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A 'new age' for women's football

This summer's world cup will arrive at the best time in history for women's football both in terms of its public profile and media coverage, according to Dr. Stacey Pope, Associate Professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University.

Dr Pope has long been interested in issues of gender and sport, has published widely on the topic of women’s sports fandom as well as leading a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project on the topic.

She argues that the 2015 World Cup marked a tipping point in the coverage of women's sport and began a move away from institutional sexism towards a 'new age' of media representation, with a shift towards greater gender equality.  

Fran Kirby of England Women's takes on Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian of USA Women's.

“Before this point women’s experiences as sports fans and athletes were usually largely marginalised,” she says. “There was a lot of deeply embedded institutional sexism in sports reporting, both broadcast and print. But that is starting to change.”

This gradual shift first began in 2011 just as media coverage of women's sport hit a new low when Sky Sports reporters Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sacked for making sexist comments, and the BBC announced its Sports Personality of the Year award – with no female nominations.

“But at the same time, the 2011 Women's World Cup saw female teams playing to packed out stadia televised across the globe, and there was the launch of the FA Women's Super League in March that year,” says Dr Pope. “I think those two factors came together: the public appalled reaction to the media's sexism and a growing appreciation of women in sport.”

These developments also coincided with changes in the perceptions of women’s sport more generally. The London 2012 Olympics inspired a new focus on women athletes, which led to a rise in the profile of women in sport.

“Our research on the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup has demonstrated for the first time a situation where women were not only reported on frequently for the duration of the tournament – and not completely invisible, as usual – but the reporting was positive, and focused on the sporting skill of the players and the achievements of the England women’s team,” says Dr Pope.

Female players were considered equal to their male counterparts, demonstrating a positive shift in media representations of women’s football.

In addition, the national importance attached to the success of the England women’s team is illustrated by how the team were regularly compared to successful men’s teams, especially from the 1966 and 1990 World Cup Finals.

“We argue such comparisons can help to move away from the situation where men's and women's football are seen as separate, with men's football being the 'real' version and women’s football an inferior version of this,” says Dr Pope.

“In UK media reporting, ‘football’ is assumed to be men’s football whereas the women’s game is reported as ‘women’s football’. Similarly, when the men’s national team compete they are referred to universally as ‘England’ without the need for gender identification. This also serves to reinforce men’s football as ‘real’ sport and demotes the women’s game to ‘other’. But the term ‘Lionesses’ which was applied to the England women’s team and used in all newspapers in our study is one way of challenging this. This is also quite a strong, empowering term and represents a sense of national identity for the women’s team.”

But the institutional blindness to women in sport is still reflected in the academic literature, with many existing studies on sports fans focusing exclusively on men – something Dr Pope hopes to change.

“Much of my work to date has focused upon addressing this dearth of research on female sports fans experiences in contemporary society,” she says.

As part of her AHRC-funded study Dr Pope will be focusing on women’s experiences as fans from the 1950s to the present day.

“I use the city of Newcastle as a case study site for this historical research and this regional focus is important; this city is generally considered to be a ‘hotbed’ of football in the UK and arguably the North East is historically more male dominated than other areas of England with a strong emphasis upon masculinity in sport,” she says.

The project will address a number of areas including: revealing the ‘hidden history’ of female fans who attended matches from the 1950s onwards; addressing how sports fandom is important for community heritage and local identities; as well as mapping wider changes in women’s lives and how these have impacted upon their access to the football stadium – a space which has traditionally been male dominated.

The project will also be undertaking oral history interviews with fans of the England national team.

“We are really looking forward to seeing what happens this summer with coverage of the World Cup,” says Dr Pope.

“I really do hope we see a continuation of the trends we first identified at the 2015 World Cup.

“We would expect this momentum to continue – and we will be taking a big step backwards if it doesn't.”

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