Girls getting equal access to football is great – but ethnic minority young women cannot be left behind

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A new government initiative will see more girls playing football in school - but it’s important to ensure genuine equality of opportunity.

It’s International Women’s Day, and the UK government has chosen today to announce a new scheme, with £600m funding, to offer equal access for schoolgirls to sport across the country. The scheme, which includes financing for the next two academic years, will encourage schools to open up traditionally male sports by rewarding them with the new School Games Mark and offering support through a refreshed School Sport Action Plan.

The initiative has been launched partly in response to an open letter written by the Lionesses after England won the Women’s Euros last year, which asked for more to be done to create chances for young women to play football and to be given opportunities in sports. Lotte Wubben-Moy, the Arsenal defender who was one of the driving forces behind that letter, has told the BBC that the initiative has “opened a crucial door for the growth of women’s football”, while captain Leah Williamson described it as “the legacy that we want”.

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It is, unquestionably, good news for the grassroots women’s game in football and a host of other sports where women’s teams are enjoying rapid and belated upwards trajectories in terms of viewership and investment. But it is crucial that the government, school system and FA ensure between them that this a truly equal opportunity, and that no girls are left behind – and in England, ethnic minority women have been left behind too often by seemingly equitable initiatives in sport and elsewhere.

England international team-mates Lauren James and Lotte Wubben-MoyEngland international team-mates Lauren James and Lotte Wubben-Moy
England international team-mates Lauren James and Lotte Wubben-Moy | Arsenal FC via Getty Images

It is naïve in the extreme to believe that English football doesn’t have a problem with race. This is especially evident in the women’s game at the highest level – of new caps handed to England women between 2010 and 2020, just 14 – 19% - were given to Black players, compared to 49% of new caps offered by the men’s senior team. The winning Euros squad contained just three players who weren’t white, none of whom started a game.

Not that the figures for Black male players should imply that the men’s game is immune from criticism – just yesterday a damning report by the Black Footballers Partnership observed that there have only been minute increases in access to coaching and management roles for Black people, with only 21 of 325 new positions in the professional game last year being given to Black employees, while there was an increase of just 0.7% in Black people in management-related roles between 2022 and 2023.

The evidence of disparity is even starker in the South Asian community. According to an article by The National News, just 16 of 3500 professional footballers in the top four men’s divisions had South Asian heritage as of November, while in the Women’s Super League it’s 0.3% of players – despite South Asian women being the single largest minority ethnic female group in the UK.

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Part of the reason for the discrepancy in the women’s game has been pinned at the door of the FA failing to make sure their Regional Talent Centres, hubs for coaching and talent development across the country, were sufficiently accessible. A reduction in their number from 52 to 30 froze out many people in areas with higher numbers of ethnic minorities.

According to former England manager Hope Powell, speaking to She Kicks in 2020, “Women’s football became a middle-class sport and less accessible for inner city/urban kids who cannot get to RTCs because of affordability. In order to fulfil licence requirements, some centres have moved out of urban areas into the suburbs; kids of lower-income families can’t afford to access them, and therefore, fall out of the elite pathway opportunities.”

The same mistakes cannot be made with the new schools initiative. While the government’s scheme offers encouragement and funding to open up football to girls, it stops short of making changes compulsory and there is always a risk that the scheme will not be taken up evenly across the country. If the government and FA do not work together to ensure that schools in urban areas and areas with higher densities of Black or other minority ethnic people make the desired changes, there is a risk that the move will only serve to entrench the division of opportunity.

It would not be the first time apparently well-meaning initiatives have failed to take ethnic minority groups into account – the failure to consider the impact of locating RTCs being just one example of when leadership groups can miss the implications for ethnic minorities.

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Many groups promoting women and women’s rights outside of sport have been accused of racism and toxic workplace behaviours in the recent past, including the Nobel Women’s Initiative and International Women’s Health Coalition, while academia has a history of pushing to promote and employ women in key roles without ensuring those pushes extend to people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Leadership of major organisations too often fails to look into or seek to understand the impact on ethnic minority groups their work can have, and it is a trap the FA have fallen into in the past. Whether they have taken that on board in full remains to be seen, but there is cause for optimism.

Hope Powell during her time as England manager Hope Powell during her time as England manager
Hope Powell during her time as England manager | Getty Images

There has been substantial progress made in the women’s game in the past few years. The introduction of the Discover My Talent initiative, which allows anyone to refer young women with potential directly to the FA, and an increased awareness of the need to diversify recruitment pathways, has led to a sharp uptick in the number of players from ethnic minorities selected for the England women’s age group squads – especially in the Under-17s, where the number of non-white participants rose from 5% to 36% in two years. Overall, more than 3000 players have been referred to Discover My Talent, with 74 going on to England selection longlists or age group squads.

Some of the right noises are also being made by key figures within the women’s game. Kay Cossington, Head of Women’s Technical at the FA, has acknowledged the problems caused by the closure of RTCs and the need to make sure the grassroots game reaches into urban areas, while Wubben-Moy’s letter to the BBC included the hope that the national team can “become more diverse”.

The women’s game in England is taking strong steps in the right direction and is both aware of and openly talking about the need for positive change. Now they need to back words up with actions and put pressure in the right places to ensure the new government scheme creates openings for girls across the country and across racial divides, and delivers opportunities both for fun and excellence as evenly and equitably as possible. The FA may not be moderating the scheme, but they have the political power to push it in the right direction – and we need to demand that the government don’t miss an open goal when the chance to ensure that football becomes a more equal sport is on the line.

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