Influential women voice their experiences of football’s sexism, homophobia and diversity problems: “It’s not about it being all stickers, glitter and rainbows. But it doesn’t have to be angry”

While great strides have been made in terms of the participation of women in all areas of football, highlighted in particular by the national support for the Lionesses at this summer’s Euros tournament, there is still plenty of improvement that could be made. That is why the Football Supporters’ Association have put together a listening project, in conjunction with Offside Productions Media, to highlight the experiences of women throughout the game: from leadership roles to issues online, among other things, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

What is clear is that across all of these topics, there remains significant swathes of football that are stuck in the past. Many men still see football as being their terrain, as was exemplified by the experiences of Tracy Brown, chair of Chelsea Pride.

Tracy has been abused in the past when she has been attending Stamford Bridge by fellow Chelsea fans. “When I said: ‘Can you stop?’, I was told I shouldn’t even be at the ground because I shouldn’t be at football. I should be in the kitchen.”

“I wasn’t fitting with the straight, white man who was sitting in the stands, who didn’t believe that women should have a voice… and let alone a gay woman.”

She has also had similar abuse online, forcing her at one point to lock her Twitter account.

Even if women are not being abused directly at football matches or online, there can still be indirect behaviours that make them uncomfortable.

“I definitely do hear some gender stereotypes about women being fans, some of the language that’s used… We have to challenge that,” said Nick Andrews-Gauvin, the Wolves Women representative at the Wolves Trust.

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“I’ve considered wearing my headphones!” explained Chris Paouros, co-chair of Proud Lilywhites, Tottenham’s LGBTQ+ Supporters’ Group. “Just so I don’t have to hear the vitriol from the fellow fans around me.”

“Whether that’s, you know, homophobia, misogyny, just general anger or whatever. I love things to be a bit crunchy… It’s not about it being all stickers and glitter and rainbows. But it doesn’t have to be angry, I don’t think.”

Paouros highlighted the atmosphere of the women’s game for feeling a lot more positive in that sense. “You’ve got brilliant rivalry, really good competition, but it’s culturally done the right way.”

Keeping the unique atmosphere around the women’s game is something that Debs Dilwork, the FSA’s women’s game network manager, also highlighted as being incredibly important. “We always seem to be comparing [it] back to the men’s game, when actually what we should be doing is creating an entirely different model.”

“There’s a whole audience for women’s football that isn’t necessarily men’s football fans,” agrees Paouros.

The ways in which men can make themselves seem like the ‘proper’ fans at football can also influence how women engage in football media more generally.

Talking about the lack of female voices from fans within national media, Sue Watson, chair of the West Ham Supporters’ Trust, highlighted the presuppositions others can make about women involved in football.

“There’s almost a presumption that on the occasion where you phone in or you speak to people or you’re in a group that as a woman, you won’t have anything to contribute. You won’t have anything to add. So the unconscious bias kicks in, as well as a clear and obvious bias.”

Hannah Kumari, below, writer and performer of the play Eng-Er-Land about her experiences of going to football matches as a mixed-race teenager in the 1990s, said that women can also fear putting a foot wrong.

“As a woman, in my experience, there’s always an extra level of anxiety of maybe saying the wrong thing or getting a player’s name wrong, if you’re talking about a game that you’ve watched, which obviously happens to everyone!”

“But I think as a woman who likes men’s professional football, there’s always that element of you shouldn’t really be there. So feeling like you have to perform or know everything. And that’s a kind of pressure that men probably don’t feel when [they are] talking about football.”

Yet as the experience of Christine Seddon, a board member for the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, shows being willing to speak out can help open doors for women wanting to be more involved in football.

“I got involved [in the Trust] from going on to a radio programme where I had a bit of a rant and what I was saying resonated with a lot of the fans. So the Supporters’ Trust asked me to get involved, initially as a spokesperson. I then ended up on the committee. I became the deputy, and then served as the chair of the Trust for three years.”

“I think a lot of women just lack that confidence to pick up the phone and comment about a game they’ve seen or what’s going on at their football club, because they just don’t feel that they’ve got that football background that most men have.”

A common theme that was also raised during conversations was the importance of intersectionality and considering the experiences of women of colour within football as well as just white women.

“In terms of the lack of visibility of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups on the field, it’s a big challenge [in women’s football],” explained Andrews-Gauvin.

“It’s specifically a problem for me because young girls coming from home backgrounds aren’t seeing those role models. And when you don’t have those role models, it is really difficult to picture yourself in that position.”

Going forward, Seddon, above, wants women to feel empowered enough to force themselves into more prominent positions within football.

“I want to appeal to women because we’ve got to take some responsibility for this ourselves. We need to seize the day and just refuse to be intimidated.”

Watson agrees, adding: “You need to look forward, you need to be always pushing the back door because the more you push, and the more of us that do push, the door will creak open.”

“It does start with us as well,” concurs Kumari. “In some ways, you might feel like you’re not welcome in this space. But when you actually push through and go there, it isn’t what you imagined. I think we can have our own preconceptions about how people are going to react to us.”

You can hear all the FSA x Offside Productions Media: Women’s Voice in the Game episodes on the Football Supporters’ Association website.

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