The absolute hostility and disdain with which many men treat women’s football has always baffled me, and it becomes especially apparent whenever there’s an important women’s football tournament. It’s gotten better in recent years, but it’s not hard to find men who still scoff at the game and don’t take it seriously, while they go feral over the exact same sport when men play it. A few seem to take offense at the idea that women could ever play; in their minds, football is ‘a man’s game’, as termed by Graeme Souness, a sphere where women do not belong (1). Endorsement of women’s sports is accused of some warped idea of forced political correctness, and men who support women’s sports are seen as emasculated. According to research, these misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport are held by more than a whopping two thirds of male football fans (2).
This contempt towards women’s football reflects onto the experience of the footballers themselves. A 2020 survey showed that 67% of women in football have experienced gender discrimination, but only 12% reported it, possibly due to dismissal of this discrimination as ‘banter’ (3). There’s still a vast gap in viewership between the sports, and a resultant large pay gap, with Women’s Super League players earning £10,000 less than a Premier League player earns weekly (4). Women’s football receives less TV screen time, less respect and less monetary support, and as such, the players face struggles male footballers never have to worry about.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by sexism in football, considering women’s football was banned in the UK from 1921-1970. But with the leaps and bounds women’s football has made in recent years, hearing casually sexist comments about women's football becomes more and more ridiculous and infuriating. I can only assume that these misogynistic male fans feel threatened by the idea of women entering the physical, traditionally masculine sphere of sports - especially with the amount of ‘get back in the kitchen!’ comments I’ve heard about female athletes. These men place such high importance on their own physical strength and the so-called ‘protection’ they can provide women, that they cannot accept the idea of women competing with them in this role, and being especially capable of physically protecting themselves. They have to minimise the players’ skills, because the alternative, that women are just as skilled, passionate and dedicated as men, is too much for their egos to take.
Most recently, the story of the non-consensual kiss Spanish player Jennifer Hermoso was subjected to by Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s football federation, has highlighted a deep-rooted sexism and dismissal of women’s experiences that has horrified many. Undoubtedly, a lot of people were rightfully outraged by what they saw, but it’s the bizarre response from others that has stuck in my mind. Hermoso was clear in how she felt, describing feeling ‘vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act’, but for some, her words aren't enough (5). They question her sincerity, her motivations, minimise Rubiales’ assault, and dissect a video of her and her team’s reaction to the kiss, as ‘proof’ of her lack of trauma. Aside from the fact that everyone reacts differently to trauma, none of this changes the absolute wrongness of what Rubiales did.
The idea of Rubiales nonconsensually kissing any male players on the mouth is hard to imagine, and Rubiales would undoubtedly get a much different response from those watching, but somehow people still have difficulties accepting that Hermoso is equally entitled to respect and boundaries. This is not the first time the Spanish football team has protested against sexism within their industry, either; last year, a player revolt over unequal pay, unfair treatment from their coach, and a culture of sexism, led to 15 players being excluded from the World Cup. This time, the players admirably declared that they would not play until something changed.
The Spanish team’s determination in this, as well as social outcry, led to changes in the team’s management, with their former coach Jorge Vilda (who defended Rubiales’ behaviour) being sacked and Rubiales being suspended while he is investigated. Hopefully, this will lead to a reformation of the chauvinistic structures of Spanish women’s football which the players have been speaking out against.
Beyond this, online movements such as #HerGameToo have brought attention to the misogynistic abuse issued online towards the game. A 2021Women at the Match survey has indicated that progress is being made in terms of people’s attitude to the game, largely due to more conversation and awareness being spread about the topic.
All this is to say that there is hope for the future. The great thing is that women footballers don’t need the approval of these backwards, bitter men to continue thriving in their jobs. The more the women of football continue to soar above expectations, the more we get people involved and hold men accountable for their outdated attitudes and behaviour, the more we can level the playing field and give these hard-working players their well-deserved props.
- E. Brean
(1) https://www.theguardian.com/football/2022/aug/15/graeme-souness-criticised-mans-game-premier-league -chelsea-tottenham
(2) https://www.theguardian.com/football/2022/jan/20/misogyny-towards-womens-sport-common-among-mal e-football-fans-study-finds
(5) https://www.thejustice.org/article/2023/09/president-of-spanish-soccer-federation#:~:text=%E2%80%9CI %20felt%20vulnerable%20and%20a,Cup%20final%20five%20days%20before