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KEEP CHIPPING AWAY: BE INSPIRED 2024, DAY 1

15 March 2024

KEEP CHIPPING AWAY: BE INSPIRED 2024, DAY 1

Words: Ayisha Gulati | Photography: Matthew Dickens/Sportsbeat

View the full agenda of Be Inspired 2024

“Let’s keep inspiring women who want to be in football.”
 – Yvonne Harrison, Women in Football CEO

On 12 March, four days after International Women’s Day, hundreds of women working or aspiring to work in football flocked to Wembley Stadium for the Women in Football Be Inspired Conference in partnership with Barclays.

Be Inspired 2024 was the third conference of its kind and Women in Football CEO Yvonne Harrison opened up the two days in the Wembley Suite. She acknowledged the room full of amazing women and allies, shining a light on the unique WIF community and its achievements to date.

Now at more than 9,000 members, WIF is going from strength to strength, supported by lead partner Barclays. A video message to the conference from Tom Corbett, Group Head of Sponsorship at Barclays, shared the statistic that 20,000 schools in England now offer equal access to football for girls, up from 3,000 just four years ago, reminding everyone of how far we’ve come.

 

The Uncomfortable Truth About Misogyny in the Game

“I’m here to be a part of changing the future for women and girls in football.”
– Eni Aluko MBE, broadcaster and former footballer

This session was a sobering reminder of what women working in football are up against.

Rachel O'Sullivan, co-founder of GirlsontheBall, opened by reciting some examples of the horrific abuse journalist Suzy Wrack has received on social media. “This might make you feel uncomfortable but we want you to feel uncomfortable,” she said, citing remarks such as ‘plug in the iron love’ and ‘stick to the cooking’, among other comments too vile to put into writing. 

“Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards,” said Eni Aluko MBE. “This is the worst abuse I’ve ever experienced. People writing comments of solidarity are fine, but it doesn’t have enough teeth. We need to make sure there are real consequences.”

She called for an enforcement framework to be built to ensure behavioural change. Kick It Out CEO Tony Burnett, an ex-police officer, agreed. He added: “We need systems in place. It needs to start with the criminal justice system and it’s not currently fit for purpose.”

Lawyer Sharon Tan believes we need to make it easier for people to access the laws that are there to protect them, while WIF Director Monique Choudhuri spoke about the importance of allyship when women are targeted.

“How many men are coming around Eni and asking ‘how can I help, what can I do?’” she asked. “Everyone needs to be involved in making the problem better.”

 

#WIFleaders: The stories of women in football

“As women, sometimes we can doubt ourselves as we don't have a lot of role models.”
– Vivienne Long, Hospitality Manager, Luton Town FC 

A panel of alumnae of the WIF Leadership Course shared their inspirational stories of challenge and change, hosted by Gemma Frith.

A theme of the session was empowering women with the knowledge that there are so many different jobs in football that people need to discover. Jenny Mitton cited a lack of role models to look up to when she started out in football, but she believes WIF is changing that. 

Nicola Comley said: “It's important for me to inspire the younger generation as it's such a huge part of what football means to me. Supporting other young women to take big steps in the industry is now what I aspire to do and feel really strongly about.” 

Vivienne Long opened up about how the course gave her a support network which built up her confidence. She said: “From the course, I've learned that I'm good enough. I just have to voice it more.”

 

Your Career, Your Choices: Taking control of your professional journey 

“We spend more time planning our summer holidays than our career paths.”
– Mel Barclay, Head of Solutions Career Transition, LHH

This session centred around how we can be more intentional with our careers, as well as the difficulties professional athletes face when they try to pivot their job after retirement.

Performance coach and former athlete Danny Crates spoke to the physical and mental difficulties of this, especially around a loss of identity. “No matter what level of sport you got to, the problems of transitioning are very similar in terms of moving away from the sport mentally,” he said. Nicky Jennings added: “That feeling of not knowing what’s next is universal to everyone.”

Former footballer Natasha Dowie is thriving in her role as an Ambassador for Liverpool FC, but recounted how vital the support she needed to transition was. She said: “I thought I’d love retirement – going for brunches, going for coffee. But I hated it, I needed the routine. This role has helped me – I am now loving life! I almost feel guilty enjoying not playing football so much.”

Kirsten Cole closed out the session by asking the audience to think about how we can take an athlete’s desire to keep goal setting and improving into our own careers.

 

Work/Life Balance – What’s That?

"How many people say to a man 'can you have it all?' It's such a gendered thing to ask."
– Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Women in Sport CEO

Sky Sports News presenter Vicky Gomersall opened by asking the panel if it’s really possible to ‘have it all’. Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell responded that we can…so long as it’s on our own terms. 

None of the panel were surprised that 93% of female WIF members have faced an obstacle in their football career because of their gender. Match Official Sian Massey-Ellis MBE praised Emma Hayes  MBE speaking on TV about taking time off work for her son, stating it had a huge knock-on effect in making it more accepted.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE pointed out that Women in Sport has been going for 40 years, formed in the first year women were allowed to run a marathon in the Olympics. She added: “We were only allowed to do the pole vault in 2000 – the argument was that our wombs would fall out on the way up, which largely, I haven’t seen happen!”

In terms of advice for making the right decisions between work and family, the advice “trust yourself” came from Tanya Oxtoby, Northern Ireland Women manager. Vicky added: “Go with your heart.”

 

The Business of Football: Competing on the global stage

"Let's take what's great from the men's game where we can, but not assume that it's all transferable. Let's be creative, let's be innovative."
– Collette Roche, COO, Manchester United FC

At a pivotal time for women’s football, the panel reflected on its growth and how much it wants to emulate the men’s game.

Omar Chaudhuri believes the successful growth of women’s football depends on three factors:

  • habitual – it needs fans who attend matches week in, week out
  • competitive – closing the gap between the teams in the Barclays Women's Super League
  • better scheduling – tweaking the calendar to prevent injuries

PFA CEO Maheta Molango spoke to the problems the Barclays Women’s Championship faces in not being professional, while Omar suggested that financial rewards in women’s football could go to the clubs putting the most into the game, rather than those that win.

WIF chair Ebru Köksal added that it is important that leagues get the support they deserve from the governing bodies, as she hopes to see the upsurge in international football feed into domestic games. As women’s football grows, Colette Roche stated the importance of organic crowd growth and only staging the most suitable fixtures at the main stadiums.

Jacqui Oatley MBE said: “Let’s look at the commercial opportunity of women’s football – it shouldn’t just be picking up the crumbs of the men’s game.”

 

Alison Brittain CBE in conversation with Jacqui Oatley MBE

“You’ll look back at moments in your career which are very specific turning points. What seemed to be an insignificant conversation turns out to have an enormous influence”
– Alison Brittain CBE

This was a discussion around career-defining moments, the importance of mentors and networks and the work still required to get more women into senior leadership roles.

Alison confirmed that the Premier League’s corporate membership of WIF has allowed female staff to undertake courses that "have been really inspirational for people and helped to develop their skills enormously."

 

Standing Out From The Crowd: Get noticed by recruiters 

“It’s never too early to start networking. You need to find a tribe that offers your safe place, like Women in Football”
– Uma Cresswell, Senior Independent Director, English Football League Trust

Ayesha Tabbal, Uma Cresswell, Euan Frizzell and Helen Soulsby shared their top tips, hosted by WIF Director Jane Purdon.

A recurring theme in this panel was how women often self-exclude when they don't fulfil every requirement in a job description, while men tend to apply anyway.

The panel spoke to the importance of networking as well as being authentic when applying for jobs, while encouraging women to ask questions when they don’t get selected.

 

Inside Women’s Football: Challenges, opportunities and progress

With progress being made in women's football at a giddying pace, it's more important than ever for those eyeing a career in the game to stay informed. This panel offered Be Inspired delegates an inside perspective on the sport from some of those closest to it, namely Amy Clarke, the Women’s Sport Lead with Deloitte Sports Business Group; Charlotte O’Neill, Managing Director at Manchester City FC Women; Luca Russo, Director with Volante Sports; and Jo Tongue MBE, the CEO of Tongue Tied Management and Director at Women in Football.

 

Empower Yourself: Mindset, coaching and leadership 

“If you’re going to be brave enough to take that first step, also be resilient enough to fail. There will be bumps in the road. Life isn’t an easy path.”
– Chris Larsen, Founder, Leap 76 Group

Yvonne Harrison opened by calling on all of us to look internally. “Success begins with you,” she said. “How many people take the time to invest in themselves consistently? Imagine where you could be if you did. It could be game changing.”

“Every single person has a superpower,” mindset coach Chris Larsen told the crowd. “You have to be able to find that superpower and nurture it.” 

Mental health advocate Monica Shafaq encouraged proactivity. “Never wait for the right path because the path won't appear,” she said. “Paths are made by walking, not by waiting. Just take that first step and every step you take will build more confidence.” 

Takeaways from this session were the importance of making time for yourself and being mindful of what you need to work on. Trust in yourself, back yourself and don’t be afraid to fail.

 

Going Live: Women in football broadcasting 

“Keep fighting the fight. If you want it enough, you can do it. You can do anything you want to do.”
– Lawrie Anne Brown, Senior Planner, Sky Sports News Scotland

Sky Sports News Reporter Gail Davis hosted a brilliant panel of women working in radio and TV in talkSPORT’s Kathryn Anastasi and Faye Carruthers, Sky Sports News’ Lawrie Anne Brown and Soccer Saturday’s Samantha Mills.

“I want sport to be a fairer placer to be,” said Kathryn. The panel spoke candidly about the sexism they have experienced along their journeys to where they are today.

Faye said: “I wanted to work in sport but was always told ‘we’ve got a guy that does that’. Producer Samantha recalled an anecdote where she was asked for a cup of tea and where her producer was, because they needed to speak to him.”

As five women thriving in the industry, they shared their optimism that things are changing, encouraging people to be brave and believe in themselves while knowing when to say no.

 

On The Pitch: Careers close to the action

Hosted by Carrie Brown, Sports Correspondent with beIN Sports, this breakout brought together  PGMOL match official Kirsty Dowle; Mirka Fouskova, Head of Women’s Football with the Czech FA; Janie Frampton OBE, the Co-Founder of Team You; and Lola Ogunbote, Head of Women’s Football with Burnley FC. 

The panel discussed the wide range of careers available to women on the pitch, not only as players but in coaching roles and as match officials. A range of other professional pathways includes physio and medical roles.

 

Off The Pitch: Careers in football business and administration

“Being vocal about what you want is really important because nobody is going to come along and hand it to you, so you need to be proactive.”
– Hala Ousta, Senior Diversity & Accessibility Manager, FIFA

Liam Loftus was joined by Ann-Marie Bradley, Jana Bernhard, Zoe Johnson and Hala Ousta, who provided insights on the challenges and opportunities of working behind the scenes in football.

Zoe described the positive culture at Brighton & Hove Albion FC, working towards gender integration across the football club. On Paul Barber, she said: “He is a credit to football in general and to women’s and girls’ football in particular.”

Head of HR at Burnley FC Ann-Marie set up the department when she joined three years ago, something they didn’t have beforehand. She joked: “Working with the first team is actually really boring – you’re much better off behind the scenes and off the pitch!”

 

Emma Hayes OBE in conversation with Hayley McQueen

“I love football.”
– Emma Hayes

After WIF Director Ben Carter introduced “the absolute legend that is Emma Hayes” to the stage, Sky Sports News’ Hayley McQueen took the reins for a chat with the Chelsea boss, before she leaves London this summer. “We’re here for our last little fix of you,” said McQueen.

In a personal chat, Emma shared stories from her managerial career to date, reflecting on the pressures women face and the importance of surrounding ourselves with brilliant people.

She spoke candidly about the highs and lows of football, and the new challenge that awaits her as the US Women’s National Team head coach from this summer.

She left the stage to a standing ovation and it was clear to see how much she is adored by all women in football.

 

Closing thoughts

“It’s not good enough, it’s not acceptable. As a man in the game, I will do everything I can to eliminate misogyny from the game.”
– Paul Barber OBE, Brighton & Hove Albion FC CEO

WIF Director Paul Barber thanked Emma Hayes, stating that the men’s game can learn a lot from the honesty Emma shows, before closing with some reflections from the day.

“This is the uncomfortable truth that misogyny still exists in this industry,” he said. “We all have a part to play in that change and it will get easier. We must keep chipping away.”

Read about day 2 of the conference

 

Ayisha Gulati is an emerging sports journalist based in London and wrote this feature as a  Women in Football volunteer. Please see Ayisha's LinkedIn profile to find out more and connect.

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