Unequal and Unfair: Women’s football at Oxford needs urgent reform

If the university does not prioritise women’s football, it is hard to see how or why anyone else would.

The England Women's team in action

My rather depressing experience of recruiting players for the Mansfield/Merton team at the college freshers fair is emblematic of the lack of enthusiasm for women’s football at Oxford and beyond. It has been a fact of life, for a long time now, that women’s football does not generate the same level of excitement or commitment that men’s football does. In part, this is due to societal attitudes about the status of women’s football, in comparison to men’s, but it is also a failing of the University and College structures.

As a previous Cherwell article revealed, Oxford University Association Football Club (OUAFC) tends to prioritise referees for mens’ college football matches over womens’.

Although this has been dismissed by pointing to the fact that women’s matches are often played at the weekend, and that referees are less likely to want to work on the weekend, this explanation is not good enough.

We should start by asking why women’s matches are all scheduled for on the weekend, and what impact that has on the status of the sport. Men’s football repeatedly being given the prime spot does nothing to challenge the impression that people hold of women’s sport. For most people, university is the last time they will come into contact with sport, to this extent, and we must question what impression of women’s football they are leaving with.

Oxford is uniquely placed to promote women’s football because its collegiate structure allows players of all abilities to take part, and yet this opportunity is not effectively being utilised.

Even if we accept the explanation offered by OUAFC about why it gives preference to men’s teams over over women’s, there seems to be an easy solution to this problem. Women’s matches should be scheduled on weekdays, if only on alternate weeks, to level the playing field.

The lack of referees has both practical and symbolic implications for women’s football. It inevitably means that the rules of the game cannot be strictly enforced; we frequently have to agree to dismiss the ‘offside rule’ because there is no referee to objectively oversee it. Time-keeping is another, albeit minor, duty that one team’s goalkeeper has to take on in lieu of an official. This all contributes to the sense that women’s football is not taken seriously, and that there is a systematic problem with the way Oxford treats women’s sports.

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If the university does not prioritise women’s football, it is hard to see how or why anyone else would. In my experience, it has been very difficult to engage the rest of the college with women’s football. We have repeatedly struggled to fill a team or turn out any supporters, even when we qualified for the quarter finals. This may well be because Mansfield and Merton are not the ‘sportiest’ colleges, but I suspect that the perception of women’s football has a greater role to play. In fact, the men’s football team seem to be thriving, and easily gather a crowd of supporters, sometimes for their weekly matches.

OUAFC have now committed to developing women’s football, which is an important step to promoting equality and transforming attitudes, but it is clearly long overdue. The new sabbatical Officer, Ella Vickers Strutt, has made it known in a email circulated to all captains that her aim is to, “make a push to get more women involved in football and playing the sport regularly.” It is not yet clear what this will involve but in my view we must practically implement changes to champion and improve women’s sport, not just continue with more empty rhetoric.

The annual ‘This Girl Can’ campaign must not be the extent of Oxford’s commitment to women’s football and other women’s sports. There is still systematic gender inequality built into every level of sport, from unequal resources for casual teams, to the wages sportspeople earn, the advertising deals that are made, the continued prevalence of sexist commentary and the monopoly that men’s sport has on media coverage.

This has to change, and it can if we start at the grass roots. It is particularly important to note Oxford’s unique relationship with its sporting environment, with Oxford producing graduates who go on to hold significant positions of power in media and sports management the impressions that students develop here about women’s sport are important.

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The national conversation around women’s football is encouraging, with female presenters at the world cup and the success of the England women’s team. We must be part of that change.

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