The past two years have proved transformational for women’s football in Europe. In 2022, the England women’s team – the Lionesses – won the European Championship in a final which broke television viewing figures. And this summer, the women’s World Cup drew unprecedented crowds, with average spectator numbers up 72% from the last tournament four years ago. Now that players like Leah Williamson are household names, it’s hard to believe that the ban on the women’s game in the UK was only lifted in the 1970s.
However, looking beyond the athletes on the pitch, the professional landscape of football remains overwhelmingly male. There are no women managers in the English Premier League, and only 9% of Board members are women. In national federations, just 2% of presidents and CEOs are women. And where women do hold corporate roles within clubs, they’re more likely to be in HR or marketing than in revenue-driving or strategic positions.
The problem is as cultural as it is structural. In August, what should have been a celebration of the women’s game at the World Cup final was tarnished by a blatant display of sexual harassment by the Spanish football federation boss Luis Rubiales – unequivocal evidence that there’s still a long way to go until football is truly inclusive.
Men’s football is home to the vast majority of roles. But here, the rate of appointment and progression for women is far lower than for men, and women don’t feel supported to go for the top jobs. Last month, I caught up with Yvonne Harrison, CEO at Women in Football, who spoke to this point: “When it comes to coaching roles, I can count on one hand the number of women coaching professional men’s sides, including at academy level,” she said, “and research released in July found that only 27% of women who responded to our survey feel encouraged to forge pathways to the highest positions in the game.”
By contrast, in the women’s game, there is a lot more gender diversity, but far fewer opportunities. “There’s a distorted professional pyramid in women’s football,” said Ben Carter, who is a Director of Women in Football and Chief Customer and Marketing Officer of carwow. “There simply aren’t enough pathways to build solid pipelines.”
“There’s a distorted professional pyramid in women’s football… There simply aren’t enough pathways to build solid pipelines.” – Ben Carter, Director, Women in Football and Chief Customer and Marketing Officer of carwow.
Yvonne furthered this point: “There’s just very little consistency,” she told me. “Some women’s clubs have a whole staff of people, and enough resource for multiple levels and development opportunities. But others just have one GM who trying to do everything. The Carney review has outline in its recommendations the need for a fully professional environment for the Barclays Women’s Super League and Championship teams.”
There are steps being taken. More than 50 English clubs have signed up to the Football Association’s Leadership Diversity Code, which sets targets for hiring off-field staff. In 2021, for example, the FA announced a goal that 30% of all new senior hires should be women – but the average achieved by the end of the following year was just 18%.
Redressing the balance is clearly a long-term project. Organisations like Women in Football – who recently launched their ‘Open Doors Agenda’ to ensure women working in the game, on and off the pitch, feel safe, welcome and supported – are making a positive impact on the space, providing a forum for leaders to share their experiences and find a community.
“Our aim is to show people that football is a career for everyone,” explained Ben. “We run mentorship programmes, leadership courses, development initiatives, and we have a corporate membership scheme where football clubs and related organisations can join us, and in return their staff get access to sessions and support to create more inclusive environments. My goal for Women in Football is that we shouldn’t have to exist.”
Organisations in football must create solid leadership pipelines to feed the most senior teams with more diverse talent. Encouragingly, the increased attention on the women’s game looks set to have long-term implications on talent pipelines. Traditionally, coaching and decision-making roles in football have been held by former players, so we can expect to see these roles filled by athletes from today’s high-profile teams in the years ahead.
Looking outside the sector for proven talent could be part of the solution. As I wrote in April, sport is becoming more and more consumer-centric, and there’s a growing need for leaders who can drive change in areas like branding, customer, data, and digital. Thinking ahead, bringing women into corporate roles in football from industries retail, fashion, FMCG or hospitality could be hugely impactful – both commercially and from a diversity perspective.
“Sport is becoming more and more consumer-centric, and there’s a growing need for leaders who can drive change in areas like branding, customer, data, and digital.”
Indeed, we’re already seeing this happen in the most senior roles. In June 2021, Debbie Hewitt was appointed as the first woman Chair of the FA, joining from The Restaurant Group. And in July 2022, Alison Brittain became Chair at the Premier League, after seven years as chief executive at hotel giant Whitbread. “Having women in these Chair roles is hugely important,” said Yvonne. “There’s a long way to go for gender parity on boards, but I’m certain we’ll see a trickle-down effect.”
Football must make a concerted effort to bring in more women. As more money is poured into the women’s game, clubs should invest in leadership pathways to develop high-potential leaders. At the same time, I hope to see more women appointed into high-profile roles. As the landscape of football shifts, clubs and governing bodies need leadership teams which can make creative decisions and speak to a new generation of sports fans. This simply won’t happen without women around the top table.