The idea that women are incapable of discussing men’s football is laughably outdated – but it’s still being peddled in some sections of the press. Time’s up on that…
It was always going to happen eventually. Before the men’s World Cup kicked off on 14 June, it was announced that two women – Alex Scott and Eni Aluko – had been hired, by the BBC and ITV respectively, to serve as pundits for the broadcasters’ coverage of the tournament. Both of these women are staggeringly accomplished footballers: Scott, a former Arsenal right-back, made 140 appearances for England before retiring last September, while Aluko still plays for Juventus and has competed in three World Cups, two UEFA Championships and at the 2012 Olympics. It’s safe to say that when it comes to football, these women know their stuff.
But like clockwork, the question of whether they’re really up to the job has begun to trickle in. These questions haven’t just come from men grumbling down the pub or ranting on Twitter; they’ve also come from famous men, respected men, men with public platforms. On 19 June, journalist Simon Kelner wrote a column for the i newspaper in which he argued that “female world cup pundits are a step forward for diversity, but not for the quality of coverage”.
On 25 June, meanwhile, former Chelsea footballer Jason Cundy claimed that women’s voices are too “high-pitched” to commentate football matches during an appearance on Good Morning Britain, shortly after Vicki Sparks made history by becoming the first woman to commentate live on a World Cup game.
“I prefer to hear a male voice when watching football – for 90 minutes of hearing a high pitched tone isn’t really what I would like to hear – and when there is a moment of drama as there often is in football, that moment actually I think needs to be done with a slightly lower voice,” Cundy said.
After being reproached by host Piers Morgan, Cundy defended himself by saying: “Listen, it’s nothing to do with [Sparks’] insight, the way she delivers, or her knowledge, or her ability to do the job. It’s the voice. For 90 minutes I would rather prefer to listen to a male voice when I’m watching football.” (Here’s a pointer for you, Jason: if Piers Morgan can emerge from a conversation with you looking like a model male feminist ally, you’re doing something wrong.)
But back to Kelner for a moment. The journalist built his argument around the fact that “the World Cup is competed for, exclusively, by men”. He goes on to expressly state that he is not saying “that only men have a right to comment on professional football” – god, no! – but that he suspects that “TV bosses sought to have women on the panel for reasons of appearance rather than to satisfy a latent demand to hear their opinions”.
Ah, there’s so much to unpack here, isn’t there? Almost makes you want to burn the world to the ground, doesn’t it? First of all, Kelner – who, it’s worth noting, is not a football expert, but a former newspaper editor – says he doesn’t think that only men should be allowed to comment on football, suggesting he thinks women should be allowed.
However, he then speculates that executives at the BBC and ITV only hired Aluko and Scott, two black women, because they want to appear diverse. He thinks that it is this, the desire to keep up appearances, that motivated them – “rather than to satisfy a latent demand to hear their opinions”.
It’s worth repeating that last line, because those 11 words are heavy with meaning. What Kelner is saying here is that he doesn’t believe there could be any “latent demand” to hear what Aluko and Scott have to say. He’s sceptical that anyone really cares what two female professional footballers could have to say about a men’s game. A desire to appear diverse is the only explanation for their hiring that makes sense to him.
Why? Well, because they’re women. Despite the fact that Kelner goes on to praise Aluko and Scott for being “knowledgeable and enthusiastic” (as though they might have turned up on national TV unprepared and apathetic), he questions the insight they’re able to offer. Women’s football, he says, is “much less intense and physical” than the game played at the men’s World Cup, and requires different tactics. Ultimately, he argues, getting a woman to comment on the men’s game is “like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball”.
Except… it’s not, is it? Getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball is not a great idea, since they’re two completely different sports, with different rules, different roles and different scoring systems. There might be a variance in how the games of women’s football and men’s football are played, but the game itself remains the same.
More to the point, the idea that only people who have played in a men’s World Cup should be able to talk about it is absurd. Sports broadcasting is packed to the rafters with men commenting and commentating on women’s sports that they’ve technically never played – not being women, you see – and no one bats an eyelid. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Simone Biles wrapped up her turn on the balance beam to the sound of a male commentator criticising her dismount. A man commentated the women’s heptathlon at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Most relevantly, a man was among those commentating on the women’s FA Cup earlier this year – the first time the women’s tournament had been aired live on the BBC. As far as I can recall, nobody, to paraphrase Kelner, questioned the insight he could offer.
As far as Cundy’s argument is concerned, it’s so ridiculously misogynistic that it’s almost quaint, like hearing your granddad rail against women drivers. It also speaks to a wider cultural gender bias against female voices.
Extensive research has found that people with lower, more “masculine” voices tend to be perceived as more competent and trustworthy than those with higher-pitched voices, regardless of whether that person is seeking a leadership position in a traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” environment. (Indeed, one Australian study found that women’s voices got significantly deeper over the course of the 20th century, a change that researchers attributed to women taking on more prominent roles in society).
Women’s voices are also policed in a markedly different way to men’s, whether they’re criticised for being “shrill” or mocked for using upspeak or vocal fry. In 2015, radio producer Katie Mingle got so sick of receiving criticism of her female presenters’ voices that she set up an auto-reply email informing complainers that their message had gone straight into a folder labelled “zero priority”.
“Amazingly we don’t even have a folder for complaints about the male voices on our show, because we’ve never gotten one!” Mingle wrote.
The good news is, the tide is turning against them. Both Kelner’s column and Cundy’s comments were greeted with widespread derision, while the women they criticised have received overwhelming public support. Generally speaking, football is becoming a more welcoming space for women, thanks in no small part to the heightened profile of women like Sparks, Aluko and Scott as well as digital football communities like This Fan Girl, which encourage more women to get involved in the beautiful game.
Sparks, Scott and Aluko have proven themselves to be poised, knowledgeable, articulate and incisive. They deserve their spots on the pundits’ sofa and in the commentary box – and they’re not going anywhere.
This article was originally published on 21 June and updated to include Jason Cundy’s comments.
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to celebrating the success of women in male-dominated fields and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Getty Images