Do women belong in a man’s game?

Al Jazeera talks to the FA’s former acting chief executive David Davies about the lack of women at the top of football.

West Ham United’s Karren Brady has succeeded where many women have failed [GALLO/GETTY] 

While attending the Leaders in Football conference at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in October, I was aware of my minority status. 

The two-day conference held in London unveiled a number of plans the British FA and FIFA had for our game.

But the more the men in suits talked, the more I thought: was it our game?

Instead of being riveted by the planned changes for football at national and international level, my attention was being held by the one thing in the room that hadn’t changed. 

Did this selection of white men reflect our sport, and where were the women?

They weren’t on the podium delivering speeches and very few were in the auditorium. More significant was the absence of conversation relating to women, whether on the football field or in the boardroom.

“I bang on about this all the time. The lack of progress in this area is extraordinary”

David Davies

This did not feel like a Leaders in Football conference but a Male Leaders in Football conference.

After the event I chased down the conference chairman David Davies OBE to ask him about the lack of women involved. 

“As soon as I saw the list of speakers it screamed out at me,” said Davies.    

“It was unfortunate we didn’t have any female speakers. But there are still few women involved at the top of football.”

Talking to Davies it becomes clear the lack of women in football is something the former exec of the FA takes seriously, “I bang on about this all the time. The lack of progress in this area is extraordinary.”


Davies is not exaggerating. There are currently no women on the FA board and only two in a wider council of 114 members. Both UEFA and FIFA lack female representation and a handful of women can be found on the boards of England’s top football clubs. Former Birmingham managing director and current vice-chairman of West Ham United Karren Brady is one of the only female household names known for their connection to football.  

Working for the FA in several spells between 1994 and 2006, Davies understands the inner workings of England’s top footballing body better than most, yet he is stumped as to why women are not better represented.  

“Only people can change it. In my time at the FA, did enough people? Probably not. We absolutely did more on racism than on this issue. Should I have done more on this I guess I probably should,” Davies told Al Jazeera.

Davies, who started working for the FA as their director of public affairs, might not have done enough to encourage women into the boardroom but he did help to get more women on the terraces. 

“The greatest achievement of my generation was without a shadow of a doubt bringing women to watch football. At the 2006 World Cup, the Germans could not believe the amount of female support for the England team,” he said.

      Davies pictured with Glenn Hoddle spent his time ironing out scandals at the FA [GALLO/GETTY] 

Female attendance may be on the rise but women are yet to bubble up into the administration of Europe’s most lucrative sport.

“There is not the diversity in football there should be, not nearly enough progress has been made. Football would be far better run if more women were involved at a senior level,” said Davies.

In the past the lack of women in the FA has been written off as institutionalised sexism. However, and perhaps unfortunately, the issue is not that simple.

Davies suggests inequalities stem from a fear of positive discrimination and the basic structure of the FA. It is more complex and mature, than a group of old men grumbling at women sticking their stiletto boots in.

“The FA would set a good example by appointing a couple of women to get the ball rolling,” said Davies.

“But people are quite frightened about positive discrimination – it is not dissimilar to bringing ethnic minorities in. Women cannot be forced into positions of power, as a shortlist of women only candidates could be legally challenged.

“I do not think that the FA is consciously thinking ‘we will not have women’ but if the county associations do not vote in women the lack of balance will continue.

“The old fashioned structure was built on volunteers and amateurs, who were usually men and, once these men got into the FA, very few left. This makes it difficult for women to get involved.”

This might be acceptable if the FA was just making decisions on the male game but as they also control the women’s sport, this lack of female representation is archaic.    

UEFA breakthrough

One way to open up football to women would be to have more female representatives in football organisations talking about the big issues. 
In March, UEFA President Michel Platini took a positive step to achieve this when he introduced Norwegian Karen Espelund as the first female, and 17th member, of his ruling committee.

“We must find a way to break the glass ceiling preventing women from reaching positions of responsibility within our organisations,” said Platini.

“We must find a way to break the glass ceiling preventing women from reaching positions of responsibility within our organisations”

UEFA President Michel Platini

Espelund, who was invited to be a member rather than elected, supports the idea of quotas to help women break into the sport. She herself was helped by employment quota rules when she became the Norway Football Federation’s first female general secretary in 1999.

It is telling that one of the highest regarded female administrators in the sport believes a quota is still necessary to achieve more equality. It suggests there’s still an attitude blocking women from securing the top jobs in football.

Davies does not protest this idea.

“For some people there is deep rooted prejudice – I always thought that my generation would be different and more open minded and just ‘got it’,” he told me.

“The truth was not enough of us did.” 

Press-ing problem

But do men want to change it?

The make-up of the media presents another hurdle for women to overcome with a dearth of female football journalists, particularly in print media.

With Davies himself moving from sports reporting to the FA, one wonders whether the absence of female sports journalists is connected to the lack of women in the games’ decision making.  

When football’s decision makers are male and so too are its journalists, what opportunity is there for women to join in the narrative?

In fact, should women even bother trying?

When I vocalise this thought to Davies I receive his loudest and most animated response.

“Yes, of course they should,” he said, raising his voice.

“Because you are counting out talent that’s why it matters and there’s obviously no reason not to bring new people in.

“It is not economically sensible, it is not emotionally sensible, it is not for the betterment of the working experience, for any organisation to under represent 50 per cent of the population.”

Hope for future 

While UEFA and media organisations like the BBC have taken small steps to achieve more representation for women, Davies has reason to be positive about the future of the FA too.

Davies says current FA chairman David Bernstein is a man who will champion the issue and very much ‘gets it’.

Bernstein is working to restructure the FA and if he pushes his changes through it could redress some of the organisation’s past inequalities. 

The FA chairman is already committed to recruiting two independent directors and supports the idea of a woman joining the board.

“If we are having a conversation in a year’s time there may be two women on the board of the FA and that would not surprise me at all”

David Davies

“If we are having a conversation in a year’s time there may be two women on the board of the FA and that would not surprise me at all,” Davies said. 

Although this is promising news, a speech by Britain’s home secretary Theresa May on November 5 highlights another solution. 

May claimed more female talent in the workplace could benefit the British economy to the tune of $96 million. She revealed plans to set up a Women’s Business Council to maximise women’s contributions to the workplace.

While talking to Davies about the lack of women in football is enlightening, female talent needs to be actively encouraged by women, as well as by men.

It is women at the top of their profession, like May, who have left the glass ceiling dangling in their wake, who can reach down and help others through.

It is important women such as UEFA’s Karen Espelund and West Ham’s Karren Brady are included at conferences like Leaders in Football so women talking football becomes commonplace and encourages more females into their intriguing world.

Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working with Al Jazeera on the Sport website. She has worked at Sky News, Sky Sports News, LBC Radio., TNT Down Under and Wanderlust magazine. Follow her on Twitter (@joannatilley) or her website,

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites

Source : Al Jazeera

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