Sexism in football: The unequal game

Goalden Times does not believe that only a single day in the calendar should be marked to remember or celebrate women empowerment. But we certainly believe in the theme for 2015 International Women’s Day : Make It Happen. In line with that, Proma Sanyal sketches the struggles and achievements of today’s women in Football.

In recent times, the use of social media as a platform to raise voice against social maladies has reached new heights. Feminist articles and videos have gone viral in almost all forms of social media. While most of the world has attempted to recognise equal status of women in every walk of life, the position of women in the world of sports remains one that is largely sidelined. With the help of case studies, I aim to analyze some of the types of sexism that exist in the footballing society.


One of the most glaring issues that female footballers have to face is  equity (or rather lack of it) of pay. Among the many injustices that they deal with every day, the drastic disparity in their pay when compared to their male counterparts is one of the most astonishing and humiliating ones.  Women club players earns roughly 16,000 pounds a year. A male counterpart, for instance, Wayne Rooney, earns a staggering £300,000 a week which is roughly £1,786 an hour. Therefore it takes him roughly 29 hours to earn what a female footballer earns in an entire year. And we are not even talking about the absurd multi million brand edorsement deals bagged by the iconic male footballers! Rachel Yankey of Arsenal is quoted to have said that to have a decent standard of living they all have second jobs.” Besides the issue of disparity in remuneration women also have to deal with gross neglect in sponsorship deals. According to a survey conducted by Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), just 0.5% of all sponsorship cash ploughed into sport in the UK goes to women. Men’s sport attracts 61.1% of the market, with team sports including both sexes taking up the rest.


Even if one makes an effort to look past the monetary problems in this realm, it is impossible to ignore the many ways women in football are humiliated and reduced to servitude, even in some of the biggest clubs of the 21st century. The lack of respect that are reported by players reek of shameless sexist gestures. Casey Stoney, of the English national team, who has been capped over a 100 times, confessed about having to take up a part-time job as the stadium launderette and having to clean the male team’s kit in her years at Arsenal Ladies.  While talking about it she also speaks about the kind of treatment her teammates underwent; “I have seen the ex-England captain, Faye White, lugging boxes around at Arsenal’s training base before the club’s manager, Arsène Wenger, gives his Friday lunchtime press conference.” Faye White has over 90 appearances to her name.

Casey Stoney in an interview
Casey Stoney in an interview

No Coverage

In England, Women’s football is rated to be the third most popular sport after Men’s cricket and football. However, the amount of coverage that this sport gets is almost negligible. Just 2% of mainstream sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport. We cannot imagine our weekend evenings without a dose of Manchester United or Chelsea and we scorn newspapers when they make the smallest of typing errors. But when two of England’s best female footballers, striker Kelly Smith, leading goal-scorer for England, and defender Alex Scott, received emails explaining the 2012 Women’s Professional Soccer League in the United States had been cancelled there was hardly any mention of it in the media. Three other British players – Anita Asante, and Karen Bardsley, and Scotland defender Ifeoma Dieke, – were also left without clubs. Yet it got barely a flicker of attention in the UK media.


Like in almost every other field, objectification of women in the footballing profession sticks out like an untreated open wound. From the FIFA president to the team officials, objectification and sexualisation of the sport remains active at every level. In 2004, Sepp Blatter added a new feather of disgrace to his cap when he suggested that women should play football in more feminine clothes to add aesthetic value to the sport. He suggested to them to help promote the sport by wearing skimpy kits. He said:  “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”  Offensive remarks, commodification and being treated as less feminine are problems that plague these women constantly.

U.S. women's national team star forward Abby Wambach has encountered her fair share of sexism from FIFA and president Sepp Blatter.

U.S. women’s national team star forward Abby Wambach has encountered her fair share of sexism from FIFA and president Sepp Blatter.

Sexism at home

While the matters of less payment, less coverage,  and objectification plague footballers in the West, here at home, i.e. India, the problem of humiliation beats all odds. Problems such as having to take up part time jobs in their clubs to support themselves and worrying about not making headlines when their leagues get cancelled are not problems that plague female footballers here. Female footballers don’t worry about not making headlines when their leagues get cancelled. Reason: The teams simply do not have female counterparts. Clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan who, together, have a fan base of 1,646,816 (as of January, 2015) only on Facebook, do not have registered female teams.  While talking about development in women’s football in the US, Philippe De Ridder, former coach of East Bengal, who also coaches women in the US, said “Women’s football in India is a must to develop. Results on international level could be faster than the men’s teams if guided wisely and the big clubs need to take the first steps soon. ”

Sexism faced by match officials and staff members of clubs

The dark side to football is further enhanced when we shift our focus to how the involvement of women in football is perceived by the male dominated section of the community.

“Football is too macho. It’s difficult to accept women in governance”. This is not a comment on a roadside argument among friends. These are the words of Sepp Blatter. After advising women to wear hot pants to promote their sport, at a recent press conference he confessed that there is, indeed, reluctance in accepting women in footballing governance. “It’s so difficult to accept [women] in the game. Not playing the game, but in the governance. It’s easy in basketball, it’s easy in volleyball. It’s easy in athletics. It is no problem. But in football, I don’t know.” Harsh though it may sound, there is truth in these brutal words. Governing bodies and media are too resistant to accept women on equal grounds. Here are some instances of the same.

  1. In 1994, 20-year-old physio seeking work received a rejection letter from a football club. The letter from the club manager read “Most of the players felt that football was very much a male sport and did not really like the thought of females being involved with the treatment of sports injuries within the training complex.” Unfortunately, the manager is Manchester United’s legendary former boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
  1. In 2006, Mike Newell, then coach of Luton Town FC, lashed out at assistant referee Amy Rayner and suggested that she shouldn’t be there. He said “She shouldn’t be here. I know that sounds sexist but I am sexist. This is not park football, so what are women doing here?”

“I think to every man it was a penalty. Unfortunately to every man, but not a woman”
– Paul Jewell, former Ipswich Town manager

  1. Ipswich Town boss, Paul Jewell, on not being awarded a penalty, unleashed his wrath on her by saying “I think to every man it was a penalty. Unfortunately to every man, but not a woman.”
  1. One of the worst recorded instances of sexism in recent history is that of a conversation between Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Two of footballs most high profile presenters lost their jobs because of the following conversation. “Well, somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.”- “Yeah I know. Can you believe that? A female linesman.”- “That’s exactly what I said. Women don’t know the offside rule. The game’s gone mad”
Sexism in Football
This cartoon by Mac from The Daily Mail relates to the Sky soccer sexism row, as a result of which football pundit Andy Gray and his co-presenter were suspended
  1. The problem of sexism has also raised its ugly head in Indian football. Much to the horror and disgust of professionals in the football circuit, BNR FC footballer, James was seen to make offensive gestures towards officiating referee Kanika Barman. The gestures towards Barman were, according to former stars such as P.K. Banerjee and Amal Dutta, equivalent to rape threats. Yet, not very surprisingly, James was let off scot-free.

Sexism in fan bases

This culture of sexism and notion of football being a property of the male is not just restricted in the realm of administration or among players and percolates down right to the fan bases. In numerous occasions it has been recorded how male members of the fandom of football find it increasingly difficult to accept that a woman’s understanding of the sport may not be inferior to theirs. Here are a few examples.

  1. In a recent BBC Hindi radio programme, Anubha Rohatgi interviewed female football fans across the country and painted a rather depressing picture. There is unanimous agreement on receiving condescending treatment from their male counterparts. One of the fans interviewed, an editor at a football website, Amreen Bhujwala, shared some of the common remarks that, she, like every other female follower of the sport often receive. They are “What do you understand of football; you’re a girl” or “If you really are a fan, explain the offside rule to us.” All the women who participated in the programme agreed without the slightest hesitation that this Law 11 of football has come to be a kind of test that women need to pass before they are allowed to engage themselves in a discussion on football with men. Some of them expressed annoyance while others simply refused to engage in any form of interaction with men who ask for such proof.
  1. Secondly, the resistance that every female football fan encounters is the foregone conclusion that her appreciation of football solely based on the good looks of a particular player. If she is capable of naming footballers beyond Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, it is a matter of great astonishment and disbelief. It simply eludes the male psyche that even if her favourite footballer is, in fact, good-looking, she may be enthralled by his game and not merely his looks. For instance, in the early 2000s, one of the most popular footballers among women was Ronaldinho Gaucho. Yet, there are popular fan spaces as “If a girl knows footballers other than Messi/Ronaldo then marry her.”
  1. The 2006 Jafar Panahi film, Offside, is one of the best documentations of sexism in football. The movie is about girls who try to watch a World Cup qualifying match but are forbidden by law because of their sex. Female fans are not allowed to enter football stadiums in Iran on the grounds that there will be a high risk of violence or verbal abuse against them. The film was inspired by the director’s daughter, who decided to attend a game anyway. The film was shot in Iran but its screening was banned there. While the situation may not be just as grim in India, there are several points of similarity. While it is not forbidden by law for girls to enter stadiums, when compared to Europe and Latin America, India has a shocking disparity in female stadium attendance. According to 2006 statistics, in comparison to men, the number of women spectators at the stadium is less than two per cent for the entire spectator base. However, it is not that there is a dearth of female spectators because they are not interested. It is the sheer callousness of the authorities and the poor infrastructure of stadiums in India. For instance, the lack of facilities at Yuba Bharati Krirangan, compels women more often than not, to not be regulars at the ground. Very much like the way it has been represented in Offside, there is barely any provision for washrooms for women. The one that is allegedly a women’s washroom is usually used by men to avoid long queues in their own toilets, while sometimes, they do not go as far as inside the washroom to relieve themselves. Moreover at least on two occasions, the washrooms were without bolts. The very fact that women might just be interested enough to be a regular at the stadium, somehow, escapes the parochial mindset of the authorities so widely that for a woman to expect such basic amenities such as a usable toilet is nothing short of a distant dream.
sexism in football offside movie
“Offside” is about a group of Iranian girls who attempts to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium dressed as boys in order to watch a big football match but some get caught and arrested.
  1. The last kind of sexism that I would like to write about is the sort found on social media. While sites like Facebook and Twitter are among the biggest platforms that help us to try and fight gender equality, when it comes to football, they are also the birthplaces of the most sexist posts that can be found on the internet. Before the 2014 World Cup kicked off, posts which are allegedly funny went viral. Among them were rules to follow for girls circulated by the “real” men and they varied from “keeping the kitchen ready with sandwiches and beer for halftime” to not “asking for the remote for a month.” A recent match between Argentina and Portugal which the latter won, gave birth to a virtual fight between the Argentine and Portuguese fans of Kolkata and the most popular abuse that the Argentine camp could come up with was “Portugirl”. The element of humour, till date, escapes me.

My aim was to throw light on the darker and uglier side of the sport that we so fondly call the beautiful game. In an era that is apparently “modern” and issues such as racism and homophobia are being seriously dealt with, sexism, especially in football and other sports, is surprisingly neglected. In the words of David Mooney, while there is willingness to tackle other forms of discrimination in the sport, sexism is too often shrugged off as just “banter”. It is unfortunate that women and football are somewhat of an oxymoron to most people, particularly in India. Even when the authorities try to reduce the discrimination by introducing female match officials, these women have to face a lot of hostility. When referees like Kanika Barman officiated CFL matches, the sort of highly expletive laden remarks that she was greeted with on social media is nothing short of shameful. There is sexism in every nook and cranny of football and somehow it has never been taken up as a serious issue. Although it is irrational to expect a radical change in attitude to overcome a crowd of one hundred thousand overnight, it is not impossible to expect a gradual change. The fact that it is, in fact, a dream that can be realised is elucidated by some of the reactions that sexism in the sport provoke. The likes of Richard Keyes and Andy Gray end up losing their jobs and footballers like James Endurance provoke other members of the profession to demand stern steps against him. Hence, if proper steps, such as, stronger measures against sexist comments and gestures, basic amenities that enable women to step into the stadiums and so on, are taken, it will not be long before men and women can enjoy being a part of football, shoulder to shoulder without the constraints of gender coming into play.
NB: The article has already been presented by the author in the seminar “Socio political cultures of football: Home and Away”, on 21st Jan, 2015 held at Presidency College, Kolkata.

Works cited:

  1. “BBC To Air Sexism In Football Exploration” by Huffington Post
  2. “Foul Play: Why is there sexism in sport?” by Laura Williamson
  3. “Richard Scudamore: No culture of sexism at Premier League: by Natalie Pirks, BBC
  4. “Some of what we discovered was shocking. It is discrimination” by Gabby Logan, BBC
  5. “Sexism in Football?” – BBC Documentary
  6. “Blatter: Football is very macho. It’s difficult to accept women in governance” by Sonja Cori Missio, Guardian