29 July 2021
Members who joined the latest Women in Football webinar enjoyed a fascinating discussion on the role of men in advancing equality in the game.
Chaired by WIF Chief Executive Jane Purdon, the panel for this webinar – titled The Importance of Male Allies – comprised:
• Paul Barber, Chief Executive and deputy chairman, Brighton & Hove Albion FC
• Leon Mann MBE, entrepreneur, broadcaster and film maker
• Kieran Theivam, Communications Manager (Barclays FA WSL & FA Women's Championship), the Football Association
• Troy Townsend, Head of Player Engagement, Kick It Out
It was Paul who kicked off the conversation, acknowledging that "being male, being white and being able-bodied" places him in a position that is "very fortunate in our society". He said: "If I've got an opportunity to challenge and support and help, and see people that are not like me progress, then that's got to be a good thing for our sport."
Leon added that "a male ally is somebody that's aware of the world they live in". Many men in football, he said, are aware of their own views and experiences "and find it very, very difficult to move outside of that box". His own experience in establishing the Football Black List prompted him to reflect on why women are often underrepresented in professional networks.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Troy, who recalled his role in establishing Kick It Out's mentoring programme Raise Your Game and working to improve the gender balance of participants. After an event where women comprised only 9 per cent of the attendees, he asked: "How can that be the norm? There must be a blockage somewhere; there must be something that's not empowering women to be at these events. And it was a goal of mine to address that."
As both a communicator and a fan Kieran has been able to use his position "to elevate and promote" the women's game and tell the "incredible stories" of its players. The opportunity to work with two influential women at the FA in Sue Campbell and Kelly Simmons has been especially meaningful to him. "I feel very privileged to be able to learn from them and to work with them," he said.
Moving the discussion forward, Jane invited the panel to consider how good intentions are manifest in positive action – "deeds, not words".
Paul referred to both Brighton's corporate membership of Women in Football and the club's new training facilities for women, on the same site as the facilities for male footballers. "There's a real demonstration to the women and girls that play at our club that they're as important as the men and boys."
He went on to relate an incident during his time at the FA when the then England manager Hope Powell told him she was unable to run a training session because there weren't enough balls. "That really shocked me," he said.
The panel took an intersectional approach to its deliberations at this point, looking at the specific experiences of women of colour. "Respect should be at the core of everything we do," said Troy, "and I say that because it's not always given. There's a massive challenge in this space at the moment for our black and brown women. I don't see them promoted in various areas enough. I hear the stereotypical language that continues to be used against them in 2021."
Leon commented: "If you were to describe the position of black and Asian women in sportswriting, 'crisis' is a word that wouldn't go far enough. It's an absolute mess." He set up BCOMS (Black Collective of Media in Sport) with "a group of black sportswriters who didn't trust our industry" to represent people of colour.
BCOMS has been able to make a difference, Leon said. "Already we're seeing loads of young people from our masterclasses not only get jobs in the industry but come up for awards."
Paul discussed what actions can be taken by organisations and individuals to challenge discrimination around football matches, describing zero tolerance around the stadium as "an absolute prerequisite." He said: "We want women to feel it's a safe place, we want them to enjoy themselves, we want them to feel as much part of the crowd as anyone else."
Men who want to be allies should call out other men when necessary, Paul added. "When your mates behave in a way that you know is on the edge of being unacceptable to women or anyone else, you've got to say something."
Troy suggested that the end of lockdown seemed to be seen by some men not just as a moment of freedom from restrictions on movement and gathering, but as a cue to break the bounds of decent behaviour. He expressed concern that sexism around football matches could now "get worse before it gets better" and women could "be a target for those males who will act in a way that should get them locked up".
Asked about the media's approach to women's football, Kieran referred to the recent error-strewn TV coverage of the Great Britain v Canada match at the Tokyo Olympics. "I heard that commentary and it wasn't up to the standard that it should be." He described commentators being "out of their comfort zone" and said "that's no excuse". Broadcasters should do their research and "do the same level of work that you would for a men's game".
One of many excellent points made by the audience came from Mariam, a founder of Afrika Sports Foundation, who said: "Part of the problem could be that some men continue to see women as a threat and competition rather than allies." Leon agreed, referring to research that shows how diverse groups perform better but adding that football can often exclude 'the other'.
"I don't want to employ people who look and sound exactly like me and have the same opinion as me and just nod back at me," he said. "I need somebody who's likely to disagree with me and have a different perspective." The same should be true of football, he went on, where organisations "need to move forward in terms of getting different people around those decision-making tables". Some clubs such as Brentford are making progress on diversifying their leadership, he added.
In her closing comments Jane referred to the England men's team and reflected that "football itself can be an ally to the whole country". It's not just about football, she said, but about "the way those players carried themselves… on and off the pitch, they really were exemplary."
She added: "We all need to think about our own role as allies and together maybe that's what we should be aiming for – to make football truly an ally of everybody, so that everybody can thrive in it."
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