Andreea Koenig, a director of French football club Racing Club de Lens, says often in her job she walks into rooms full of hundreds of men. Her 25 years as an investment banker prepared her for this. “It means I have no discomfort whatsoever in a room with 200 men. Like zero. And I have an inbuilt filter for insensitive language. Ninety-nine per cent of the asset managers I used to do business with were men.

Now ought to be a crescendo moment for women working in football. The women’s World Cup, which kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on July 20, is expected to be the highest-profile female football tournament yet. Hannah Dingley became the first woman to manage an English professional men’s first team as she took on the caretaker role at fourth-tier club Forest Green Rovers this month — although she has now been replaced by a male head coach. And more than 50 English clubs have signed up to the Football Association’s Leadership Diversity Code, which among other things sets targets for hiring female coaches, executives and other off-field staff.

But, even as women make more of an impact on the pitch, the people running the men’s and the women’s games from the sidelines and back offices remain overwhelming male. “Everyone says we need more women in the sport, but I haven’t seen it yet, not at a senior level anyway.” says Koenig.

The game’s exact gender imbalance is unclear, says Ebru Köksal, chair of the Women in Football network, because “we don’t know how many women work in football. We have no data on senior management, middle management, no workforce data, period.” Still, she offers some statistics: “Nine per cent of board members at English Premier League clubs are female. At national federations, only 2 per cent of presidents and CEOs are women.”

Football’s best-known female leader is probably still Hannah Waddingham, who plays the fictional owner of AFC Richmond Rebecca Welton in television series Ted Lasso. For 2021-22, one target for signatories of the FA’s diversity code was that 30 per cent of new hires in senior leadership should be women; in the event, the “collective football average” was 17.9 per cent. And that’s in English football, whose gender balance, Köksal notes, is “far” ahead of continental Europe’s.

Hannah Dingley became the first woman to manage an English professional men’s first team as caretaker at fourth-tier club Forest Green Rovers © Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images

Women tend to be siloed in club departments such as human resources, marketing or logistics. They are rarely hired for revenue-generating roles such as chief financial officer, or as coaches, performance analysts and scouts. Few become decision makers. While “around 27 per cent of workers in men’s professional club football are women”, that falls to 14 per cent in the highest pay quartile, wrote Amée Gill of Durham University in 2019.

Lise Klaveness, president of Norway’s football federation, thinks women tend not to seek out low-paid, insecure starter roles in the football industry because they see little prospect of advancement. When she played professionally, some of her male coaches rose to well-paid jobs; the female ones did not. Why would women sacrifice weekends and evenings to this all-consuming industry if they didn’t expect future rewards?

So how to raise female employment in men’s football — where the vast majority of the money and jobs are — as well as the women’s game?

Step one to making football more welcoming to women is to change its culture. “Cultures in these organisations were created long before women were around,” says Yvonne Harrison, Women in Football’s chief executive. In that sense, football resembles the construction industry, or parts of engineering.

Sexist remarks and sexual harassment remain common. Only recently have employers begun punishing offenders. Ajax Amsterdam’s director of football Marc Overmars left last year after sending what the club called a “series of inappropriate messages to several female colleagues”. In February this year the French federation’s president, Noël Le Graët, stepped down after a state inspectorate accused him of mis-steps including “inappropriate behaviour towards women”. And Harrison notes the abuse of Dingley on social media and in radio phone-ins after her appointment: “I felt we’d stepped a little bit back into the 1970s.”

Francesca Whitfield, head of group planning at Manchester United, worries about the public response if she took a high-profile job: “They might think I don’t know as much about football as a male counterpart.”

Francesca Whitfield, head of group planning at Manchester United: ‘They might think I don’t know as much about football as a male counterpart’

Exclusion of women also happens in unintentional ways. “No women will go to a place where it says in the work ad, ‘Are you hungry for . . . ’. The whole industry has been a bit aggressive in tone,” says Klaveness. Nor has it made much allowance for employees with caring responsibilities. Klaveness, who has three children but travelled 200 days last year, raises awareness by sometimes bringing her kids to work events.

Even some of the well-meaning younger male executives taking charge of clubs fail to see these forms of exclusion, partly because they are not being told. Two-thirds of Women in Football’s members said in a survey that they had experienced gender discrimination in football, but only 12 per cent of incidents were reported, and then often dismissed as “banter”. That might change with more women in senior roles.

Another exclusion mechanism is football’s tradition of hiring without advertising jobs. Harrison says: “Women don’t get the same opportunities at finding out about new jobs. They aren’t in these closed networks.” English football’s new online career platform, launched in 2021, with more than 2,600 vacancies posted in the first 18 months, could help change that.

The bigger question, given that organic change has been so slow, is whether football needs hard quotas for hiring women. Most women in the game express wariness of this. “I don’t think quotas are the answer to anything. I’m a competitive person — everyone in football is,” Klaveness says. “Of course you don’t want to work with people who want to be political about gender all the time. It’s exhausting.”

Yet both she and Whitfield can now see the case for quotas albeit only as one of a range of pro-women policies.

Klaveness notes that in 2003, Norway became the first country to set a quota of 40 per cent for women on boards of listed companies. That started an international trend. Once more women enter an industry, their presence becomes unremarkable, she adds. And if one woman fails in football — as male coaches do every day — that won’t be seen to tarnish all women.

But to hire for top jobs, there needs to be a pipeline of women who have gained experience in lesser roles.

Dingley, for example, led a youth academy before she became a manager. “I haven’t just rocked up today and chosen to coach a men’s team,” she remarks.

Football needs to create programmes to fill that pipeline, says Klaveness. “I was the federation’s technical director for four years and I tried to hire female coaches on the men’s youth national sides. Almost nobody applied.”

Norwegian Football Federation president Lise Klaveness speaks to guests during the 47th Uefa Ordinary Congress meeting in April in Lisbon © Carlos Rodrigues/UEFA/Getty Images

Klaveness urges football to cultivate women who in three or five years could become, say, manager of Manchester United’s men’s team or a big club’s sporting director. “If you don’t think that’s possible, why don’t you? This is what we can do in football: we develop people, we develop skills.”

One hopeful aspect is that football traditionally hires ex-players, so today’s high-profile female teams should fill more coaching and backroom roles in future.

Another positive sign is that women who do work in the industry, at least in England, often report good experiences. Seventy-eight per cent of Women in Football’s members say they “feel supported” by their colleagues, and 66 per cent by their employers.

At Manchester United, says Whitfield, “I’m surrounded by men who don’t really see gender. I’ve been pushed forward by men that I’ve worked for. It’s a very level playing field for me.”

Mariela Nisotaki, head of emerging talent at Norwich City, reckons she’s just one of three female scouts working for European men’s clubs. Yet her experiences, she says, have been “more positive than negative”. “People are curious: ‘How are you working in football?’ Maybe they admire you more, because you have done it while being a woman.”

When other women ask for advice about working in football, Nisotaki tells them their timing is good: “There’s a lot of promotion of women at the moment.”

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