How women in sport are empowering women in society

The rising popularity of women's football has given the sport the power to tackle gender issues right across society - especially in football-mad countries like Brazil - according to a Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Brazilian football star MartaThe Brazilian football star, Marta, has just been crowned the world’s best female player by Fifa.

This is the sixth time the 32-year-old, who currently plays for the US side Orlando Pride, has received the award, and she used the ceremony as an opportunity to celebrate women's football more broadly.

“This means so much but it is not only about me. It is about my team-mates and women’s football,” she said.

But while it's wonderful to see the star honoured once again - she now has more Fifa awards than either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi - the decision to give her the award has sparked a lively debate in her home country, Brazil, according to Professor David Wood, who is the Principal Investigator on a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project - A Level Playing Field? The Practice and Representation of Women's and Girls' Football in South America.

“Marta is a wonderful footballer and is rightly celebrated for her extraordinary talent,” he told the AHRC from Rio de Janeiro, where he is attending a networking conference.

“I got the news via Twitter and was able to announce it to the conference. But there was immediately a lively debate in the audience - especially as other women players have arguably performed better than Marta this year.

“But also because many people are concerned that the award neglects the team aspect of the sport and does little for women's football more generally, which is in a difficult place in Brazil.”

He says that many people feel that women are not being promoted to senior positions in coaching and administration and this has implications for the place of women in society more broadly.

In 2016 Emily Lima became the first women to coach the Brazilian women's national team, Seleção Feminina. But she was sacked in September 2017 - with many fans feeling she wasn't given a proper chance - and replaced by a man.

“The situation with the national team is part of a much broader debate about support for women's football more generally,” says Professor Wood.

While the women's league does receive some media coverage, it is still far below that of the men's game. And there is a widely-held suspicion that the only reason many teams have a women's squad is that they are required to run one in order to be allowed to play in international competitions.

“There are real problems gaining access to facilities and coaching,” says Professor Wood.

“If a women's game clashes with a men's game, the men get what they need first and the women lose out.

"All of this matters, not just because of the importance of equality in football – and in all sport. But because, in a football-mad country like Brazil, inequality in the football stadium mirrors inequality more broadly.

“Football has played a key role in nation building in countries like Brazil and still has a huge role to play in the construction of national identity,” says Professor Wood.

“The importance of football in Brazil means that the exclusion of women has far reaching implications for women's involvement in Brazilian national life. Their exclusion is mirrored in other areas.”

To counter this A Level Playing Field? is bringing together women from academia, football, the media and other stakeholder groups to explore ways to achieve a reduction in gender inequality through recommending changes in the practice and representation of women’s football, and by using the sport as a popular tool to tackle gender inequality.

The project is being co-led by Professor Silvana Goellner of the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and Dr Verónica Moreira of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (Argentina).

It will explore obstacles to female participation in football - as both players and spectators - as well as the ways in which that participation is mediated via gendered written and visual texts.

As a result, the project could provide new understandings of the role that football - and sport more widely - plays for all citizens of Latin America, especially in relation to development issues around inequality, inclusion and agency.

“We want to bring together academic and non academic perspectives to see what we can learn from each other and how we can better share these experiences,” says Professor Wood.

Professor Wood hopes A Level Playing Field? will identify policy recommendations that will change the ways that women can act, through football, as agents of their physical and emotional wellbeing, and social identities.

“Everybody here gets football,” says Professor Wood. “Everyone understands it. Everyone is a fan. Everyone talks about it.

“Because it is already widely discussed by both men and women we hope to use that debate to raise important issues about gender - and help reduce inequality in the process.”

Additional information

This article was originally published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is available here.

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