Moving the goalposts in women’s football

Alex Culvin analyses the rapid growth of the game – and the barriers that remain for professional players

November 16, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo by Alexander Crook (Flickr).

Women’s football is in transition. There has been a significant expansion in both public interest in, and media attention to, women’s football, income from sponsorship and, crucially, the payment of professional women players. As this process happens, it is important to understand how women players cope with their new higher profile, but also a career that remains highly precarious.

While women’s participation in football and media support for the game is at its highest, we must ‘cheer with reserve’ a different reality for the majority of women footballers. The picture presented in the media is positive. We see stories of Manchester City’s wealth, Chelsea’s investment, symbolic statements in name changes from ‘ladies’ to ‘women’ and England Lionesses’ success. We are frequently reminded that women’s football is the fastest growing team sport in England.

The ban on women

It would be interesting to know where women’s football would be if the FA had not banned women from playing on affiliated grounds in 1921. That ban followed a war-time boom in the popularity of women’s football, when matches drew large crowds. Perhaps the best-known team, Dick Kerr Ladies, has become legendary, its popularity indicative of the huge demand for women’s football at the time.

Dick Kerr organised the first official women’s match on Christmas Day 1917. By Boxing Day 1920, the team, formed predominately of female munitions workers from Preston, played St Helens at Goodison Park, home to Everton FC. A reputed 53,000 fans attended the match, with several thousand more outside the ground.

The FA ban was instituted less than a year later, on 5 December 1921. It remained in place for 50 years, until 29 November 1971. Academic experts claim that the ban on women’s football was directly connected to its rising popularity, and thus its assumed threat to the men’s game. Looking at the facts, it is hard to disagree.

Modern developments in women’s football have been both rapid and radical. In addition to moving the season from summer to winter last year, to coincide with the men’s Premier League, the FA has completed a major restructure of the league pyramid.

In 2018, Manchester United – then the only Premiership club without a women’s side – announced they would be launching a professional women’s team. The move was highly coveted, and celebrated, by the FA to mobilise and support women’s football. That Manchester United Women could effectively buy their way into the Women’s Championship prompted mixed responses in the football community, as smaller established teams struggled to cover fees. Yet the addition of United has certainly enhanced the reputation of the game.

Another cause for celebration, alongside professionalisation, is vastly improved match-day attendances. The remit of the professionalisation drive was to increase both participation and support, both of which have been achieved as the FA continues to focus on quantitative rather than qualitative change. Glossy images generate a perception of development and steadily increasing equity.

Material changes seem to underpin this picture – for example, the FA improving the annual central contract for senior England women players from to £16,000 to £25,000 in five years has undoubtedly provided financial stability for select individuals. A fuller picture of Women’s Super League (WSL) players’ working conditions, however, reveals stark inequalities persist.

Players’ conditions

I have interviewed players in all clubs in the WSL – recently renamed following several restructures. The rebranding and restructure provided opportunity for all clubs’ players to become full-time professionals. Again, this appears to be a bold move in support of the women’s game. But while the restructure favoured some clubs, it had a severe downside for others.

Doncaster Belles, previously the best-known women’s club in England, could not afford the FA’s licence requirements and will now play their football in the third tier. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the FA is prioritising club finances over established structures when it comes to league status.

Again, this not only raises issues of inequality in terms of investment in the game, but also questions of sustainability and elitism – taking a step towards mirroring the morally devoid men’s professional game, as some would say.

In 2017, FIFPro (the international players’ union) published a report on working conditions of 3,500 women footballers across the world. The data was extensive and covered issues such as salary, prize money, childcare and discrimination. The survey highlighted labour discrimination experienced by professional women footballers and how far we are from gender parity.

The report overall was striking. Fifty per cent of players surveyed received no salary, while two-thirds of those who did received less than £500 per month. Due to low financial rewards, 30 per cent of players supplemented their football career with another job and 90 per cent reported that they may have to quit football early to survive, or to start a family. Maternity and childcare were pressing concerns.

The study found that only 8 per cent of players received paid maternity leave and 61 per cent did not get any childcare support – another factor for leaving the industry early. The statistics also show general uncertainty regarding job security, with the average contract length only 12 months – and 47 per cent of those surveyed had no employment contract at all. The Telegraph revealed that, in 2018, 88 per cent of players in the Women’s Super League will earn under £18,000 per year and more than half of the new competition’s players are considering quitting for financial reasons.

The US women’s national team (USWNT), the most successful international team of all time and currently ranked number 1 by FIFA, provides a recent and striking example of the hard-fought battle for gender equality in football. The US governing body, US Soccer, employs both the men and women’s team members, but on different structures that result in women receiving significantly less in terms of bonuses, per diems, sponsorship and appearance fees.

In 2016, USWNT members filed a complaint of ‘equal pay for equal work’, on the basis that they were much more successful than their male counterparts. The agreement they reached with US Soccer still sees them being paid less, despite bringing in over $20 million in annual revenues – a clear example of discrimination in the labour market.

Their action prompted women players in Ireland, Australia, Nigeria, Denmark and Scotland to collectively bargain for greater pay. In 2017, the Norwegian FA announced it would pay its men’s and women’s teams the same, in part to prevent women players from retiring early.

Due to financial insecurity, players regularly move clubs. The contracts in the FA Women’s Super League are short, ranging from one to three years, and levels of professionalism vary considerably between clubs. Although it would be easy to compare the contract length of elite men footballers with elite women footballers, to do that would overlook the fact that male players are more economically secure from a young age.

Work dilemmas

The players I interviewed faced dilemmas at work: limited economic remuneration, delimited career prospects and their professionalism constantly at stake. They fear losing their professional status and regard themselves as fortunate to be playing – accepting unsatisfactory work conditions as a result.

Pressure to succeed is immense, as success is often a determining factor for financial and fan support at historically men’s clubs. As one senior international explained, achieving a bronze World Cup medal is a minimal expectation for recognition in the women’s game.

The new realities faced by professional women footballers are complex and contradictory. Conditions and expectations do continue to improve, but do not appear balanced from a player’s perspective. Increased opportunities for women to play professionally do not address gendered culture, power imbalances or lack of resources.

As the game continues to grow, there must be a shift from bolt-on policies and expectations from the men’s game to an emphasis on understanding women footballers as a separate entity if we are to provide the financial, social and emotional support they need.

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