Football helps tackle gender inequality
The rising popularity of women's football has given the sport the power to tackle gender issues across society - especially in countries like Brazil where football is one of the most important elements of the country's culture - according to a major research project to tackle gender inequality in South America.
UK Research and Innovation’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded A Level Playing Field? The Practice and Representation of Women’s and Girls’ Football in South America. The project is part of the Global Challenges Research Fund, and focuses on the experience of women and girls through football in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil.
View of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazilian football star Marta Vieira da Silva has recently been crowned the world’s best female payer by Fifa, the sixth time the 32-year-old has received the award. The win sparked a lively debate in her home country, according to the project lead Professor David Wood
“Marta is a wonderful footballer and is rightly celebrated for her extraordinary talent,” he told the AHRC from a networking conference in Rio de Janeiro.
“I got the news via Twitter and was able to announce it to the conference. But there was immediately a lively debate in the audience - especially as other women players have arguably performed better than Marta this year. But also because many people are concerned that the award neglects the team aspect of the sport and does little for women's football more generally, which is in a difficult place in Brazil.”
He says that many people feel that women are not being promoted to senior positions in coaching and administration and this has implications for the place of women in society more broadly.
In 2016 Emily Lima became the first women to coach the Brazilian women's national team, Seleção Feminina. But she was sacked in September 2017 - with many fans feeling she wasn't given a proper chance - and replaced by a man.
“The situation with the national team is part of a much broader debate about support for women's football more generally,” says Professor Wood.
While the women's league does receive some media coverage, it is still far below that of the men's game. And there is a widely-held suspicion that the only reason many teams have a women's squad is that they are required to run one in order to be allowed to play in international competitions.
“There are real problems gaining access to facilities and coaching,” says Professor Wood. “If a women's game clashes with a men's game, the men get what they need first and the women lose out.”
In a country such as Brazil where football is such a strong element of society and culture, inequality in the football stadium mirrors inequality more broadly.
“Football has played a key role in nation building in countries like Brazil and still has a huge role to play in the construction of national identity,” says Professor Wood. “The importance of football in Brazil means that the exclusion of women has far reaching implications for women's involvement in Brazilian national life. Their exclusion is mirrored in other areas.”
To counter this, A Level Playing Field? brings together academics, players, journalists and other stakeholders to explore ways to achieve a reduction in gender inequality through recommending changes in the practice and representation of women’s football, and use the sport as a popular tool to tackle gender inequality.
The project will explore obstacles to female participation in football - as both players and spectators - as well as the ways in which that participation is mediated via gendered written and visual texts.
As a result, it will provide new understandings of the role that football - and sport more widely - plays for all citizens of Latin America, especially in relation to development issues around inequality, inclusion and agency.
“We want to bring together academic and non academic perspectives to see what we can learn from each other and how we can better share these experiences,” says Professor Wood.
Professor Wood hopes A Level Playing Field? will identify policy recommendations that will change the ways that women can act, through football, as agents of their physical and emotional wellbeing, and social identities.
“Everybody here gets football,” says Professor Wood. “Everyone understands it. Everyone is a fan. Everyone talks about it. Because it is already widely discussed by both men and women we hope to use that debate to raise important issues about gender - and help reduce inequality in the process.”
AHRC funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects from history and archaeology to philosophy and languages. It is one of the nine organisations that makes up UK Research and Innovation.