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Tables are turning on sexism in football – but not fast enough

Shelly Provan
·6-min read
Southampton FC Women celebrate a victory (Shelly Provan)
Southampton FC Women celebrate a victory (Shelly Provan)

Greg Clarke’s recent resignation as FA chairman – for insulting just about everyone, including black people, gay people and women – signifies just how far we have to go before the beautiful game can become truly inclusive.

Despite all the social progress that has been made, as a professional footballer I know only too well how barriers to entry are seeded.

I grew up in a cul-de-sac where boys my age played football in the street every day. Watching my dad play every Saturday for the local football team also stoked my curiosity and passion for the game.

It’s true that my mum at first preferred that I took up ballet and tap dancing classes instead. But I resisted in a way that only a child could – screaming and shouting the place down. My grandparents bought me my first football boots when my mum refused. That was a seminal moment for me. I saw it as an opportunity to express and translate this passion onto the pitch, pushing myself to see how much I could achieve.

During my career, I’ve taken part in two European championships and a World Cup at U19 level. I’ve also represented Great Britain at the World University Games. But my proudest moment by far is leading the team out as captain of Southampton (my home team) with my children as mascots.

The biggest obstacle I haven’t been able to overcome, however, is my ability to commit to football full time and rely on it as my sole source of income. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to play for teams full time, but it hasn’t been financially viable.

Women’s football has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of player participation and general interest in the sport. Crowds are bigger and more money is being put into players’ wages. But so much more needs to be done for the game to be respected on the same level as men’s football. Part of that progress is stymied by both men and women taking an archaic, chauvinistic point of view. Social media is partly responsible. We also need more women employed in all areas of football for change to happen quickly and effect a meaningful perception shift.

The likes of Alex Scott and Karen Carney are fantastic commentators and presenters; Emma Hayes and Casey Stoney are paving the way in management, demonstrating superior technical knowledge and an aptitude for managing a squad of very talented international players to great effect. But we need more of these trailblazers to inspire talent at the grassroots.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, Evie, Southampton FC provided vital support, so that I could continue playing football. It helps that those involved in the club – male and female – can empathise with these pressures and create a system that supports new parents rather than excludes them. When I injured my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), they invited the whole family to Ireland on their pre-season tour so I could get the rehab I needed just nine days after my operation. This support should be the same at all clubs, enabling women to continue their careers post childbirth.

You only have to look outside of football to see how women’s careers have faltered because they’ve started a family. It can be tantamount to career suicide. Until businesses and organisations stop treating parental leave as “cutting women favours” and understand that it’s about retention and acquisition of talent, we will always see the quest for parity fall short of the ideal, no matter the industry or sector.

Today, girls playing football in mixed squads are no longer a rare sight. A new standard of “normal” is being set. That is massive progression from when I first started playing. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent or assume that the job is done.

Greg Clarke blaming the lack of women goalkeepers on girls not liking the ball being kicked at them is an unfounded claim; a lazy sexist trope that does nothing to elevate respect for women’s football, nor encourage talent at the grassroots. It’s attitudes like this, from those in a position of power, that we must fight.

While my success in football was largely catalysed by my passion for the sport, by my ability to resist conforming to what girls should be, act or look like, and by a stubborn determination to just achieve, there must be plenty of young girls out there who haven’t realised they have a talent for football because they’re put off from entering the sport in the first place.

Working with a children’s publisher to produce its latest picture book – My Mummy Is A Footballer – is, I think, an important step in ensuring young horizons are broadened. What an injustice we’re doing to our kids if we tell them they can’t pursue a passion because they’re the wrong sex.

When he was four years old, my son said something that made me laugh when I asked him if he fancied playing football when he was older. “No, Mummy, football is for girls!” he exclaimed. How the tables have turned. As parents, educators and role models, we have to be really careful to ensure that we don’t restrict young dreams because of our own unconscious biases. It’s too easy to do. Football is for all.

My husband does get a little flack sometimes for being a footballer’s husband. What’s it like to have a wife who is better than you at football? How do you feel having to cook the roast on a Sunday while your wife plays football? These are just some of the questions asked of him. While all said in jest, it still comes from a place of incredulity. Until women’s football becomes fully “normalised” as a professional sport, it will never garner the respect it fully deserves.

I’m keen for my children to be involved in sport in some way, not least because it teaches us lessons that are transferrable in life – no matter what we do or what career path we decide to tread. We can learn so much about winning and losing well; about determination and mindset; about pushing against fears and channelling this energy to reach the outer boundaries of personal achievement.

Shelly Provan is a Southampton FC Women player and PE teacher at The Romsey School. You can support the crowdfunding campaign for My Mummy Is A Footballer (Butterfly Books) via crowdfunder.co.uk/my-mummy-is-a-footballer

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