Improving working conditions for female football players requires a change in culture
The Lionesses’ Euro 2022 win at Wembley in the summer was not only the culmination of a tournament in which England dominated at every stage, but of the commitment and drive of so many in the game for so many years, from the grassroots to the elite levels of the sport.
Over the last decade, and especially in the last few years, we have seen huge increases in attendances, viewing figures, participation, and sponsorships. As Karen Carney’s review into the game collects evidence for a report to be published next year, it is clear that a sustainable future for the infrastructure of the game is certainly achievable.
What we rarely talk about is the experience of the players in the sport. Toni Duggan’s recent intervention on her experience of pregnancy as a professional footballer has started a debate that is not only necessary, but extremely overdue. The news about Beth Mead’s ACL injury reminds us of the necessity of more funding being put into research of women’s physiology.
In instances of players becoming pregnant, processes are far from clear
In a recent interview, Duggan spoke on the difficulties she has experienced as a footballer who has become pregnant. She revealed that in the absence of set procedures – referring to the game in general, rather than just at Everton, who have been extremely supportive on the matter – she found it an extremely difficult situation to handle, explaining that with injuries there is a set process, but in instances of players becoming pregnant processes are far from clear.
I was proud to take the opportunity earlier this year to announce a change in footballers’ contracts that was agreed by the PFA and the FA, allowing for 100 per cent of wages and remuneration during the first 14 weeks of maternity leave. Despite these changes, Duggan’s experience shows that we are not quite there yet. The change has undoubtedly improved working conditions for female players, but this milestone for female athlete’s rights must be backed up by a change in culture too.
Pregnancy is not the only area where the experience of women playing football is altogether different to the men’s game. Women footballers are around five times more likely to suffer from ACL injuries than men, and therefore are more likely to experience subsequent career-lasting ACL issues as a result. Aside from the clear gulf in the experiences of male and female players of with injuries such as this, it creates a huge disparity in their ability to develop their careers, having knock on effects to finances, career length and future health.
As the commercialisation of women’s football grows, we have even more reason to look into these issues and create a culture that values and takes care of our female athletes. The news that Lioness Beth Mead has joined the growing list of ACL ruptures should not only be a wakeup call, but a catalyst for change.
There are ways we can address these issues with fairly simple solutions. We could start by rectifying the lack of basic equipment available to female sportspeople, given that many female footballers still wear men’s or children’s boots. We should champion the work of organisations like Ida Sports who do so much research in this area, or we could continue to tailor training exercises to those more suited to women’s bodies – as more teams are starting to do.
Ultimately there are still many problems our female athletes should not have to endure. Issues like pregnancy rights are ones that players should receive proper communication and guidance on, and we need to see more research and attention for these issues growing alongside our other investments.
We have come a long way, but it's time to support the footballers who have grown from our hard work, too.
Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central.
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