Lack of women in management, coaching betrays England’s tough talk on sexism

Chicks. Where will they stop? I mean, we gave them the vote and it’s like the floodgates opened. They’re politicians, doctors, CEOs, train drivers, astronauts. What next? Soccer coaches?

Not remotely likely; not at the top levels of English soccer, anyway. Sure, women, we’ll let you run the country and defend us in wars, but manage a Premier League club? Don’t think so, darling.

Sunday, March 8 is International Women’s Day, but it’s never really women’s day in English soccer. English soccer sees Sheryl Sandberg’s book and says: “Lean In … so we can see your breasts more clearly, love!”

But sexism is currently at the top of the news agenda after video from earlier this season emerged of Manchester United and Arsenal fans directing abuse at Chelsea’s doctor, Eva Carneiro. Chants and shouts included the venerable standard “get your tits out for the lads” and the more contemporary “show us where you piss from, you slag.”

MORE: Has soccer finally started caring about sexism?

One in 10 EPL fans in stadiums is now from minority backgrounds, according to the league’s figures, and in recent years, English soccer has become more vigilant at detecting and dealing with in-arena racist abuse, There’s better staff training and encouragement for fans to report those incidents, yet when it comes to providing a non-hostile, or even non-judgmental, atmosphere for women — who now make up a quarter of EPL match-goers (not to mention the 13 percent of fans who are children) — the Carneiro abuse suggests the sport has some way to go.

Nor are there serious consequences for offenders, as there is with racist abuse. We never hear about soccer’s authorities punishing clubs for sexist behavior in the stands, or police devoting resources to catching sexists.Club Atletico de Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Semi Final

Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images.

The Carneiro incidents should be seen in the context of English soccer fandom’s insult culture, a “banter” tornado that swirls up anything different that comes into its path (anything that is not an intellectually-limited white male who supports the same team, essentially). Were any of these fans to actually visit Dr. Carneiro’s office for a medical appointment, one imagines, they would not ask her to “get her tits out.” But when she’s walking past them in a stadium and wearing Chelsea colors? It’s OK.

As such, sexism is one minority-targeting weapon in the banter arsenal, along with racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism and basic callousness. It’s a “bit of fun” for the perpetrators and sometimes even a warped attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Because, who knows, maybe she’ll run off to the locker room and cry like a girl, and the next time John Terry needs treatment she won’t be there to help and his leg might fall off.

Nor is this mentality limited to fans, as last year’s text-message scandal involving former Cardiff and current Wigan manager Malky Mackay showed. The messages are essentially a full house of the above banter topics.

In 2011, sexism actually took down two of Britain’s best-known soccer broadcasters, Richard Keys and Andy Gray, but only for a few weeks. After leaving Sky Sports, the duo quickly resurfaced on the radio.

Norwich City v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images.

Carneiro stands out because there are so few women sitting on the bench on matchdays, just as assistant referee Sian Massey (above), also a target of abuse, stands out as something different. If this is the product of an overwhelmingly male-dominated culture, we should ask why soccer in 2015 is still so male-dominated?

A survey last year for the Women in Football group found two-thirds of women in the sport had witnessed sexism in the workplace. True, marginalization of women at work is a general problem, with a report last year finding that women only occupy 21 percent of senior roles in Britain’s top 100 companies. But relative to other professions, soccer is extraordinarily meritocratic. Incompetent people don’t last long.

It is so competitive that clubs will do almost anything to gain an advantage over rivals. Plenty of resources are devoted to finding marginal gains. Yet the potential contributions of 51 percent of the general population, some of whom surely could be highly talented coaches, medical staff and general managers, are ignored or dismissed.

We may accept that due to physical differences, women and men won’t play on the same teams at the professional level. But that doesn’t explain why there are so few females in other roles, including as reporters. It wasn’t until 2007 that the BBC’s flagship EPL highlights program, Match of the Day, had its first female commentator. Match of the Day has been on air since 1964.

Karren Brady

Photos: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

When you read interviews with women who’ve taken prominent roles in the sport, they frequently refer to the need to be thick-skinned, to ignore the comments, the attention, the jokes. The culture isn’t changing to accommodate them; often it seems the other way round. West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady (above) still seems like a pioneer, an outlier, an exception – yet it’s 22 years since she became managing director of Birmingham City.

A few years back, when her stock was high, it was suggested that former England women’s team manager Hope Powell could one day manage a men’s team, but nothing ever materialized, not even at the lower levels of the pyramid.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of opportunities given women as top-level coaches has also had trouble getting traction in the women’s game, even here the U.S. Though the U.S. national team features a female head coach (Jill Ellis), only one of nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, the Seattle Reign (with Laura Harvey) is coached by a woman. Of 28 assistant coaches, five are female. No one seriously suggests that the best female players have anything to teach men about the sport, yet there’s plenty of room in the women’s game for male coaches who achieved nothing as players.

Second-tier French club Clermont became European pioneers last year, though Helena Costa quit on the morning of her first day last June after feeling she was nothing more than a puppet in a publicity stunt. She was replaced by Corinne Diacre, a former France international who’s still in charge, though the club is near the foot of Ligue 2.

But there’s no sense that Diacre is anything but a novelty, no indication that a leading English club plans to follow suit. If as low-profile a role as a club doctor can be subjected to abuse, imagine what it would be like if a woman ever gave orders from the technical area?

So on International Women’s Day, as we think about a sport that likes to champion its potential as a vehicle for inclusivity, equality and tolerance, it doesn’t seem absurd to ask: Are we going to see a female Catholic priest before we see a female manager in the EPL?

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