New TV deals and better professional contracts are raising the profile of women’s football to new heights, but a panel of players and coaches have told an audience at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) that there is “still a long way to go” before we see gender equality in the beautiful game.
Last week, Sky Sports announced a three-year deal with the Football Association (FA) to become the main broadcaster of the Barclays Women’s Super League (WSL).
Hailed a “game-changing partnership”, the new agreement means that, from September, Sky Sports will exclusively livestream at least 35 games each season, making it a flagship offering and making women’s football more visible than ever before.
But at an event hosted by DMU, players from Leicester City Women Football Club joined a panel of female footballers and football coaches to point out there are still barriers faced by women in the game and there’s a need to overcome adversity in sport.
The event, organised by DMU Women and hosted by Fiona Dick, Head of Sport at DMU, welcomed Holly Morgan, Remi Allen and Libby Smith from LCFC Women, who went full-time earlier this season. They are currently top of the FA Women’s Championship and look set for promotion to the WSL in May.
The panel also included DMU PhD student Annie Taylor, who is a coach at LCFC Women, manager of LCFC U13s, manager of DMU Women FC and captain of Long Eaton United; Georgie Van Dijk, coach for the Men’s 1st Team at DMU, Academy coach at Birmingham City FC and U21s Academy coach at Kidderminster Harriers; and DMU alumni Hannah Curwen, former chairwoman of DMU Women FC.
LCFC Women captain Holly Morgan – who has been playing for the Foxes for 16 years – told viewers during the virtual event that she hopes girls who aspire to become professional footballers will be inspired by seeing more of the game on the box.
“I think the direction it’s going in is very positive and for aspiring girls, I think you have to see it to believe it and you need to see it to believe you can do it,” she said. “Being able to watch more games and see their role models more on TV will give them a bigger belief that they can be there one day too.”
Morgan also spoke about her own experiences in the game and how the WSL is paving the way for lower leagues and encouraging more women and girls to take the sport seriously.
“Because all teams in the WSL are now full-time, it’s bridging the gap,” she said. “Before, when it was just a couple of teams that were full-time as opposed to the whole league, the gap was far too big.
“But it is closing and it will continue to close as the clubs become more similar in terms of the structure and set up of the league. It’s nice now that girls can enter the sport and consider doing it on a full-time basis because the game is growing.”
Holly Morgan, LCFC Women skipper
Yet Morgan stressed that there is still work to be done to ensure women’s football provides a secure, full-time job. She said that girls should consider a “dual-career pathway” when they start out and continue to focus on their education and career outside the game to give them other options.
“I think it’s vital for female players to have something else,” she said. “A dual-career pathway into the female game is just as important as ever. Even though I don’t want to call it a barrier, it was always something on my mind and something I had to juggle.
“I think there is still that issue of the old traditionalist views that football is just a men’s sport and it’s really not. As a female you have to get your qualifications because unfortunately we have to be more reliant on that to show and provide evidence that we are capable of taking on such roles.
“You have to be the best at what you do in order to be taken seriously. It’s getting better but there’s still a long way to go.”
Libby Smith, who was scouted for LCFC Women’s Academy at the age of seven and has spent most of her career at the Foxes, said playing women’s football could sometimes be a “balancing act”.
“Going full-time this season has been incredible but the past few seasons I have had to juggle part-time jobs while training at the same time,” she explained. “On a Saturday I could have an early shift at 6am and then have to go and train in the evening. Or we’d have a game on a Sunday and I’d need to be up early for work the next day.
“It’s not a barrier because we love what we do but it is a pressure when there are other teams in the league that are full-time and have that funding and backing, and you’re expected to turn up and match what they do.”
LCFC Women midfielder and former England player Remi Allen, who also started out at LCFC Academy and later played for Leeds, Lincoln, Birmingham and Reading before coming home, agreed it could often be a challenge to juggle football with work commitments.
“It does make you question how much you love the game,” she said. “When I was at Birmingham we weren’t professional so I had two or three jobs around that. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to pay the bills but ultimately I always knew that I wanted to be a full-time, professional footballer so there was no way I was going to sacrifice any of that or not give it my all in the opportunities I got.”
Allen, who won the League Cup with Leeds Carnegie and the UEFA Women's U19s Championships with England, and was a Champions League semi-finalist with Birmingham City, said giving up sport was never an option.
“Even if I had to do as many jobs as possible I still would never have stopped playing football. It’s a great opportunity to understand whether you do want it or whether you love the game as much as you think you do because it’s easy when things are nice and it fits in with your schedule.
“It’s about how much you want to prioritise it. For me it didn’t change my love of the game, it probably enhanced it.”
One panellist who knows only too well what it means to juggle high-level football with other commitments is Annie Taylor, who is currently studying for her PhD at DMU while still coaching teams at LCFC, managing DMU Women FC and captaining Long Eaton United.
“It’s not easy. I won’t lie,” she said. “I am very lucky in that I’ve been at LCFC for many years and they’ve always been very supportive. I’ve been around like-minded people that have also been juggling that dual career pathway.
“It’s very challenging, mentally and physically. It’s about time management and communicating with people. Being around people you can bounce off who also know how it is and how to deal with these things.
“I wouldn’t change it. I love the game and I love playing and that’s why we push ourselves to do these things. Having that passion and love for it – if I didn’t have that I don’t think I’d be able to do it. Fundamentally you’ve got to love what you’re doing.”
Hannah Curwen, a graduate of DMU who was heavily involved in leading DMU Women FC while studying, said her experience of leading a football team has been invaluable to her career progression.
“Just playing sport leads you into so many other career opportunities,” she said. “If you do get to be part of any committees or clubs, really take those opportunities. In job interviews I would be asked about women’s football and I’d be asked about my experiences of team leadership, being a part of a team, taking losses, being resilient. It’s all part of sport.”
Despite their love and passion for the game, all of the panellists agreed that gender discrimination is still a major issue for women in football and something they had all faced.
Georgie Van Dijk, who got into coaching boy’s football when she was just 13, talked about being one of few women pursuing a professional career in the men’s game.
“There’s been many things I have had to overcome and there have been times where there has been discrimination,” she said. “One example is when I went for a job interview at a professional club. When I got there the security came up to me and I said I was here to see the head of coaching and he asked, ‘Are you his Mrs?’
“I still get things now where I get asked if I’m the physio or there will be managers completely not realising who I am and then saying ‘Oh, you’re Georgie Van Dijk!’
“It’s annoying but hopefully for people following in my direction or footsteps it will be easier for them. I try and forget about it because as long as I can do my job and my players respect me that’s all I’ve come to do.”
Last year, a study found that two-thirds of women who work in the football industry have experienced gender discrimination, while 82% of respondents said they 'agree' or 'strongly agree' that they have faced obstacles in their football career.
LCFC Women skipper Holly Morgan added: “What’s frustrating is that you’re constantly being compared to the men’s game. So your knowledge or your ability to coach, manage or play is constantly compared to what a man would do and how well they would do it.
“In order for us to continue flying the flag for women’s football, as anybody involved in the game in any capacity, whether as a player, an analyst, a coach or a physio, we all have a role to play when it comes to inspiring younger age groups.
“We have a responsibility to keep showcasing what the game is about by talking about it, being involved, coaching younger girls, sharing it on social media. The female footballers that came before us have been very active in developing the game and now it’s up to us to take on baton and do more.”
The full event: Showing Stereotypes the Red Card: Women In Football is available to view now.
Posted on Thursday 1st April 2021