Foul Play: Why is there sexism in sport?

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

They’re ninth in the world league, yet the England women’s football team gets little of the pay, sponsorship and fame of the men. Stylist asks why such inequalities still exist.

Words: Laura Williamson Photography: Dean Freeman

Imagine waking up one day to find the Barclays Premier League had vanished into thin air. It would be both front and back page news, wouldn’t it? But that’s what happened in January, when two of England’s best female footballers, striker Kelly Smith MBE, 33, England’s leading goal-scorer, and defender Alex Scott, 27, received emails explaining the 2012 Women’s Professional Soccer League in the United States had been cancelled due to a legal dispute with a former club owner. Three other British players – England internationals Anita Asante, 26, and Karen Bardsley, 27, and Scotland defender Ifeoma Dieke, 31 – were also left without clubs. Yet it got barely a flicker of attention in the UK media, despite the fact England’s women are ranked ninth in the world (the men’s team are seventh) and beat the number one team, the USA, in April 2011.

Most of us have grown up with men’s football. The Premier League earned a staggering £1.8billion from TV rights for three seasons of matches in the UK alone. Football is part of our popular culture, and whether you’re a fan or not, you could probably name five current male England internationals. Our cover star Rachel Yankey has scored 17 goals for England, the same as David Beckham, but have you heard her name before? The women’s game has a lot of catching up to do.

But it’s not just recognition that’s the problem. When Lincoln Ladies defender Casey Stoney, 29, was at Arsenal Ladies (1999-2002), she recalls washing the men’s kit. “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.” This is a woman who has won 90 caps for her country. Money is a problem. Female England internationals only earn around £16,000 a year. It takes Yaya Toure, the male Manchester City and Ivory Coast midfielder, just over 13 hours to earn the same amount. “I earn enough to allow me to train and have a bit of freedom, and I do a bit of coaching as well, but it’s nothing compared to the men’s game,” says Arsenal Ladies’ defender, midfielder and forward Stephanie Houghton, who, at 24, has won 25 caps for England. “Not that it should be – ours is a different sport.”

Playing the Game

Houghton is right. Women’s football is a standalone sport, the third largest team sport across the board in the UK and the most popular for women, yet it is constantly compared to the men’s game. This drives people working in women’s football insane – particularly England and Team GB boss Hope Powell. Asking what level of men’s team would give England’s senior women’s side a run for their money is pointless: women play against women, not men.

Women’s football is generally slower and less aggressive than its male counterpart, but there is much more emphasis on agility and technical ability. The fact that most of these women play simply because they love it is also overlooked. They certainly don’t do it for the money or the prestige. In a sporting world saturated with sleaze and scandal, could there be better role models than our female footballers?

However, we rarely hear their voices. Just 2% of mainstream sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport, so, this season, a representative of each of the eight FA Women’s Super League clubs will wear their Twitter names on their shirt sleeves to drive fans towards social media. Tennis – particularly events such as Wimbledon and the US Open – and Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming and cycling attract the most attention. But these events often see women competing at the same time as men. Would the reporters still be there if it was a women-only competition?

The simple truth is there’s less money in women’s sport. According to the 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 hoovering up the rest. Even though it costs more to secure sponsorship deals with most male athletes, the women are still lagging behind. Baroness Tanni Grey- Thompson, 11-time Paralympic gold medallist and chair of the Commission On The Future Of Women’s Sport, said, “It’s a depressing state of affairs. Research tells us men and women are keen to see more women’s sport on our screens, but governing bodies of many sports, potential sponsors and broadcasters seem to be missing the opportunity to secure the big deals.”

The question is this: is women’s football – and women’s sport generally – overlooked because of the physical disparities between the sexes, or because of something else? Perhaps it isn’t that women can’t jump further or run faster than men that’s the problem. Katherine Legge drives in the American IndyCar Series. The 31-year-old from Guildford in Surrey is convinced “there is absolutely no physical barrier” to a woman driving the most prestigious vehicle of them all, a Formula One car, and believes racing is “the only sport in the world where women can compete with men on an equal footing”. But no woman has ever even been given the chance in an F1 competitive car. So if there isn’t a physical barrier, what’s the problem?

Last year the All -England club even admitted that ‘good looks are a factor’ when deciding which players to use

The underlying assertion that playing, watching or even writing about sport somehow makes you “less feminine” may be the real crux of the issue. Male and female tennis players now earn equal prize money at Wimbledon, but it’s no coincidence that the more traditionally attractive women at the championships, the likes of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, get greater media attention.

Last year, the All England Club even admitted “good looks are a factor” when deciding which players to put on the high-profile show courts. In my experience as a sports writer, women don’t help themselves either. They do not look at sport as a career. There has never been a female chief football correspondent in Fleet Street. A survey by the WSFF found half of young women think it’s more important to be thin than healthy. When I tell a woman what I do for a living, I usually get a blank response. But once a man gets over the “You’re a girl and you watch football for a living?” puzzle, I often can’t get rid of them.

Teaming Up

Things are getting better, though. BBC Two showed England women’s quarter-final loss on penalties against France in last year’s World Cup. Almost 700,000 people had watched England’s last group game, a 2-0 win against Japan, and the final, in which Japan beat the USA on penalties, was the most tweetedabout event on the planet, with 7,196 tweets per second at its peak. And if there was a positive to be taken from the fact no woman made the shortlist for last year’s BBC Sports Personality Of The Year award, it was that a review of the voting process – led by BBC director of sport Barbara Slater – will ensure it is not repeated.

The Olympics will help, too. Team GB’s women are set to outshine the men in a number of disciplines, and the women’s football competition could bring the sport unparalleled attention. Building on the success of the FA’s Women’s Super League, which saw attendances at women’s top-level matches grow by 604% in its first year, Team GB will play at Wembley in front of 90,000 spectators. London 2012 could be the launchpad women’s football so desperately needs, but more still needs to be done.

Laura Williamson is a sports writer for the Daily Mail; For more information on The FA WSL and its players, visit

Meet the stars of women's football

Rachel Yankey, 32 Left-winger and forward for Arsenal Ladies and England, 117 caps (players’ international appearances)

“To have a decent standard of living we have second jobs. That would never happen in men’s football. But if we do something about it now, future generations will reap the benefits.”

Claire Rafferty, 23 Left-back and left-winger for Chelsea Ladies and England, five caps

“I used to get stuck in goal because I was a girl. Nowadays, people need to realise that women’s football is a completely different sport to men’s. The fan-player relationship in women’s football is also much closer than in the men’s game – we’re more approachable.”

Rachel Brown, 31 Goalkeeper for Everton Ladies and England, 76 caps

“Football has always been seen as a man’s game, but that’s because it’s had almost 140 years to build its popularity; we’ve had 17. I’d like to be recognised walking down the street, but only because it would mean the sport had got somewhere and was getting the recognition it deserved.”

Jill Scott, 25 Midfielder for Everton Ladies and England, 56 caps

“Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but to make a difference we need regular coverage. We need to celebrate sporting achievement regardless of gender.”

Stephanie Houghton, 24 Defender, midfielder and forward for Arsenal Ladies and England, 25 caps

“Men may be stronger than us, but tactically we’re just as good as them. Ultimately, I want to hear young kids who say, ‘I want Cesc Fàbregas’s boots’ to turn round and say, ‘I want the boots she’s wearing.’”

Ellen White, 22 Forward for Arsenal Ladies and England, 27 caps

“Women’s football is the third most popular participation sport in the UK after men’s football and cricket – but it doesn’t get a fraction of the coverage. The women’s World Cup final last year was the most tweeted-about event ever, but you didn’t see it in the papers.”

Our pledge to end Sport Sexism

Stylist has launched the Fair Game Campaign For Women In Sport, with the aim of changing attitudes towards female athletes. Over the next 12 months we will be campaigning to:

  • Increase coverage of female athletes in the national media and online.
  • Boost participation in sport throughout the UK.
  • Ensure women are represented by the BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year in 2012.
  • Inflate badly needed levels of sponsorship.

You can help us today by tweeting: “I demand a better deal for women in sport #fairgame”

Share this article


Stylist Team