“We might be building back better, but much more of the better building remains to be done”
On a night that saw millions tune in to watch England women’s football team thrash Sweden to reach the Euro 2022 final, experiencing the highest attendance at a Women’s Euros – can this success translate into the investment and equality needed that levels the women’s game up to the men’s?
Despite a surge in interest in the women’s game, with the number of girls playing for football teams rising by more than 40% in the last three years, one academic believes there are still major disparities between men and women’s sport, which was never more evident than during the pandemic.
As part of a new book – Philosophy, Sport and the Pandemic – Dr Paul Davis, at the University of Sunderland has written a chapter, alongside renowned Canadian sports philosopher Charlene Weaving, shining a light on the impact of the pandemic on female sport across all areas, from grassroots to elite level, exposing persistent inequalities.
Dr Davis said: “The England women’s football team have emulated their male counterparts in reaching the European Championship final at Wembley. The nation will be hoping they can go one better than the men by winning the trophy.
“Most people will also be hoping that, regardless of Sunday’s result, the Lionesses will have a tonic effect upon women’s football and women’s sport in Britain, in terms of participation, interest, attendance, coverage, sponsorship, investment, facilities and status.
“The current era is conceived as ‘post-pandemic’. The pandemic period and beyond has yielded two steady themes. First, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on social and cultural inequalities. Second, we must ‘build back better’ to tackle such inequality.
“Pandemic sport is a site where the persistence of gender inequality was clear. For instance, the 2021 Men’s Six Nations rugby tournament proceeded comparatively close to when it normally would, while the women’s equivalent – which usually runs at the same time as the men’s – was postponed until later, because of the expectation that the COVID-19 situation would be better.
“The ground of this decision was that with only one team (England) in the women’s tournament fully professional, many women players needed to return swiftly to their jobs, some of which are in key and front-line occupations, making it riskier to play the women’s tournament over February and March.
“Again, while the top and second tiers of men’s Scottish football continued, the women’s game was suspended at all levels during the pandemic, inciting the chief executive of women’s club Glasgow City to implore the Scottish Football Association in February 2021 to release FIFA funds long earmarked for the women’s game.
“A final, micro-level illustration is that Welsh international footballer Angharad James was stopped by the police for training in a local park during the pandemic, despite following exercise and social distancing guidelines. Were it Gareth Bale, not only would the police recognise him, but he would be unlikely to be in the local park, as he would have a home gym or be couriered equipment by his club.”
So, what does the Women’s European Championships 2022 suggest about the state of gender equality in sport and building back better?
Dr Davis said: “In terms of attendance, a record for the tournament was set with 15 games remaining. That seems yet more impressive when the current economic weather and medium-term forecast is remembered.
“England’s semi-final win over Sweden at Bramall Lane saw a record attendance of 28,624 for a European Women’s Championship semi-final. The average television audience was 7.9 million.
“On the more symbolic level, female athletes are now more reliably framed in terms of their athletic abilities, instead of sexual appeal first and athletic ability (at best) second.
“They are also more likely to be framed as physically and emotionally strong and competent, instead of weak or dependent on men to toughen them up for sport.
“Spectators thinking in the old ways are liable to be called out as immature and sexist. It sounds good. There are other sides to be solemnly acknowledged, however. First, a men’s Euros semi-final would not be played at Bramall Lane (in Sheffield), with a capacity of 32,050, or some equivalent. The men’s semi-final between England and Denmark in 2021 was played at Wembley with a capacity of 90,000 and a crowd of 64,950, occupying 75% of the available seats.
“The average television audience was 16.1 million, significantly higher than the highest peak television audience for women’s football in the UK, which is 11.7 million for England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the United States in 2019.
“Yet more sobering reading is provided by comparison of the wages paid to female and male footballers. The average annual salary in the Women’s Super League in England is thought to be around £30,000. The average wage of a male Premier League footballer is just over £60,000 a week, so over £3m a year.
“A male Championship player pockets just over £4,000 a week, which is around £200,000 a year, almost seven times as much as the average Women’s Super League salary.
“And when endorsements are added, male players with the highest profiles – and a good many other male players – will be even further out of view of their female counterparts. There is generally far less money in female football, which plays a key role in the cycle that maintains diminutive status for women’s football.
“Women’s football has clearly come a long way in the half-century since November 1972, when the England and Scotland women’s teams each played their first recognised international, against each other in Greenock (and this writer heard about it only because the withdrawal of a player through pregnancy was used to provide some comic relief in a television weekend sport preview).
“However, beneath the façade of feminist progressivism lurk some grisly material and symbolic realities, in women’s football as in women’s sport more broadly. We might be building back better, but much more of the better building remains to be done.
“One immediate step for football could be that the FA and equivalent football bodies enshrine the principle that women’s tournament matches are played in the same stadia as the men’s equivalents, Wembley for women’s and men’s semi-finals, for instance.”