Thinking sociologically when comparing women's and men's football
In the build up to any major women’s football tournament, popular debate often inevitably turns to comparative discussion of women’s abilities in the context of their male counterparts.
Women’s bodies are often subject to scrutiny over their speed, endurance, power, skill on the ball, and even their intellectual capacity to ‘read’ the game and to think tactically. Discussions such as these often rely on biologically deterministic logic that stems from binary misconceptions about gender. Will women ever be as fast as men? Will women ever be able to tackle as hard as men? What would happen if women played with or against men? We could assume that the answer to many of these questions might highlight the alleged athletic superiority of men.
But the problem lies not in the fact that these questions are posed, or even that the answers often reassert male superiority, but in our apparently common sense assumptions about the reasons for the answers. We assume that men are better at football because they are naturally stronger; that they are naturally more skillful; that they are naturally faster. This is the problematic part.
What is often missing from these debates is a consideration of women’s football in light of the broader social, historical and economic factors that influence the game in the contemporary context. In analyses of the gender dynamics of football, sociologists invite us to shift our line of questioning away from a focus on the physical characteristics of women in relation to men, and towards a consideration of the ways in which women’s progress in the game may have been constrained in other ways.
In doing so, we might then attribute the present lower status of women’s football to a host of other factors that do not involve assumptions about women’s physical or intellectual capacities. For example, it would be naive to dismiss the impact of The Football Association’s 50 year ban on women playing football on the position of women in the game today.
The Carnegie School of Sport has a long history of involvement in research into the socio-cultural dynamics of women’s football. In 1999, Sheila Scraton and colleagues (Scraton et al, 1999) uncovered the structural and institutional barriers that prevent girls from accessing football opportunities, and later in 2005, examined how the intersections of ‘race’, ethnicity and gender shape the power structures of women’s football (Scraton et al, 2005). In 2011, several Carnegie scholars contributed towards a special issue of Soccer & Society, presenting findings from research related to British Asian women’s football identities (Ratna, 2011), learning disabled girls’ involvement in football (Stride and Fitzgerald, 2011), and the interplay of homophobia and sexism on shaping women’s experiences of the game (Drury, 2011). More recently, Carnegie scholarship has analysed the institutional constraints facing women accessing football coaching positions (Norman, 2018), and the potential of football to ‘re/engage’ women in physical activity (Stride, Drury and Fitzgerald, 2018). Collectively, these studies have shed light on the multiple ways in which women and girls are marginalised, stereotyped, underfunded, and discriminated against in their quest for involvement in what is widely regarded as ‘the beautiful game’.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, has seen unprecedented media coverage, record viewing figures, and has once again propelled the women’s game into the spotlight of mainstream TV channels. The appointment of a high profile male football coach has inevitably raised the profile of the England squad, and for the first time, the England players have been rewarded with a full time (albeit marginal) salary to enable them to give up part time jobs to focus on training. Progress is being made, but women footballers remain in the shadows of their male counterparts.
If we can’t escape the inevitable tendency to compare men’s and women’s football, we would like to end by posing some alternative questions, placing men in the context of the realities of the world of elite women’s football. Would men’s football be where it is today had the FA banned men from playing between 1921-1971? Where would we be without the fond memories of the 1966 England win in the men’s World Cup? How well might Harry Kane perform had he spent the months leading up to the last World Cup studying to qualify as an accountant? How valued might the England men’s squad feel knowing that they were paid only a fraction of their female counterparts’ salary to represent their country on the world stage?
- Drury, S. (2011) ‘It seems really inclusive in some ways, but... inclusive just for people who identify as lesbian’: discourses of gender and sexuality in a lesbian identified football club. Soccer and Society, 12 (3), pp. 421-442.
- Norman L; Rankin-Wright A; Allison W (2018), "It's a Concrete Ceiling; It's Not Even Glass": Understanding Tenets of Organizational Culture That Supports the Progression of Women as Coaches and Coach Developers. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 42 (5), pp. 393-414.
- Ratna, A. (2011) Who wants to make aloo gobi when you can bend it like Beckham?' British Asian females and their racialised experiences of gender and identity in women's football. Soccer and Society, 12 (3), pp. 382-401.
- Scraton, S., Fasting, K., Pfister, G., and Bunel, A. (1999) It’s still a man’s game? The experiences of top-level European women footballers. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34 (2), pp. 99-111.
- Scraton, S., Caudwell, J., and Holland, S. (2005) Bend it like Patel: Centring ‘race’, ethnicity and gender in feminist analysis of women’s football in England. InternationalReview for the Sociology of Sport, 40 (1), pp. 71-88.
- Stride, A. and Fitzgerald, H. (2011), Girls with learning disabilities and 'football on the brain'. Soccer and Society, 12 (3), pp. 457-470.
- Stride, A., Drury, S. and Fitzgerald, H. (2018), 'Last goal wins': re/engaging women of a 'forgotten' age through football? Sport, Education and Society. doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2018.1428548