Expert Opinion

Sport as a space for women

In this blog post Professor Jonathan Long and Dr Leanne Norman look at how male power still dominates the world of sport.
Published on 13 Nov 2015

Recent events in football have not cast a positive light on the treatment of women in football.  After Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea FC manager publicly abused the club doctor for doing her job by going onto the pitch to treat a fallen player, the governing body, the Football Association, decided there was ‘no case to answer’.  The decision of the FA was one taken without asking for the doctor’s account of events (Eva Carneiro, the doctor in question, has stated elsewhere that sexist and abusive language was used by the Chelsea manager).

When Heather Rabbatts (the first woman to be appointed as a director of The FA) spoke out in defence of the doctor it was decided that she should be investigated following complaints by two (male) members of the FA.  Clearly this graduate, barrister, chief executive, Governor of the BBC and LSE, and Executive Chair of Millwall did not understand her role as token woman, albeit as head of the FA’s inclusion advisory board.  The treatment of both women in this case is further and very overt evidence of what happens when patriarchy is tested.  It seems that the offence committed by both Carneiro and Rabbatts is to challenge the male power that dominates the sport.

Recent research at Leeds Beckett demonstrates that the structural processes that regularly marginalise women from positions of power include informal appointment processes, ‘male’ centric organisational values, isolating and unsupported working conditions, lack of value and acceptance ascribed to women’s contribution to sport, and inaccessible development opportunities. Despite the FA’s best efforts this case is being publicly aired, more commonly these underlying processes are difficult to identify and consequently are hard for women to challenge.

More subtly there is the feeling of simply being out of place. In our research for Sport Wales on participation in sport amongst Black and minority ethnic groups[i] a Black woman, who is an active member of a local race equality forum commented that the lack of female participation in ‘formalised’ capacities gives the impression that women are not valued in certain sporting spaces. She explained how this can be disempowering:

“I really don’t know why there should be that gender difference in an age where so much equality is being talked about, and we feel that we have made so many advances as far as equality is concerned. But I feel inequality is still there, especially gender inequality, and as far as sport is concerned it’s still alive and kicking. I’m mostly the only black woman there [a BME sports forum]… the male domination of all these forums or bodies can be quite intimidating in the sense that you are coming into a situation where there is already an established group… Everybody looks at you and then you just think ‘I hope I’m not going to make a fool of myself here.”

This is just one out of many women who have voiced their experiences to researchers as one way of being heard and illustrating powerful male-dominated structures within sport. Inequality, like this participant describes, is still in evidence as the product and protector of patriarchy. Men currently enjoy safety in numbers within almost all governing bodies of sport.  While the roots of modern sport lie in Victorian Britain, such experiences indicate the need for a more diverse and rebalanced face of football, and sport more generally, to make it a safe space for all.

[i] Long, J., Dashper, K., Fletcher and Ormerod, N. (2015) Understanding participation and non-participation in sport amongst Black and minority ethnic groups in Wales. Report to Sport Wales from the Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure. Cardiff: Sport Wales.

Professor Leanne Norman

Professor / Carnegie School Of Sport

Leanne is a Professor of Sport and Sociocultural Studies and Director of the Research Centre for Social Justice in Sport and Society within the Carnegie School of Sport. Her research utilises a critical sociological lens to examine sport organisational and coaching cultures to address gender equity and diversity within sport coaching workforces.