There is no doubt that the exploits of the England football team at the Women’s World Cup in Canada this summer grabbed the attention of a nation and kick-started a popular discussion about gender discrepancies and attitudes both within sport and in society at large. The BBC’s coverage was the most comprehensive of any all-female sporting event in recent times and interspersed commentary and analysis with a coordinated marketing campaign to promote the women’s game.

However, the most effective means of showcasing the sport was the team’s on-field performances, which displayed a refreshing approach to football that many fans would like to see permeate the men’s game. The manner in which manager Mark Sampson, captain Steph Houghton and the 23-person squad represented the nation is something of which the public appears to be rightly proud.

The sporting gender debate

Fara_Williams_England_Ladies_v_Montenegro_5_4_2014_377

Liverpool and England midfielder Fara Williams (image, and cover image, courtesy of James Boyes via wikimedia commons)

Like Wimbledon, which also seems to spark an annual national discourse on gender equality, many have commented on the huge disparities between what the Lionesses earn compared with their male counterparts. Had they won the tournament (they were knocked out at the semi-final stage before winning a play-off to secure third place), they would have received a bonus of £35,000, compared to the £350,000 the England men’s team were promised ahead of the Brazil campaign in 2014.

Similar shortcomings in wages for women can be found across the entire UK football industry. Liverpool Football Club’s Fara Williams, who has 145 England caps and has scored 46 goals for her country (including three in this summer’s tournament), can expect to earn in the region of £50,000 a year, including her club contract and endorsements. Meanwhile Steven Gerrard, who plays in the same position as Williams at Liverpool and has scored 21 times for England and received 114 caps, earned £180,000 per week at the peak of his career. This means that Williams, on average, earns 5.3 percent of what Gerrard does.

With the women’s game having only recently gone fully professional domestically with advent of the Women’s Super League (WSL), England’s women receive a base salary of £21,012 a year from the FA, while according to Deloitte’s annual review of football finance, the average male Premier League player earned £1.6 million last season.

Commercial power

Many employment professionals have been quick to comment on the obvious disparity. Peter Mooney, head of consultancy at employment law experts ELAS, says: “If it was any other industry, this pay gap would be seen as unacceptable. From an employment law perspective, all wage gaps must be justifiable.”

However, there is little doubt that the balance between male and female sports professionals will not be redressed primarily by employment legislation, but by participation and cultural acceptance. The commercial industry of men’s football dwarfs the female game through its popularity and the fact that the supply has still yet to outweigh the demand. In short, if as many people played women’s football as men’s, and went to as many WSL games as attended a match in the Premier League, Fara Williams and Steven Gerrard would arguably be paid the same. Manchester United’s average gate last season was 75,335, whilst the highest ever recorded attendance in the WSL (coming this year at Notts County) is 2,057.

Speaking live on the BBC, former men’s England international Trevor Sinclair said, “We need to get more people supporting women’s football and start up academies for young girls to play football. Hopefully in ten years we will have players in the England team that have been inspired to play the game by what they have seen in Canada this month.”

Peter Mooney believes the Football Association (FA), the game’s governing body for both men’s and women’s football, has a vital role to play.

“A technicality clause known as material difference means that the gender pay gap goes unquestioned in the football industry,” Mooney conceded, “Material difference refers to the potential sponsorship opportunities outside the game being far greater in men’s football. Ultimately it is only the FA who has the power to level the playing field so to speak.”

Work still to do to education and change attitudes

Mooney is right to cite the FA as crucial, yet the vital role they must play in growing the women’s game was undermined on the women’s return to England with a tweet that caused widespread offence and betrayed the existence of outdated attitudes to female sport.

england tweet

The tweet, clearly intended to promote the team’s achievements in Canada, suggested that their World Cup campaign constituted a break from their traditional roles as mothers, partners and daughters. Misguided and not malicious or intentionally discriminatory, nonetheless the message was held to represent an establishment that has still not adjusted to view of women on an equal footing with their male counterparts. No England men’s team has ever returned from a tournament to a message suggesting that they could now return to their primary roles as husbands, partners and sons!

This is, in the minds of many, symptomatic of a culture of discrimination that must be reformed for women to achieve the same status as men in sport; something that could be applied to many other industries and sectors in which women are still underrepresented, under-remunerated and undervalued.

Whilst sport is not often representative of UK business, there are surely huge parallels between the discrimination still faced by Steph Houghton and co and the many millions of women working to achieve parity of opportunity in industries across the UK from medicine and science to banking and law. Governments steps to force companies to publish pay discrepancies announced in the Queen’s Speech in June are surely welcome but, if the FA’s tweet is an indicator of established attitudes, there is still a huge amount of work to be done.