A Woman’s Place is at the Match

Image: My Own @ FC United of Manchester

It’s rare that I ever feel conscious of the fact I’m a woman while attending a football match. A recent visit to the Athlone Town Stadium was an unusual exception for two reasons: there was a female line official and I was only female supporter (that I could see!) in a crowd of about 100 away fans.

Unfortunately, some of the City support on the night – many of whom choose to wear no club colours – decided it was appropriate to indulge in the usual ‘Get your t**s out for the lads’ chants or, when there was a poor decision, that criticism should include references to her gender.

Referees and their officials are most likely well used to abuse and criticism from supporters. I don’t have an issue with that – I frequently have a few choice words to say myself – however, there’s no place for sexism in football, especially idiots that get slapped on the back for roaring ‘Women have no place in football’ at a lines official just doing what she’s there to do.

I was recently part of a discussion panel that touched on a couple of topics around Women in Football at an FC United of Manchester event at Gigg Lane in Bury (Full Video here). The panel included a FIFA official Jane Simms who recently refereed one of the club’s League fixtures and apparently received considerable admiration for the way she officiated on the day.

The question that took everyone’s interest was a simple one: FC United have had two female referees in recent times – one had a poor day and one had an impressive day. Simms was asked her thoughts, and her answer was both honest and genuine: she wished to be judged by her performance only – not the fact she was a woman – and pointed out that she was equally capable of having a poor day at the office. The same as any male colleague.

So, why then is it the case that gender is still part of the narrative for any woman involved in football?

I don’t want to see more female officials in the game just because they are women. I’d like to see better officials in the game and, if they are women, great. However, equally, because women’s participation in sport lags so far behind our male counterparts – for many, mostly historical reasons – we do need to focus on how we can change mindsets, funding arrangements, facilities and organisations in the first place to allow women’s sports lay stronger foundations, on which so much can then be built.

I’m not usually the only female supporter in the away end at Cork City fixtures, I must add. There are plenty of female supporters at the club but I see them as fans and not ‘fellow female fans’. We don’t have a ‘sisterhood’, but we do probably know each other to see as we do stand out just a little more. How did I cop that there were no other women in the away section? When I went to the Ladies toilets at half time, the door was pulled shut, the light was off and I didn’t see a single other woman while there! A quick look at the stand after half time confirmed my suspicion.

When I first went on the Board of Cork City FC, I was one of four women (of a total of ten) involved. Looking back now it was an incredible time and I’m not sure I can see that happening again – at least not in the near future. What did those women bring to the Board? Expertise, skills, life experience – the same as their male counterparts. As one of my managers once said to me: a management group needs different points of view, varying backgrounds, friction and discussion etc. to succeed.  However, it also needs to be able to work together and move forward in spite of the same differences to ensure it is a strong collective.

The UK Sports Minister, an MP by the name of Helen Grant, suggested in February that women can “look absolutely radiant and very feminine” while participating in such sports as ballet, cheerleading and roller-skating. 

I think (and hope) that she probably meant that the choice is important to get women involved but it is interesting that the reasons we believe sport is so good for boys and men (activity, being part of a team, learning to win and lose, making friends etc) are rarely cited girls and women as considerations. 

I grew up just outside Cork city and the main organised sport open to girls was the martial art Tae Kwon Do, which I practiced for seven to eight years. It was only when I went to all-girls secondary school that I had the chance to play an organised team sport, and even then participation wasn’t really encouraged after Junior Cert. PE also stopped being a compulsory subject after 4th year.

At the same time, I’ve been delighted to see schoolgirls’ sports develop in recent years. It’s wonderful to see schoolgirl clubs attending Cork Women’s FC matches (and the advent of the Women’s National League in general), and my own local junior GAA club now has a camogie set up at underage level. There are efforts being made, and these need to be supported, encouraged and continued if the impact is to be felt in the longer term.

The bottom line? Not all women want to play or participate in sport. That’s their choice. However, sport has a lot to give society and its communities, women are an integral part of both and need to be enabled (for want of a better word!) to be heard and get involved as a result.

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