By Amée Bryan, AJ Ranking-Wright, Ph.D., and Stacey Pope, Ph.D.
Women’s participation in sport as athletes and fans is at an all-time high. Yet, men continue to outnumber women in positions of power. While the under-representation of women in leadership positions is a universal problem, gender inequalities in sport leadership are particularly stark.
Men’s club football in England is especially interesting because it has a strong cultural connection to working-class masculinities and is often considered one of the last bastions of patriarchy. The industry has a history of excluding women from playing, watching, and coaching football. For these reasons, we argue that football in England is an “extreme” example of a gendered organization – an organization that exists to reinforce masculine superiority.
Although the formal and symbolic exclusion of women from playing, watching, and coaching football is well documented, we know very little about women’s access to administrative leadership roles. So, our research asks, ‘how does the “extremely gendered” character of football affect women’s access to leadership roles in men’s club football?’. To answer this question, we analysed the patterns of women’s participation in leadership roles over 30 years and examined the recent gender pay gap reports of men’s football clubs in England.
We found that women’s leadership work has been ‘peripheral’ to the ‘core’ function of men’s club football in England. Leadership roles held by women are removed, in terms of influence and proximity, from the male players and the playing of football matches. For example, over 50% of women leaders’ work was in Commercial & Sales, Club Secretary, Ticketing, and Finance. In contrast, just 4% of women’s leadership work involved direct contact with the players in roles such as Football Development, Director of football, and Sport Science.
Women’s exclusion from football extends beyond just player and coaching roles into leadership roles that matter to the core organizational existence: the playing of football matches. Understanding men’s club football as an “extremely gendered” organization allows us to see that ‘core’ roles, which are the most symbolically important to preserving football’s masculine character, are reserved for men. Accommodating women in ‘peripheral’ leadership roles does not not transform or disrupt the extremely masculine character of football.
Recent political pressure to actively reveal and reduce gender inequalities, such as the introduction of gender pay gap reporting in the UK, means “extremely gendered” organizations like men’s football clubs will face a challenge. Gender pay gap reports are an opportunity for organizations to explain, reflect upon, and address gender inequalities. But our findings show that men’s football clubs have not taken this opportunity. Instead, they have used gender pay gap reporting to reinforce men’s dominance in football. Our analysis of gender pay gap reports reveals stark pay inequalities between women and men and also shows that men’s football clubs justify women’s exclusion from core leadership roles by presenting men’s dominance in these roles as “natural.” That is, most clubs argued that male-dominance in core administrative roles was the result of men’s “natural attraction to football”. Clubs also used high male player wages to rationalize significant gender pay gaps between women and men without investigating gender inequalities in administrative and leadership roles.
These findings suggest that men’s football clubs are unwilling to expose and address inequalities between women and men, especially in core roles. This leads us to question the ability of gender pay gap reporting to address gender inequality in organizations. Our findings demonstrate how clubs actively reinforce masculine dominance through masculinist language, shaped and enabled by the “extremely gendered” character of football. Crucially, this suggests that other organizations that can be categorised as “extremely gendered” may need special attention to uncover how they discriminate against women.
This research shows that men’s football, at its core, has remained almost impermeable to women. The presence of women leaders in men’s football, even in the boardroom, might look like progress, but if women leaders are removed from the players and major footballing decisions, the world of football will remain exaggeratedly masculine. Resistance to exposing and addressing gender inequalities in core roles is a mechanism to protect the “extremely gendered” nature of men’s football in England.
Until women are involved, in equal proportion to men, in core operational leadership roles, equality will never be achieved. Men will continue to be the holders of organizational power and women will be accommodated only at the periphery.
Amée Bryan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University. Her research interests are in gender and the feminist sociology of work. Her doctoral research examines women’s access to and experiences of leadership in men’s professional football. Her doctoral research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with Sporting Heritage and The National Football Museum.
Dr. AJ Ranking-Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University. Her research interests reside within the sociocultural study of sport and in particular equality and issues of diversity and inclusion. Her research addresses and challenges social (in)equalities, inclusive practice, and diversity related to participation, coaching, leadership, and organisational cultures in sport, with a specific focus on gender and race equality.
Dr. Stacey Pope is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University. She is especially interested in issues of gender and sport. She is author of The Feminization of Sports Fandom: A Sociological Study (Routledge) and Co-editor (with Gertrud Pfister) of Female Football Players and Fans: Intruding into a Man’s World (Palgrave). She is currently working on a large AHRC project examining women and football fandom in the North East of England and international women’s football.