New Internationalist

Olympic scale foul: sexism in football

Britain’s Casey Stoney being interviewed in Cardiff. Photo: joncandy under a CC licence.

On Saturday afternoon I sat down to watch Britain’s women’s team thrash Cameroon 3-0 at football. It was a great match;  not only was the quality of play outstanding, there was a noticeable and much welcomed lack of the diving and amateur dramatics often seen in the men’s game.

I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share my appreciation on Twitter and so joined hundreds praising Casey Stoney, Jill Scott and their teammates in qualifying for the quarter finals with still one game to go. Not everyone in the Twittersphere was quite as complimentary.

The top tweet on the subject, retweeted 56 times when I came across it, read, ‘The women’s football Olympians have a kitchen as a changing room.’ Scrolling down I discovered numerous misogynist remarks such as:
‘Children’s football is better than women’s’
‘I’m allowed to say this because I am a girl, women’s football is terrible. I hate it with a passion’
‘Cameroon’s women’s football team is full of some of the ugliest women in the world…’
‘Watching the Olympic women’s football, waiting for someone to score and take their top off…’

Had these people been watching the same game? It was clear that women’s football has become an easy and seemingly acceptable target for both men and women. What was also clear was that, unlike in other sports, the majority of sexist comments about football did not focus on looks or sex. Compare the tweets during the volleyball for example: 
‘If I had to pick something in the Olympics to do, it would probably be one or two of the women’s volleyball teams.’

Why weren’t tweeters commenting that women’s volleyball, badminton or tennis are ‘pathetic’ ‘appalling’ or ‘so funny’? The most obvious explanation is that in Britain we have become socialized to see football as a male sport and so insulting women who ‘attempt’ to play it is fair game. When women start to do well at it, we become simultaneously defensive and offensive.

Volleyball on the other hand isn’t given much attention as a sport, so the women who play it are subjected to the same judgment as any other female – are they good looking enough to be given this air time?

The media have a social responsibility to start giving women’s football as much coverage as men’s. It is the same sport, with the same exciting twists and turns and brilliantly talented players. According to Stylist’s Fair Game campaign, only five per cent of sports media coverage features women.

Men’s football is arguably the most popular sport internationally and in recent years we have seen some players transformed into global superstars. The media make gods out of some of the male team members, with top professionals now as good as getting away with on pitch aggression, violence and racism.

The mainstream media has ensured that the only acceptable place women have in football is hanging off the arm of the Rooneys and Beckhams of the world. Women are only of significance if they are a WAG, or a mistress. If they are top players themselves no one is interested.

Satirical mockumentary Twenty Twelve, which follows a team of people responsible for running the London Olympics, summed it up perfectly when the characters tried to tackle the unpopularity of the women’s game, by planning an advertising campaign that had nothing to do with football.

Currently, women’s sport receives only 0.5 per cent of the total sponsorship income into the sector, whereas men get 62.1 per cent. If this is how they are being treated by the industry, it isn’t really surprising they are considered second-class players by the public.

So let’s commit to kicking sexism out of football, first, by looking within at our own prejudices and second, by targeting the industries that create and fuel them.

Sign the Fair Game petition for equality in sport here.

Comments on Olympic scale foul: sexism in football

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Guy Rocky 31 Jul 12

    Sorry but you are wrong... women are great at many sports.... but womens football is so bad its embarrassing to watch. It IS like watching children play football. and THAT is not sexist. Iit is the truth. If women want to play football, that is fine and great, but don't pretend that it is worth watching. It isn't now and won't be in 50 years. Sorry but thats a fact. If I go to see sport I want to be thrilled and entertaained.

    Here's a question - why are their no women Formula One drivers...?

  2. #2 DuncanArg 31 Jul 12

    I am a big football fan and I agree people shouldn't say that women's football is appalling because I'm sure the standard is very high, although I have not watched more then 1 or 2 matches of women's football ever. However, you can't argue that the media should give the women's game as much coverage as men's because the men's game is infinitely more popular and the quality is immeasurably higher. It would make no sense to have women's football on the tele as much.

  3. #3 Peter L 01 Aug 12

    Saying that women's football is like children's football is sexist. Fundamentally. If you don't like it, fine! I'm sure no-one will be sad to lose your support. But to pigeon-hole an entire sport because of its gender...? Have you ever seen English League 2 football? It is far, far below the standard of the women's football on display at the Olympics, but no-one is taking the time to criticise those male footballers. There is a basic misogynistic response when it comes to football, that it is the domain of men - for example see the response to female referees and commentators from those inside and outside the men's game. And to reference Duncan's point, this response is exactly why we DO need more coverage of women's football - to remove these socially constructed barriers which are ultimately little more than an attempt at the colonialisation of a sport. It's an attempt to redefine football as something inherently masculine, which appeals only to tribalism and not logic (is it logical to criticise male footballers who indulge in play-acting and diving as 'unmanly' and then not praise female footballers for an absence of those traits?).

    I'm not telling anybody what to think, as that misses the point of sport altogether, but please don't imagine that your viewpoints are the only ones with merit. If people decide that they are not interested in women's football then that's fine, but let's at least give them the chance first. The pre-judging (or to put it more simply, prejudice) of women's football tells us far more about gender than it does about sport.

  4. #4 Chris Le Grice 01 Aug 12

    I think it's a shame the way people do feel the necessity to say negative things with a sexist slant. The female players are trying as hard as the men, and should be respected for that.

    I actually don't think the media are to blame. The coverage I have seen of the women's football at the Olympics, including Team GB, has been positive. It's just that, as you say, football in particular is a game famed for its ignorant players and fans (men AND women alike, surprisingly). That's not going to improve quickly, unfortunately.

    The GB team are doing a great job. And I think most people are genuinely pleased and rooting for them.

    However, countering that ignorance by saying they deserve far more money, or coverage, is not necessarily productive. The money, the coverage, all has to come from somewhere, no matter which team we're talking about.

    From what I have seen, the top male games are significantly faster, more powerful and more dramatic than female football. You can still get suspense from a slower, less powerful game, but skill performed at pace is always likely to be more entertaining. Would you rather have seen Dean Saunders at his peak or Thierry Henry? ’Dean who?!’ you might well ask! Show me a female player that can leave me gasping in awe as much as the little fella Messi. Not a lot of people turn up to watch Yeovil Town, because there is more skill on show elsewhere. Does that all make us Yeovilists?! Should Yeovil be getting as much TV coverage and money as Manchester United? It's supply and demand, whether in the male or female game.

    I have a suggestion. One which is practical and should actually make women's football more enjoyable to play, and more enjoyable to watch:

    Men are, on average, taller and more powerful than women. Football pitches and equipment were originally designed for the male game. If one wanted to make women's football more exciting, why not scale the game in line with these physical factors. Make the pitches (or at least line markings) and nets 10% smaller, the ball slightly lighter, and the matches to last 80 mins instead of 90.

    Perhaps draw a few parallels with tennis. Women's major tennis events all have shorter match durations, so this isn't new thinking. Women tennis players are not clamouring for best-of-five matches, so this should not be controversial. And women's rackets are shorter and lighter. Again, nothing controversial there. I actually think the women's tennis game would be more entertaining if they had proportionally smaller courts too, but you can't have everything!

    Many years ago, kids would have to play on full-size pitches, and it was correctly deemed to be bad practice all round. Nowadays they play on scaled-down pitches. It makes sense. It wasn't childist to make the change. Any chance someone could suggest scaling the relevant aspects of the women's game? Surely it would improve.

    I want to watch the best skill, at the fastest pace. I really don't care if that's women's football, or Yeovil Town men's team. However, at present it's not either of those two! (My weakness is that I'd like it to be Newcastle United, but I'll keep dreaming on that score :-)). Hey, and if one day Newcastle United has female players in the team, I'd be happy with that too.

    I don't think any of the comments already posted suggest their opinion to be the only one. I certainly don't believe mine to be.

    Aside from that, diving and acting are always an argument against men's football in general. And it's a fair one. It riles all true sports fans. However, it's not ’unmanly’ to dive or act, it's just unsportsmanlike (or ’unsportspersonlike’, perhaps)). Women who stay on their feet should not be praised; those players - men or women - who dive should be berated, and generally are.

    It's healthy that both your opinions are against those of the ignorant folks out there. Reducing sexism and ignorance in general can only be good. However, sexist as some of the comments may be (and the sexist tones are not necessary), the underlying point they make about the women's game is held by many.

    I hope some practical thought on the matter might be welcome :-)

    Here's to Team GB's female team! (I'd actually rather have them win than the men's team, for all the reasons that have tarnished top male footballers over the years).

  5. #5 Alasdair 01 Aug 12

    Difficult issue. The problem for womens' football is not should it get the same amount of coverage, but will the public watch and pay for the same amount of coverage. If people watch, then the sponsors, news crews, satellite TV companies and all the rest will be there - after all that's what pays for everything in sport.

    On the flip side there are female athletes who become famous and get coverage because they are female. This is not right either, for either the women or the men.

  6. #6 Xanna 01 Aug 12

    Chris – although I agree that in many sports it is necessary to take into consideration physical differences – swimming or rowing for example - I am not sure that football is one of them. Male players seem to differ greatly in stature, with some great players being relatively small. I don’t think this is where the problem is.

    Do you really think that comments like these would stop if the pitch was made smaller? I think the problem runs deeper than that...

    You say that women just aren’t as good at football as men, because they lack the skill and the pace, but would this be the same if football wasn’t socialised to be a male sport? From an early age girls aren’t encouraged to be interested in football and equally the football industry isn’t interested in them. We have no idea what the sport would be like if the same amount of time and money was invested in young women.

    It is interesting that so far all the comments have come from men...

  7. #7 Xanna 01 Aug 12

    Hmm not sure what happened with that comment...

  8. #8 Chris Le Grice 01 Aug 12

    It's not just male rowers and swimmers who benefit from the physical advantages men have over women in speed and strength.

    Up until about the age of 12 children of both sexes actually play football together. Simple reason - up until this age, girls are pretty much physically as tall, strong and fast as boys. After that, boys on average grow taller and get more muscle density than girls.

    This makes playing on large football pitches relatively easier for grown males than for their female counterparts. The more athletic someone is, the better chance they have of demonstrating skill. You make pitches, goals, footballs a bit smaller, the women's game will be faster and more exciting.

    It wont stop these comments in their tracks. But it will make the game more entertaining. And if it's more entertaining, people will start talking more about exciting moments in a game (’Did you see that amazing goal last night!!?’), rather than how dreary the game was compared to the men's game.

    There are good signs for women's football. Loads more girls play football at schools now than they did when I was a child (I don't remember a single one of my Schools offering any girl the chance to play football, but I'd bet they all do now). It will take time for this to filter through.

    As for sexist comments, or any negative comments, Twitter is the best place to find them. Best to stay away :-)

  9. #9 Veronica Bennett 01 Aug 12

    It is everywhere - here in New Zealand we had some of our top womens teams flying to the Olympics in the cattle class, while their male counterpart teams got to be in 1st/Business class - is that blatant sexism or what?!

  10. #10 Chris Le Grice 02 Aug 12

    Veronica - I'm with you on that one. That's crazy! Would love to hear the NZ team organisers justify that one!

  11. #11 texans ticket 02 Aug 12

    I'm a single mom and my 12 yr old child really like to play football. In the beginning, I'm hesitant to allow him to indulge in this in demand sports activity due to the fact of the physical injuries he can get from this sport. Nevertheless, my son had a passion for this sport and shown himself to be one of the best player in their team. Being a mom, all I can do is to assist and guide him entirely, I usually browse in the internet interesting information about football which will help my kid develop his innate capabilities as well as we can get to converse about football regulations and various other matters.

    Great and useful blog post. I had learned something. Thank you. :-)

  12. #12 Alan 02 Aug 12

    Great blog, Xanna! Timely and really important. It's outrageous that women's football is not on an equal footing with men's. But then we know sexism is alive and kicking (excuse the pun) despite some great advances made over the years. The struggle for justice and true equality goes on.

  13. #13 Roy 03 Aug 12

    The politically incorrect truth is that the standard of women's football is terrible, a good pub side could beat them.

    Apart from sports like showjumping (where the relationship with the horse is critical) women's sport is almost always a lower standard - but that's not the main problem with football - the problem is the fact that most young men won't pay to watch a standard they think (sometimes wrongly but often correctly) is no better than them.

    As so few women will watch ANY football and prefer men's football when they do the fact above stuffs women's football.

  14. #14 Aleesha 04 Aug 12

    When reading this blog it remind me of when I had to write a short paper saying why femals should be aloud to Play male sports. When reading this it simple shows that when femals play a sport that is dominated by males that one it is less appreteacated and alot of people don't find it interesting which is sad because femals are as good or even better then males in sports.

  15. #15 Charles Hudson 08 Aug 12

    As a (male) football nut, I agree with most of what is said here. But the writer goes too far in claiming the game is the same quality as the men's. It isn't - it will get there and has made huge strides in getting where it is, particularly given the funding, but it has a long, long way to go. I know it'll get there, not because I'm predisposed to believe so (though I confess I am), but also because of the most compelling evidence to date; the football itself.

    By far the most exciting and unpredictable game in the Olympics thus far was the women's semifinal between Canada and the USA. I was gutted the latter won (another of my prejudices) but the way they did so was both thrilling and memorable. It was a contest full of all the things that make football by far the world's most popular sport: skill, athleticism, strength, fierce competitiveness and excellent tactics. Most women's (and much men's) football couldn't live up to this spectacle. If all women's football was as good as this, the writer would have a point, but this simply is not so.

    Most of the vast number of people who know the game well have long known that professional men's club football long ago surpassed international competitions for quality. There are several reasons for this, but most boil down to politics and the accident of players' birthplaces. Clubs are free to develop whoever the hell they want; Argentina could and would not have invested in Lionel Messi the way that Barcelona did. They can also take on players without thinking about how it will play in the country at large and get rid of them with similar freedom. These factors, combined with the huge money that has poured into the domestic game in the world's best leagues, mean that the best clubs would comfortably beat the best countries most of the time.

    Contrast this with women's football. The only viable national league is in that bastion of sports not made up because they were crap at anything they had to compete for internationally, the USA. Hence, women's international football comfortably exceeds the best domestic competition. Until this changes - and it will, not least because of the success of the women's Olympic competition this year - there is no realistic comparison between the two. Furthermore, arguing that there is will simply alienate the legions of fans - female and male - who adore the game and might otherwise be open to persuasion. It is always a mistake to undermine an argument by overstating it.

    Having said all that, let me repeat; that women's semifinal was the best game in the whole of this year's Olympics. So, here's to a bright future for the women's game.

  16. #16 jane 08 Aug 12

    I am biassed. I find all football incredibly boring. I do not comprehend why people enjoy kicking around what used to be a pig's bladder and I comprehend even less why people enjoy watching it. But each to their own. Not everybody enjoys the activities that I do. I do not comprehend either why people are antagonistic to females playing football, maybe they cannot play as well as the females! And as for physical looks, I thought males had to be ugly, capable of pulling obnoxious faces and ready to have a tantrum to join a football team! That is what the occasional picture on the news seems to show.

  17. #17 uiliam 11 Aug 12

    All the same nonsense is heaped on male footballers, the differences is that the comments regarding their looks come from women and homosexuals, who can't be challenged on television without being declared chauvinist or homophobic.

    Every team is insulted and derided by the supporters of other teams, if Xanna Ward-Dixon can't take the heat, maybe she should get back in the kithcen!

  18. #18 Rob 24 Nov 12

    Let's be totally honest. Football is a man's game. It's good to see women taking part, as it is when men take part in sports dominated by women. However the passion and drama associated with men's football and in particular the Premier League are replicated by no other sport. Not even the Olympic games could provide drama like the English first division has for the past 120 years. Millions of fans (regardless of age, sex, gender, race) across the world join every weekend of the year every year to celebrate Men's football and every four years the Olympics stroll along with the same pompous arrogance and attempt to usurp this and you 'journalists' jump on the bandwagon and have a groan. Yes there is cheating in men's football and there has been hooliganism but its only because it inspires such passion, such drive and determination to win and be successful. Dopers at the Olympics are motivated by greed and selfishness. The up-shot of it is, lets just love Football because every year the majority find extreme enjoyment out of it and the majority can't be wrong in this sort of matter. A couple of other things to think about, how many young men are saved by football from a life of poverty and abuse? I don't see any other sport offering as much opportunity as the national game. Particularly sports that are so motivated by class distinction and mutually exclusive as most of this countries rowing clubs are. Football is open about its problems and tries to combat them, the Olympics cover up stories of dopers, cheats, childish losers and drunkard athletes with bright happy stories of 'sportsmanship'. If ever you doubt men's footballs drama and passion then just remember, 2001, England vs Greece, 90th min, 2-1 to greece, step up David Beckham or 2012 and Manchester City's dramatic title victory. Men's Football is an incredible spectacle and it optimizes sport. Deal with it.

  19. #19 Rob 24 Nov 12

    Also let's remember the fact that quite often these comments are taken out of context, from dark humor and banter (that most would find un-funny admittedly) to real, processed social comments. Take them as they are, use the thing in between your ears. Twitter is not the forum for deep social thought.... the pub is

  20. #20 Herp Derpenstein 08 Jan 13

    I think it's rather patronising to pretend women's football is something that it's clearly not. Watching the olympic players trying to control the ball was for the most part like watching Bambi on Ice, and the goalkeeping is just horrific.

    I'm all for more girls playing football and the infrastructure being put in place to let them develop into athletic and skillful players that could one day sustain a domestic league and cup setup that would be worthy of attention. But that's not going to happen if we keep dancing around the very obvious fact that women's football is shit.

  21. #21 Billy 19 Jan 13

    Your assertion that ’The media have a social responsibility to start giving women’s football as much coverage as men’s.’ is laughable. Does the Conference South get the same coverage as the Premier League? When was the last time you saw a Ryman league Division 1 South side on TV? When was the last time The Grauniad printed a match report from the Huddersfield and District Works and Combination League Division 2? Were you even aware that league existed?

    Why is it acceptable to the crusading, morally superior feminist types to ignore those levels of football completely whilst moaning at the lack of coverage the women get? Surely you realise the women's game in this country gets little coverage because, like the Yorkshire Amateur League Division 5, there is no appetite for it. If nobody cares then there can be no justification spending money on print/broadcast.

    In the same vain, your sponsorship stats, whilst mildly interesting in an ’it's nice to put a figure on it’ kind of way, are utterly irrelevant. Sponsors pay money for the team to display their logo. Women's football has little interest. Little interest equates to no TV and low attendances. Little TV and low attendances will never be as worthwhile to sponsors as the global coverage a Premier League Team gets. Simple econimics dictates that having your logo visible worldwide for 90 minutes is worth more for your business than having it visible to those in the stadium provided they are close enough to the pitch to see it and the players don't turn their backs.

    Frankly, all that said, I find your ignorance of these economic factors and assertion that women deserve more simply because they are women far more sexist than any complaints on how bad women's football is.

  22. #22 dylan terreri, i 25 Jan 14

    i must say ’thank you’ to a few gyms around pittsburgh, as well as the whole country, just for the inspiration for another parody to feature at jagged little dyl's website of parody,

    after searching the internet and trying to find a gym to join (including snap fitness, pure athletex, the rose e. schneider ymca), after seeing all of these pictures of members of the shorter/smaller/weaker/less hungry/less horny and inferior gender representing a gym that should be aiming to make clients STRONGER than a little pipsqueak woman, i thought about how women are being marketed as strong. i thought of how gays are being marketed as role-models whose senses of gender-identity are A-OK, and i thought of how negroes are being marketed as role-models whose race isn't dominant in jail-houses. i thought of little females' jealousy/spite of mens' place in the world, of gays' jealousy/spite of straights' place in the world, and of lucifer's jealousy/spite of god's place in the afterlife.

    after thinking of the wannabees known either as women or as gays or as blacks, i thought of how life on earth is just like heaven was for lucifer (before he was kicked out of heaven for being a wannabee), so i started to parody ’just like heaven’ by the cure.

    oh, please - oh, please - oh, please now, please, do that trick,
    the one that makes me deemed as big,
    the one that makes me masculine
    ooh, my arms aren't packed with strength
    oh, please, now, just do it
    get guys' noggins moved til broads are said
    to be as great as dudes
    to have a strength that's brute

    pictures spawning fibs of gen...der - give us greatness in their heads
    and deem us brawny with web-pages now, and make us bold
    i am just a wannabee masc'line, i won't be ever told
    that i'm no muscle-dude, that i am just a womb

    womb, soft and homey
    womb, often yolky
    womb, made for eggs and
    dairy with our cleavage open
    milk into a bottle, we're something obscene
    nothing like he

    may lies kick us into shape, a tough man seen in feeble dames
    our wombs and milk and lesser strength, please mold and redefine
    with power, yes, we'll vogue and pose and own the love of soci'ty
    they'll know that only girls have mus...cle, now it's seen on magazines

    wombs, lost in envy
    wombs, aren't the best here
    wombs, just like satan

    parody (C) 2014,

  23. #23 JS 20 Feb 14

    I think the author needs to research what the word 'misogyny' means.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Blogs

New Internationalist hosts several different blogs, from the Editor's Blog to the Majority World Blog, the Gaza Blog to the Books Blog

New Internationalist Blogs