Will 2022 prove to be a definitive year for women in sports?

· by WFS2017

World Football Summit looks at whether 2022 will be a defining year for women in sports and gender equality. This article features as part of the latest edition of WFS Digest, our new insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practises from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.

International Women’s Day arrives in 2022 amidst the general uncertainty of the war in Ukraine, but with a sweeter aftertaste for professional female athletes than in previous years: recent developments like the USWNT settlement in the United States, Linkedin sponsoring the next Women’s European Championship or the WNBA raising $75 million in funding seem to herald a definitive turning point in women’s football and sports in general. To weigh up these post-pandemic mutations with a realistic perspective, we have asked several female members of World Football Summit’s advisory board about the hurdles women must still overcome to become a professional –on and off the pitch– in an industry traditionally dominated by men. 

Ebru Köksal has an experienced portfolio career as Non Executive Director (NED) and consultant for FIFA and UEFA, and has worked with a wide range of organisations across public, private and voluntary sectors. Originally an investment analyst who worked in Wall Street for several years, she moved back to Turkey in 1999 and joined a private equity firm which at that time was exploring a possible investment in Galatasaray.

“The president of the club at the time was my former client, so I was sent to a meeting with him the first day,’ she explains in an interview with WFS Digest. The fund had bought shares in Vasco de Gama before, and thought Galatasaray would be a good prospect as well.’ A couple of months later, the partnership agreement was signed. That same day her second child was born. She had to endure ‘discrimination, prejudice against a young mother with two young kids; I was told by the fund that I couldn’t keep pace anymore, so they were terminating my contract, and I had the option to open a court case or work for Galatasaray as part of the investment plan and work as an interim CFO.”

“Football is not a nine to five job; it is 24/7.” Köksal declared. But, nevertheless, she decided to step outside of her comfort zone and try something new. As she explains, Köksal joined the club as an interim CFO when “entering the magical football industry.” It wasn’t easy: “What could a woman understand about football or managing a top-20 football club in Europe? There was always a question about my knowledge and capability.” Despite this, she ended up moving through the ranks and becoming the club’s CEO, eventually being the first woman elected to the European Club Association’s Executive Board.

Two decades have passed since then, and the world has changed in many fundamental ways; however, women who work in football still experience regular gender discrimination according to many reports. Kanya Keomany, Secretary General at Lao Football Federation, also remembers: “Back in the early days, being underestimated; lack of prioritisation was one of the common challenges I faced for being young and being female in sport management level […] We have to admit that the sports industry is quite gendered.”

“I came to Spain 20 years ago to work in the sports industry after more than 10 years supporting small and medium-sized companies in Argentina,” recalls Iris Córdoba, general manager at the Global Sports Innovation Center powered by Microsoft (GSIC). “The challenges I had to face back when I started in the industry is that women were underrepresented. Event organisers would invite very few women to be on stage and, at best, they would offer me moderating a panel, but never being a speaker.”

Noëlla Coursaris, international model and philanthropist, founder of Malaika, stresses that “discrimination is the norm and has been widely accepted for many years. More women in leadership roles would help to change culture,” an opinion also shared by Isha Johansen, entrepreneur and former president of the Sierra Leone Football Association. She is currently the only female representing African in the FIFA council and said: “Awareness is always the starting point. It must be made clearly obvious to men that gender  discrimination is no longer acceptable and women must be made fully aware of their rights in this regard. And when situations of gender discrimination are identified, they must be acted  upon comprehensively and publicly, sweeping nothing under the carpet.”

All of them agree that the overall situation has improved in the last few years. “It’s been over a decade that we have been speaking about this issue and developing strategies to make sure that women will be seen, their voices will be heard,” says Keomany. “I have seen a lot of positive changes in terms of people’s perspective towards females in football. Many organisations have established campaigns of women empowerment, including more females into senior/important roles, encouraging women into non-traditional jobs, having role models and so on. So to reduce the gender discrimination in sport or any area we need to be consistent and to continue placing more women in charge to help reduce gender-stereotypical thinking.”

Köksal acknowledges the recent news about salaries and sponsorships in the United States and Europe “is a very important turning point, but we have experienced an exponential growth over the last couple of years. This decade has seen a very important growth for women’s football. The NWSL is growing to be one of the best leagues in the world, and actually we’re seeing more fans, more media attention, more investors, more sponsors and more girls than ever wanting to play football. It is a very important ecosystem with female referees, coaches and women working at all levels of the game.”

‘At least now everyone is on the same page: the media, the FA, commercial partners, clubs and fans,’ agrees Córdoba. ‘Now there is an understanding of the importance of building the game, and that is probably thanks to the way attitudes have changed around women: women have more rights, they fight the way they are perceived by society; but that is coming together with a much harsher realisation that there are real longer-term financial and image benefits to backing the women’s game. Maybe it’s a turning point, but there is still a lot of work to do. Finding female CEOs in sportech continues to be a challenge. That is why we at GSIC  have been giving visibility to the women who are part of our ecosystem; it goes without saying that currently 66% of GSIC’s staff are women.’

Education, education, education

Johansen also sees a “rising tide of change and anticipates that women’s football in years to come will look very different.” However, there still is an amazingly low percentage of women students in sports management degrees. What effective measures could increase female access to managerial positions in sports organisations and properties? Johansen says: “I always say that the key to the growth of female representation in the industry is education, and it starts at home and in school. We also need to set inspiring examples so that young girls can see what they can become in the future. We need to show the possibilities, provide more visibility to current female professionals working in sports clubs, leagues, and federations. ​To that end, we also need to increase the number of women working in executive positions, and that can be achieved, among other things, by introducing special policies, reinforcing female   recruitment   and   also   by   conscientisation   of   men   working   in these   kinds   of organisations.”

In Coursaris’ view, the current dilemma is ‘probably impacted by the profile of women’s sport and also how many women are playing. Many managers come from a professional career… We need to provide mentorship when it comes to women taking on management, coaching and business roles within sports […] It’s a time for women to shine and we’re seeing the impact  playing football can have on a micro-level at Malaika through our co-ed football, tennis and other sport programs. Education is key, as I always say! Training and policies need to be established and upheld, and complaints need to be taken seriously to help change things’. 

But in order to work in football, Köksal clarifies: “You don’t need sports management studies. I didn’t have them… It is not a must that the educational side is the only entry point into football. What is most important is obviously for girl and women to feel that they are welcome to work in the industry without any hindrance, blocks, discrimination… They want to be welcomed and included, they want to be a valued member of any team, they want to be part of the inner circle and make sure that they will be given the same kind of growth opportunities and support within their organisations. This requires significant cultural change and transformation in the organisations, which need to be coming from the top. The decision-makers and top-level leaders need to be convinced about the merits of having more inclusive organisations and more diverse senior leadership teams and board compositions. Once they feel that, they will be much more interested and willing to work in the industry.”

This article features as part of the latest edition of WFS Digest, our new insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practises from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.