The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup undeniably stamped out any remaining doubts people had regarding the astronomical growth of women’s football. However, despite its evident emergence, teams, players and fans across the world subsequently cried out for equal pay and opportunities. Which begs the question: are we really any closer to reaching equality?

The bigger picture

As Chelsea women manager Emma Hayes MBE notes, “No one is going to put women’s football down anymore. This is a sport that is to be reckoned with. We are going to get more and more recognition with the more success we have on and off the pitch.” And there’s plenty of evidence to back up her words. Take, for example, the fact that the final of the World Cup became the most watched women’s match in history, a rise of 7.2 million from the 2014 final. Similarly, in the UK a record-breaking number of viewers watched the Lionesses progress to the semi-finals. Both of these stats are simply a microcosm of the wider growth of women’s football worldwide. 

Yet it all felt bitter sweet. During the final, chants for equal pay rung around the stadium during the award ceremony. The US women’s team had just won the World Cup for the fourth time, whilst their male counterparts failed to qualify for the tournament whatsoever the previous year. However, months later 28 players filed a lawsuit against their own governing body for ‘institutionalised gender discrimination’. They stated it had existed for years. The players claimed that not only their pay cheques were affected, but also how often they play, how they train, as well as medical treatment and coaching they receive. How can such disparity still exist in a country where the women’s team is more successful than the men’s? Clearly, a lot of work is still to be done.

Most highlight the significantly higher commercial revenue and sponsorship money invested in the men’s game as the driving force behind inequality. UEFA delegates a whopping 99.8% of Champion’s League money to the men’s competition. Meanwhile, the prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup (£314 million) is more than ten times what the women’s team received (£23.5 million). Considering the emergence of women’s football, how is such large scale disparity justifiable?

The significant financial inequality generates a ripple effect, which eventually trickles down to an individual level. Take, for example, the fact that the average annual salary for players in the Women’s Super League is £27,000. To put this into context, most Premier League footballers earn that in just a week. Worldwide, half of all top division female players receive no remuneration whatsoever.

Across the board

It’s not just about the professionals, though: Disparity is also prevalent at a grass-roots level. Whilst 98% of boys aged 11 have played football, only 12% of girls are granted the same opportunity. Consequently, girls are systematically blocked out of the conversation from a young age and those with an interest can easily become outsiders. Arguably, this in turn contributes to a disproportionate amount of female football fans and diminishes interest in the women’s game at a later stage.

This sentiment of disinterest was highlighted recently by the head of the Chartered Management Institute Anne Franke. She expressed her concern about the amount of workplace chat about sport and football, claiming it leaves women feeling left out and forced to converse about topics they have no interest in. “It’s a gateway to more laddish behaviour. And if it just goes unchecked –  it’s a signal of a more laddish culture” Franke said. She added “it’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat, to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend.

Comments such as this are highly problematic for a number of reasons. Are we really still presuming that women don’t have the interest or knowledge to be involved in the office sports chat? Is it not about time we start to accept that perhaps, some women are more eager than men to complain about the latest VAR blunder, Manchester City being barred from the Champions League or whether this might ACTUALLY be Liverpool’s year?

What the above discussion does make abundantly clear is that inequality doesn’t only exist when it comes to players. It’s an issue for fans, journalists, coaches and pundits alike. In 2019, Alex Scott decided to speak out about the onslaught of abuse she receives online on a daily basis. Dan Walker accurately summarised her words by saying “being good at your job still isn’t good enough.” We are more than happy for former male players to both coach and comment on the women’s game, so why does the reverse not apply? Scott’s words certainly struck a chord with many women in the industry: It became clear that it wasn’t just those playing on the pitch that were suffering from the consequences of inequality, but it was felt across the board.

Looking to the future

Whilst it’s easy to get downbeat, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Positive steps are being taken across the industry, including many initiatives to get women involved in all aspects of the game. The FA, for example, have started to open ‘wildcat centres’ for girls aged 5-11 to try their hand at football for the first time. Meanwhile, institutions such as ‘Women in Football’ are supporting women working in the industry.

Change is happening on a larger and more public scale, too. Footballers like Steph Houghton and Alex Scott are making history as pundits. In Norway in 2017, men and women started to receive the same pay for representing their country. New Zealand followed closely after in 2018. And crowds continue to make history. Most recently over 60,000 fans broke the record as they watched Barcelona take on Atletico Madrid, proving the popularity of the women’s game is soaring.

A lot remains to be seen. Yet, what is clear is this: whilst it may be wishful thinking to believe that complete equality is achievable in the immediate future, the topic is no longer being ignored. In fact, it’s near impossible to do so. As the US team showcased perfectly in 2019, footballers are no longer willing to sit back and accept the reality. They will continue to fight for what is right.

So, perhaps it really is just a matter of time. And maybe instead of focusing on the negatives, it’s necessary to step back and consider how far women’s football has already come.  For every spiteful comment they see online, every time they are forced to acknowledge the gender pay gap or even file a lawsuit against their governing body, hopefully women footballers, pundits, journalists, coaches and all involved in the game can take comfort in the fact that they are truly the trailblazers making way for the next generation. The generation who will go on to lead the way for women in football. As stated by Megan Rapinoe, “I think we are done with the questions like ‘are we worth it?” And “should we have equal pay?” Let’s get to the next point of ‘what’s next?” For the players, achieving equality could become the greatest goal they’ve ever scored.