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Employment Solicitor on Sex Discrimination on and off the pitch

By Principal Lawyer, Employment

Employment Solicitor Harriet Bowtell explains that in a week in which football has already hit the headlines in an unwelcome debate about use of racist language at football grounds, women are now in the firing line.....

Shelby Davis, a female referee at an under 15’s football match in the Wessex League, Hampshire, abandoned the game after she was told by a spectator: "you need testosterone for this game. It’s a man’s game, you need a handbag ref.” The poor 21 year old (one of only three women officiating in the Wessex League) was reportedly in tears. Who wouldn’t be with a child’s father, it has been alleged, shouting sexist abuse at you when you had given up your Sunday to referee his child’s match?  

Nearly 40 years after the introduction of the sex equality legislation, it’s amazing that we are still experiencing such blatant sexual harassment – at the same time, if these are the kinds of attitudes women are faced with, then it’s no wonder so few of them choose to become referees.  

Female football commentators are also still struggling to find equality with their male counterparts. Jacqui Oatley, the first female football commentator on the BBC’s Match of the Day, made her debut in 2007. She was reported last year saying that whilst by now people have got their heads around a woman writing about football, there's still a huge gap in the public accepting women as commentators. She believes that people have an innate prejudice against women giving their views on football. So the prejudice continues off, as well as on, the pitch.  

According to figures from 2011 there were 853 female referees registered with the FA compared with some 26,000 males. This disparity is reflected in the football boardroom where, in 2011, of the 20 Premier League clubs, whilst many had women in senior positions, only 5 had any female directors (with most clubs having at least 4 directors on their board). 

The first woman was appointed to the Football Association’s board only in 2011, bringing the total on the board to 14 at that time. This glass ceiling in football is, of course, reflected in business generally. The Government’s ‘Davies’ report found that as at 1 March 2013 women accounted for 17.3% of all directorships on FTSE 100 boards. Encouragingly this is up from 12.5% in 2010. However, more recent reports suggest that the increase is slowing and the target of 25% in 2015 may not be met.  

Whilst it is positive that more women are involved in football from the pitch level to the board than in the past, this is one industry in particular that has a long way to go to change attitudes and any kind of equality seems a long way off. One organisation who may be encouraging change is Women in Football, a network of professional women working in and around the football industry. They say that they are helping support women who do choose to work in this industry by celebrating women’s achievement and challenging discrimination. Hopefully organisations like this will encourage more women to take up the referee’s flag, the microphone and, not forgetting, the football boots.

By Employment Solicitor Harriet Bowtell.