Women’s football is currently experiencing a period of exponential growth in the UK. This comes after a summer revamp that has injected the female footballing pyramid with a new lease of life.
Clubs must now meet specific off-field criteria to secure their place in the top two tiers, namely the FA Women’s Super League and then the FA Women’s Championship. And so far, this restructure has had an undeniably positive impact on raising the standard and profile of women’s football across the country.
However, despite this long-awaited progress, there still remains enormous disparities between wages for female footballers and their male equivalents at the same club. It is a widely accepted truth that many male footballers earn in one week what female players at can expect to earn in a year.
But one club is doing things differently.
During the summer of 2017 — in an unprecedented move — Lewes Football Club decided to allocate equal playing budgets to their male and female teams. In doing so, they officially became the first football club in the world to have fully bridged the gender pay gap.
The revolutionary strides made by Lewes has seen the club earn a licence to play in the FA Women’s Championship this season alongside several footballing institutions boasting much stronger off-field resources. Impressively, Lewes currently sit third in the table behind just Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, who they host this Sunday.
The club achieved their right to play in this league through an application that included a rather substantial document and also the deliverance of a pitch to the FA at Wembley Stadium, detailing the club’s commitment to its women’s team. And, clearly, the FA were impressed.
Lewes are setting an important precedent and board director, Charlie Dobres, traces their journey back to 2010 when the East Sussex club adopted a fan ownership model. A group of loyal fans converted the struggling club from a privately owned organisation into a Community Benefit Society, in what was a more sustainable arrangement that empowered the fans as owners.
“At that time, we decided we wanted to really raise the profile of the women’s team. As a community-owned club, we felt it was particularly important that we should be working for and with all parts of the community equally,” Dobres said. “It was at that point where the resources and profile of the women’s team started to increase.
“And at the beginning of last season, we felt there was something more that we could do. The remaining thing was to decide that we should be allocating the same resources in terms of pay.
“Until fairly recently — particularly at a slightly lower level — an awful lot of players were paying to play. It was like signing up to a club where you pay a subscription and you get to play. It’s not on, and it’s not fair at a higher level; the level our team are playing at.”
Upon the completion of Lewes’ full gender equality package, the club ensured the women’s team receive the same benefits as their male counterparts in all areas. This includes an even playing budget, equal marketing and shared stadium use, with both teams playing their home games at The Dripping Pan, something that is a rarity in women’s football.
Their commitment also extends to the academy system, whereby an environment has been harnessed for girls of different ages to play the sport, with sessions for primary school girls right up to a Sixth Form Academy programme. This accomplishes the dual aim of encouraging female involvement in football at a foundation level, whilst also forging pathways to the first team and securing a bright future for the women’s team.
“We are trying to fill in all the parts of a pathway to normalise the possibility for women to play football,” explained Dobres. “If you’re a boy at school, playing football is the most normal thing in the world. It is expected and the facility is there, but if you’re a little girl then it is much harder.
“We are putting things in place so that if you are a little girl at primary school, you can think it is natural to give football a go. And that’s a big shift to bring about.”
Dobres suggests the challenging nature of this shift is down to generations of gender prejudice within previous FA set-ups. The equality-focused FA of the present day is a far cry from its existence as an androcentric institution that outlawed women’s football in 1921.
The women’s game was a burgeoning force during the First World War, while many men were away, and the game was in fact growing at a similar rate as men’s football. However, upon the end of the war, the FA feared the popularity of women’s football would affect gate receipts at Football League matches, and the women’s game was subsequently extinguished overnight. It took a whole 50 years to be re-legalised.
“We are dealing with a very uneven playing field in the first place,” Dobres explained. “Sometimes when people look at the current state of women’s football and — even though its getting better year-by-year — they are saying that quality isn’t really there or it could be better.
“But if men’s football had been banned for 50 years, I think they may have found themselves in a similar boat. So a part of what we are doing is righting the wrongs that have been done.”
Adhering to this logic, Dobres is keen to highlight the club’s strategy of gender pay parity should not be exclusively viewed as a moral crusade, but equally as a shrewd economic investment into what is a rapidly evolving footballing sphere.
“As we developed the idea, we realised that it’s a match which makes very sound business sense. We see women’s football in this country as a huge, huge growth area. Aside from the morality involved, of course we are going to invest in this as its where the higher growth is.
“We’re a bit surprised that big clubs with shareholders aren’t asking questions about why their women’s team aren’t getting this sort of investment,” he said. “Even if you don’t give weight to the feminist argument, just as a business person, you should be looking at this area.”
The stats agree. A renewed interest in women’s football can be loosely traced back to England’s strong run in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, wherein an audience of 1.6 million tuned into watch the Lionesses in their semi-final defeat to Japan. And since then, female participation has seen a rapid increase with the number of women playing football in the UK having risen from 1.81 million to 2.48 million.
The 2017/18 season also brought substantial growth, indicated by statistics such as a 10% increase in the following of the FA’s women-focused social media channels and an increase in sponsorship from brands such as Nike, Continental and Vauxhall, demonstrating the marketability of this footballing sector. There can be no doubt that women’s football has finally proclaimed its ability to infiltrate the mainstream.
Lewes’ recognition of the game’s economic potential is what helped justify their commitment to gender pay parity and Dobres believes other clubs will soon follow them on the path to gender equality.
“We completely hope and fully expect that almost all other clubs will follow. It’s just that most of them won’t follow within a year, many won’t follow within five years, but within ten years I think you’d be the exception if you weren’t doing this.”
Lewes’ strong existence has proven the viability of this kind of approach. But their success is not limited to the boardroom, as the women’s team’s promising run of three wins in their opening four league games has not come at the expense of the men’s team, who are mid-table in the Isthmian League Premier Division after achieving promotion last term.
This coexistence of thriving men’s and women’s teams receiving equal pay packets from the same club is not only a global phenomenon, but also a blueprint that very much speaks to our time. Lewes have added some much needed realism to the concept of gender equality in football.
Lewes FC Women play Tottenham Hotspur Women at The Dripping Pan on Sunday 14th October at 14:00 BST.
Featured photograph/James Boyes