increasing visibility and commercial value. A strategy that can be measured in 2025 as to how much of the “promised land” has been achieved by UEFA and all those that fall under their umbrella.
Review of Women’s Football
As this article was about to go to published, the 128-page report of the Review of Women’s Football was being released. The Report makes a number of recommendations to the FA, government, clubs and the new company (“NewCo” that will run the game from 2024. The Report is worth writing a review about alone. The review makes ten recommendations:
1. The new standalone company tasked with running the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Women’s Championship, NewCo, should not settle for anything less than world leading standards for players, fans, staff and everybody involved in the women’s game.
2. The FA needs to fix the talent pathway to create generation after generation of world-beating Lionesses.
3. The Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship should become fully professional environments designed to attract, develop and sustain the best playing talent in the world.
4. The FA should urgently address the lack of diversity across the women’s game – in on and off-pitch roles.
5. The FA, Premier League, EFL and broadcasters should work together to carve out a new dedicated broadcast slot for women’s football.
6. Clubs must better value and support their fans – the FA should raise minimum standards to enforce this.
7. The Government must deliver on recent commitments around equal access to school sports for girls.
8. Everyone involved in funding grassroots facilities – the Government, local authorities, the FA and Premier League – must come together to increase investment to accommodate meaningful access for women and girls to play sport.
9. The FA, Premier League and Football Foundation should work together to make sure women and girls are benefitting from funding flowing into facilities across the pyramid
10. As the FA hands over the responsibility for running the Women’s Super League and Championship to NewCo, it must now place more focus on the development of grassroots clubs and the rest of the women’s football pyramid.
The reality is, that although a significant number of recommendations are made, several key questions are not answered. In particular, where will the money come from in order to fund the many recommendations made and what are the key priorities in the development of Women’s Football that will allow for healthy and fruitful growth without exploitation, inequality and discrimination being a result of the development and expansion of the women’s game?
Football is the most popular sport in the world, watched by billions and played by millions. In the United Kingdom, the momentum of the 2022 Lionesses’ victory needs to continue to be utilised as a platform to get to reach the next step of equalising women’s and men’s football. As this article has demonstrated, this requires a collective, universal action to bring about such change and must begin with a top-down, zero tolerance approach to tackle deeply embedded discriminatory beliefs and actions ingrained in women’s football.
The discrimination to women’s football in this country is visible in its many forms: inequality on pay, in advertising, working conditions and standards, treatment, opportunities, support, language, promotion, representation, funding, marketing and more. UEFA and FIFA have published many reports and guidelines, but unless the FA and the clubs implement them, they will not bring about equality and discrimination will continue to persist and become even more entrenched. Women’s football is unfortunately seen as a poorer relative to the men’s game and treated as such: the women’s premier league games are played in inferior grounds to their male colleagues, the players are paid substantially less, the games are not broadcast on prime time television, but at unsocial hours and not on mainstream channels. The coverage given in the newspapers and magazines is a fraction of that given to the men’s game and continued prejudicial attitudes to the women’s game persist. If all of this discrimination is prevalent and visible in the highest levels of the women’s game, what hope is there further down the ladder?
A joint approach of tackling discrimination must be agreed if women’s football is to blossom and discrimination is to be tackled at the same time. The FA and the Football Leagues must endeavour to ensure there is greater representation of women at the highest levels and that the women’s leagues are treated equally. Clubs must invest more money and time into women’s football and the government should ensure that schools provide the opportunities for girls to play football. If legislation is there to promote equality, it should be used to ensure that it does. The media has a duty to promote equality and the promotion of women’s football and the benefits it brings should be given greater prominence in the press as well as celebrating the achievements of women footballers, managers, coaches and administrators.
FIFA’s aim of achieving full equality of pay for women in the 2027 World Cup is to be applauded, however it will mean nothing if it does not reflect equality in its membership, staffing and administration off the pitch. Similarly, for the women’s game to even stand a chance of success in this country, the FA should endeavour to achieve equality for women in all areas of the game. Realistically, this is unlikely to happen within the next 5 years: more likely, 10 years. But in order to achieve this, targets must be set and met so that the authorities in this country that banned women’s football for 50 years, do not (indirectly) continue to discriminate against it forever.