The official FA Twitter account, which has almost 1.2 million followers,welcomed the England women’s football team home this week with the message:
Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes”
The tweet was quickly deleted following criticism on social media, but many people seemed confused about why it was described as “sexist” and “patronising”, questioning whether the response was an overreaction.
On the surface, I can understand their confusion. At a glance, it’s easy to see why some would sympathise with the FA’s explanation that: “The full story was a wider homecoming feature attempting to reflect the many personal stories within the playing squad as has been told throughout the course of the tournament.”
The trouble is, though, that the more you unpack it, the more you realise what an odd thing it was to tweet. Do we consider women’s roles as mothers, partners and daughters so incompatible with stellar international careers that those relationships are simply put on hold while they are working? Would we ever see a similar tweet welcoming home a triumphant male England team, with the focus immediately reverting to their domestic situations? Doesn’t this somewhat blur the fact that many of the players are in fact returning to extremely high-profile and skilled jobs for top teams in the UK?
Most of all, the tweet was so problematic because it represented only the very tip of the iceberg. We collectively groaned when we saw it because it was yet another glimpse of the kind of sexist attitudes that regularly face female players. Only last week, US striker Alex Morgan was described, in an article on Fifa’s own website, as: “A talented goalscorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match.”
It’s been 10 years since Fifa president Sep Blatter said: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” and our national team is still contending with puerile and insulting sexism. As the team prepared for the World Cup semi-finals last week,one national newspaper ran an article titled: “Watching the lionesses is such a roar deal.” It proclaimed: “The World Cup has shown that women’s football really isn’t that good – whoever could have predicted that? A woman’s place is not on a foreign field playing second-rate football – that’s Gareth Bale’s job. A woman’s place is in the wrong.”
Worse still, the winners of the World Cup (the US team, for those of you who haven’t been following it) will receive $2m from FIFA, just a quarter of the $8m collected by the US men’s team for losing in the first round in Brazil last year.
Some of the top women’s players even filed a gender discrimination lawsuitagainst Fifa and the Canadian Soccer Association over the decision to hold the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf – an “inferior surface” that posed “unique safety risks”, and one on which the men would never be required to play. Thecase for natural grass was eventually dropped by players frustrated by Fifa and the CSA’s delaying tactics, along with their suggestion that they wouldn’t comply with a court ruling even if the players won.
The problem with sexism in sport isn’t confined to football – the past few weeks have seen similar issues arise at Wimbledon, where Danish fifth seed Caroline Wozniacki pointed out that women get far fewer chances than men to play on the biggest, most prestigious courts. She said:
I would love to play on a big court. The women really haven’t gotten the opportunity here to play on the big courts. You only get one women’s match on Court One and Centre Court. Most of last week it was only one women’s match on Court Two as well. It’s definitely different, that’s all I can say. I think a lot of us women feel like we deserve to play on the big courts in front of a big crowd, as well.”
Wozniacki also had to appeal to reporters to stick to the topic after she was asked questions about an ankle injury suffered by her former fiancé, golfer Rory McIlroy. And while women’s sport often fails to gain anywhere near as much media coverage as men’s, one national paper saw fit to dedicate a whole page to an article titled: “Women score fashion points on the Wimbledon catwalk.”
All this came less than a month after the winners of the women’s Flanders Diamond Tour cycling race found themselves flanked by bikini-clad “podium girls” as they received their medals.
So determined are some to “protect” the male domain of sport from any female invasion that the battle even extends into video games. When EA Sport recently announced it was adding a few optional female teams to its Fifa 16 game, the internet erupted in male outrage and despair. Choice comments included“Absolutely ridiculous”; “Guessing if you play with a female team you won’t be able to park the bus”; “Isn’t female football a joke anyway?”; and my personal favourite: “It’s a man’s sport … women have ruined the earth and now they are ruining Fifa!”
Now that’s an overreaction.