Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football – and what must change

Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football
The treatment of women in football must change

A sexism row has rocked football in the wake of Luis Rubiales’s conduct at the World Cup final, but for women in the sport the situation is all too familiar.

What is it really like to be a woman in football? Telegraph Sport spoke to those involved in different spheres of the game –players, pundits, supporters and administrators – to find out more about their experiences, from receiving abuse to being disrespected, and discuss what needs to change.

‘There is much more to do to level the playing field for girls’

Leah Williamson is a professional footballer for Arsenal and England

Earlier this week, I took to the stage at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit, proudly representing Arsenal and Save the Children. I could not help but think about the journey my sport has been on and how my younger self could never have dreamt of us having the platform we do today.

When I was growing up, girls being taken seriously in football was almost unheard of. A professional women’s league did not even exist in England. Like most of my generation and those who came before us, I had to fight for a spot on the pitch. If not for a supportive family network and teachers who encouraged me to dream, who knows if my path would have led me to where I am today.

I am not alone in this. Almost all female footballers will have a story about the challenges they faced taking up the game. For us to get to where we are, we all have had someone in our corner, fighting alongside us. For me, it was my mother, a talented footballer and all-round sportsperson herself; my father, who never allowed me to do anything but dream as big as I could imagine; and coaches who never allowed me to give up.

When I joined Arsenal, I felt a sense of belonging. It remains a career milestone that changed the course of my life.

Sadly, many girls around the world face a different reality. Deep-rooted stereotypes and societal barriers are stopping many girls not just from playing football but being able to have dreams full stop.

I was recently in Jordan visiting Za’atari – the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world – to meet the children involved in Coaching for Life, a unique programme run by Save the Children and The Arsenal Foundation, which uses the power of football to improve the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children affected by the Syrian war.

I went along to coaching sessions where boys were learning about positive masculinity and I saw first-hand the ripple effect a combination of resilience-building activities and football has had for girls and entire communities there.

This got me thinking how crucial it is to involve men and boys in the conversation in order to truly break down the barriers women and girls face in sport. We should use programmes like Coaching for Life as a blueprint for what needs to change for women in football – putting education about gender empowerment alongside the sport itself.

Here in the UK, more girls need to have access to playing football in the first place. But wherever in the world you are born, whatever your circumstances, girls should be able to dream big. We are all working towards a point where people say, ‘Those girls are so good’, instead of, ‘Those girls have done so well considering what they’ve had to go through’.

Only then can we level the playing field for the next generation of girls.

‘One coach scored all the players out of 10 on their looks’

Anita Asante is a former England defender who is now a pundit

Whether you are into football or not, a lot of women could relate to Jenni Hermoso this summer, having experienced something very uncomfortable and laughed it off, feeling like nobody would take it seriously if they made a complaint.

From my career, I remember a coach sitting with players, going through the squad one-by-one and scoring them out of 10 on their looks. It was very uncomfortable. Was that coach breaking the law? Perhaps not. But was it against ethics, professionalism and showing a power imbalance in the dynamic with his players? Absolutely.

If you are the person who is experiencing it, you feel it is wrong, but how do you express that to the people in power, in a way that they can take action? People often feel they need something visible in order to be believed, and that is part of the problem as well – we do not trust the words of women in society enough.

People seemingly need to see proof that misogyny is alive and well, and there was no better way to display it than when Jill Scott and Gary Neville swapped their Twitter accounts and sexist messages were sent Gary’s way when people thought he was Jill.

I have experienced it as a pundit, too, especially when I work on Final Score or Football Focus, because that is when the trolls come [on social media] and say, ‘Your opinions aren’t valid’. There’s somehow less respect for my opinions because I am a woman talking about football.

Where does it come from? It’s multi-faceted, but think about the school system and the segregation there from early years, such as ‘girls play this sport and boys play that sport’.

Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football
Anita Asante won 71 caps for England

‘The pace of change in football, sport and society is slow’

Yvonne Harrison is the chief executive of Women In Football

What we have seen with Luis Rubiales is not an isolated incident, and it is not isolated to Spain. At Women In Football, we have more than 8,000 members from around the world, and we hear from them regularly about the challenges they are facing. It is happening right across the industry. And the Spanish incident was something we saw on the global stage. There will be far worse things that we are not seeing on camera.

Yet, change can be achieved. We have seen it. We have got independent chairs at the Premier League and the Football Association who are female. What you want in any business board is diversity of thought, and gender parity is really important.

In boardrooms [recently] I have not felt sexism personally, but further back in my career, when I was younger, speaking on committees as a woman, it was difficult to find your voice. I have definitely felt uncomfortable when I have made a point and the reaction has been simply, ‘OK’, then somebody else, a gentleman, makes the exact same point and it’s, ‘The best idea ever’. You think, ‘I have just said that 15 minutes ago and there was nothing’, and now, ‘It’s great’. So there is a danger of not being heard.

When there are two or more women in the room, it becomes a little bit easier. But the really powerful thing is when the men in the room speak on an agenda that impacts women.

We have not seen many men talk about this situation in Spain, outside of the media, for example. The silence has been deafening in some instances. And why? The power men have to change the game is phenomenal, is untapped.

At Women In Football we have issued a call to men in society to step up, our ‘Open Doors Agenda’, following what Fifa president Gianni Infantino said in Sydney. Because the doors are not open. The pace of change in football, in sport and in society, is so slow.

Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football
Yvonne Harrison: The silence from men about this situation in Spain has been deafening

‘The hand squeezed my backside – it was the third time that afternoon’

Natalie Bromley is a Burnley fan and host of the No Nay Never podcast

Standing on the terraces watching an EFL game between Morecambe and Sheffield Wednesday, I felt the hand brush past and squeeze my backside. My brain, silent to the outside world, acknowledged the incident. It was the third time that afternoon.

As I relayed the events to my party leaving the ground, it occurred to me just how much I had normalised this behaviour. How, rather than shout, scream or report it, I simply got on with my day. Why? Because this happens all the time.

The opportunist groper is, of course, a problem that transcends wider society and not just football. But one behavioural trait that is particularly unique to football is the one I like to call “The Test”. It is the one that you have to pass to be accepted into the inner circle of football chat or to have doors open for you in football media. You have to prove you have a detailed knowledge of every single rule before being able to participate in chats with the lads. The default is that you have nothing to contribute so men do not address questions to you or interact with you in the conversation. It is like you are invisible.

Men do not have to take The Test. Ever. There are prolific male football pundits who have forged a career talking in beige stereotypes whereas their female counterparts are required to dissect the effectiveness of Pep’s inverted full-backs before being rewarded with an eyebrow raise and a, “Oh, you do know your stuff”.

Female football fans are not going anywhere. And besides, no one knows the offside rule any more…

Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football
Natalie Bromley: Female football fans are not going anywhere - Natalie Bromley

‘The boys do not pass to me. It makes me feel sad’

A seven-year-old and her father who joined a community club after Euro 2022

She says: I wanted to play football to have fun. I wanted to follow my dreams and I wanted to practise so I could be a Lioness in the future. My favourite Lioness is Chloe Kelly, who plays for Manchester City. We have season tickets there and I am excited about going this season.

The coaches at the club I went to were really good when they were there, but when they weren’t the parents had to try to coach and it was not very good. Other coaches started doing the boys’ football team instead of the girls’ football team. It made me feel like I wanted to give up on that club and I want to try to find a different one.

I also play football at school but some of the boys do not pass to me. It makes me feel sad.

Her father says: We are a family of football fans – we have season tickets for Manchester City women and often go to watch our local men’s non-League team.

My daughter really likes playing football and we took her to a local club, but when the girls’ coach was not there things definitely slipped and the boys got all the attention. Even if someone was coaching the girls, they would be shouting stuff towards the boys. The girls were quite happy to just kick the ball around but they also got bored; they need proper coaching at that age to develop. It was pretty depressing and the experience put me off. I am worried if we go to another club it could be the same but I am hoping we will be able to find somewhere.

The six changes football must make in wake of Rubiales scandal
The six changes football must make in wake of Rubiales scandal

‘I tried to speak up and I was never listened to. I felt invisible’

Sally Freedman has worked in marketing and communications for sports bodies including Uefa

I worked outside of football for quite a while before I started a career in football, and I think the major difference is that football is just dominated by white men, especially at the top.

In the football industry, I tried to speak up and I was never listened to or very rarely listened to. Eventually, I literally had enough stories to write a book (Get Your T--- Out for the Lads: True Stories from a Woman in Football).

For example, when I was working at a stadium filming interviews, I remember needing to use the bathroom but the only toilets that were open were in the men’s changing rooms. The stadium manager’s response was, “Just use the men’s toilets, it’ll save me cleaning the ladies”. He expected me to walk through a dressing room where the men’s team were getting changed. Reluctantly, he eventually let me use the ladies’ and I asked him to open them for next week, too. But the following week, the ladies’ toilets were locked again. At that moment, I remember vividly just falling against the door, feeling, “I’m invisible”.

Whilst I was at Uefa, before Covid started, I had tried to start a gender equality staff working group, to try to change some attitudes and culture of an organisation that is dominated by men. I put the invitation out for all staff to join – the response rate was high but it was 99 per cent women.

I don’t blame men. It’s sometimes casual sexism, perhaps coming from unconscious bias which has developed from living in a world full of gender stereotypes. At times, men don’t realise what they are doing or saying is sexist. We all have faults, but it’s important we try to educate ourselves and others about the huge benefits of a gender equal world.

I am not a fan of quotas and ticking boxes and saying, ‘Let’s get more women at the top and we fix the problem’, but it definitely is a part of the solution. What is even more critical, though, is that they are supported once they are there.

Groped, marginalised, abused: The realities of being a woman in football
Sally Freedman: I think the major difference is that football is just dominated by white men, especially at the top

‘The system needs shaking up from the core’

Hedvig Lindahl is a Sweden goalkeeper who has previously played for Chelsea

Language matters. When I signed for Chelsea [in 2014], they called the men’s team the ‘first team’ and then we were called the ‘ladies’ team’. Things have changed there, but even back then, within the language, you did not have respect.

Lack of resources, more often than not, is a given for women in the game. Everything that clubs give to their men’s first team they should give to their women’s first team. They should be able to just swap the facilities – and if a club cannot do that, then they have a problem.

I have been in a few situations where I have felt this weird male-female imbalance and inappropriate energy from a coach to a player. I remember, someone approached my body in a way I was not comfortable with but, in the moment, I did not think about it.

People that take decisions over the women’s game have to have experience of the women’s game. You cannot just treat the women’s game as a sidenote. You have to incorporate it into your core values.

A body such as Fifa should have two arms, one for men’s and boys’ football and one for women’s and girls’ football, and the arms need to be equally strong. Right now, one of the arms is not; it is not given the same resources. We need to radically change this otherwise it will hurt football as a whole.

It is so inspiring to see the bravery and leadership that the Spanish players are showing the rest of the world. What we need to understand is, their fight is our fight. It is a bigger problem than one man. The system needs shaking up and changing from the core, with equal respect for what women do.