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Women enjoying an England football match.

The success of the England women’s football team in the European Championships has highlighted the positive fan culture that exists in the women’s game. Dr Stephen Burrell from our Department of Sociology explores how this could bring about change among men.

I have loved football since I was a child. As an Aston Villa fan, this has rarely involved much in the way of success, but that has never really mattered. What matters most is the ways in which football is able to bring people together and foster a shared sense of elation, identity and community.  

But following it is something I find increasingly difficult to do – at least when it comes to men’s football – as it becomes ever more saturated with greed, exemplified by the current men’s World Cup in Qatar.  

It is also still not an equally welcoming space for everyone – especially for people who aren’t white heterosexual men like me. And football often offers unhealthy models of manhood, not least at the top of the game, among the wealthy, powerful men who dominate the sport’s governing bodies (although there are positive counters to this too, such as the powerful silence of the Iranian players in Qatar during their national anthem, in solidarity with the protests for women’s rights at home). 

The success of the Lionesses 

However, watching the England women’s team stride joyously through the European Championships this summer instilled renewed faith and optimism in the game for me, as it did for many others.  

The Lionesses, and women’s football more broadly, feel very distinct from the toxicity pervading many aspects of the men’s game. This isn’t because women are ‘naturally’ just ‘nicer’ than men. It’s because it hasn’t been infected to anywhere near the same extent with profit-seeking (which is itself a symptom of gender inequality).  

Because women actively engaging in sport is still often perceived as defying expectations of femininity, women’s football has also been able to foster a more inclusive environment in many ways, with LGBTQ+ players feeling more able to speak out for example. 

Knocking down gender barriers 

Given the influence of sport on our culture, the surge of interest in women’s football in the wake of England’s success could have significant ramifications for gender equality. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be on football itself – many clubs have seen attendance records broken this season, and there has been a sizable increase in interest in playing among girls and women. Yet the chasm with men’s football remains huge when it comes to things like media coverage and financial investment.  

One area less discussed however is the potential impact on men. Women’s sport breaks down gendered barriers in a number of ways. It makes women the active agents – the people front and centre of our attention, whose actions we are following and whose stories are being told, with all their ups and downs.  

Supporting women and girls in arenas such as football could thus have transformative effects for men. It means that for once, it’s not about us, and we are taking an ancillary role rather than leading – but we can still be interested in it, and help to promote it.  

On the one hand, this doesn’t sound like a big deal – supporting from the side-lines is pretty easy to do, and doesn’t involve losing anything. Yet on the other, it challenges one of the patriarchal cornerstones of our society – that men are the heroes, the actors we orient ourselves around, the default (for example, when we say ‘women’s football’, but just ‘football’ for men). 

Gender equality in sport 

So perhaps it is unsurprising that there is backlash among some towards the rise of women’s sport. There should be nothing scary about men sharing societal narratives and attention more equally with women, yet some may feel threatened by the prospect of a world in which manhood is no longer constantly the norm. And perhaps especially in settings such as football, which continues to be perceived as a central bastion of masculine identity. 

There may be a range of reasons why men start following women’s football. Some may be motivated by a commitment to gender equality. Others may do so because they are keen for their daughters to have an opportunity to get involved. Many may not even think about it in these terms, and simply enjoy watching it. However, the notion persists that boys and men just aren’t interested in women’s stories, be that in sport, books, film, or other aspects of our culture.  

Yet when they do take an interest in women’s lives, for reasons which are not sexual or romantic, it is often assumed that there is something slightly…weird about them. We are thus not giving boys enough opportunities to enjoy women’s stories, free from judgement. Meanwhile, women and girls are expected to consume narratives about men with relish all the time, without this ever considered unusual. 

Gender-based violence 

So what does this have to do with violence against women and girls? Everything.  

This violence is built upon the idea that women are worth less than men. That men have the right to treat women how we want, because we are somehow ‘above’ them. Sport plays a significant role in influencing ideas about power and who should have it, with athletes seen as some of the most impressive and desirable people in society.  

Perhaps if we treat women’s stories as worth paying attention to in settings such as sport, we will start taking their voices more seriously elsewhere too, such as when they come forward to report abuse. Ending gender-based violence requires us to create a society where women and girls are valued as much as men and boys within all aspects of our culture, including sport. 

It’s also important to recognise that sports cultures can sometimes help to normalise and encourage aggressive and dominating behaviours among boys and men, and thus contribute to them seeing violence as something natural and desirable. However, this is not something inevitable; sport can also teach quite different values, such as teamwork, connection and solidarity.  

Men as allies 

None of the qualities we cherish in sport are limited to one gender; women should be able to pursue everything we love about sport too, and be celebrated for that just as men are. And if we feel uncomfortable or unwilling to do that, perhaps we should be asking ourselves why that is.  

If men and boys want to live in a more equal, fair and violence-free society, then we have to play a more active role in supporting the advancement of women and girls in all spheres of life, as allies. This applies to the culture we enjoy, such as our favourite football teams, authors or film-makers – and it applies to our friends, family members and colleagues, in the same ways we help our male peers to prosper without even thinking about it.  

Sometimes it may mean taking a back seat and cheering from the side-lines, rather than always being the ones in charge. But as we can see with supporting the Lionesses, there is so much joy to be found in this role too. 

Find out more 

  • This article is re-published with permission from White Ribbon 
  • Follow Dr Stephen Burrell on Twitter 
  • Listen to Stephen hosts the NowandMen podcast which features conversations about masculinity, gender equality and the prevention of violence against women.