Feminism and football: Lessons in workplace sexism.

Sian Massey - Sunderland v Blackpool - Premier League

I got this message from a football loving man friend yesterday on Facebook “ffs Kellie. I was expecting a feminist diatribe from you today. Is that baby turning you soft?”

Yes, perhaps being up the duff is dulling my feminist sensibilities but whatever the reason, I definitely was remiss in not blogging about the biggest sexism in the media row to hit the UK in a long time. As if by magic, I immediately got a call from the BBC to ask if I would debate the subject on Good Morning Ulster and obviously had no choice but to agree, my conscience having been well and truly provoked. Unfortunately the segment was bumped, as happens fairly regularly with women-related issues I get asked to comment on in the media, and was relegated as yesterday’s news for the fine listeners of the Nolan Show to pick over instead. So I decided not to let my preparation for the non-existent debate go to waste and thought I would post some thoughts here on the blog.

Obviously, like most people, I welcomed the news yesterday that Sky Sports football commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray would be disciplined for their off-air sexist comments about the capability of assistant referee Sian Massey who was officiating at Saturday’s premier league match between Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Their crass assumption before the game that she would most likely be rubbish and make a dodgy call purely because she was a woman and therefore couldn’t possibly understand “the offside rule” was met with almost universal revulsion from every corner, EVEN the Daily Mail. Their comments were especially ironic given that Massey’s skill and ten year’s of experience led her to make an extremely tough call on Meireles run to set up Liverpool’s first goal, with undisputed accuracy. I was however, slightly concerned that Sky Sports might wait for the storm to pass, sweep it under the carpet and refuse to take their responsibility to promote fairness seriously. I hardly expected great things from the network that brought us the ‘Sky Sports Hotties’, a generation of young female sports newsreaders hired and styled purely to enhance the viewing pleasure of the assumed-to-be-male audience.

Thankfully however, Sky have imposed sanctions, with the pair of dinosaurs being suspended from their totemic role and issued with a reportedly terse warning that any repeated incidents would constitute a sackable offence. Then today came the news that having uncovered another incident of sexism recorded back in December 2010, Sky have followed through with their threat and given Andy Gray his P45. While there may be internal issues influencing this decision that go beyond Sky’s heroic commitment to anti-oppressive practice in the workplace, this is a hugely important result for women, and not just those working in the world of football. Across all professions, most people know that it is not acceptable to publicly express sexist attitudes. That is what equality legislation has achieved for us – the right to participate fully in any workplace without facing direct discrimination and public prejudice. However, as many women can testify to, what legislation hasn’t managed to eliminate is the undercurrent of hidden sexism, maintained by degrading humour, flippant assumptions, casual stereotyping, subtle jibes, sexualising of female colleagues and the conversations people have that they think they will never be held accountable for. These things create the ‘boys’ club’ culture where women are undervalued, passed over, and even ridiculed. Some have suggested Gray and Keys didn’t deserve to be punished for what they believed was a private conversation, a notion which I totally dispute. To begin with they were both wearing mics and have been working in television long enough to know that despite not being on air, this still means you are speaking to an entire production room full of people – people they clearly didn’t mind offending. The importance of making people accountable for sexist attitudes, especially in a male dominated profession like football, cannot be overstated.

Another defence I’ve come across in the last couple of days is that of the ‘just a bit of a larf’ variety, with some football fans confessing on message boards that they express similar views to Gray and Keys most weekends down the pub watching the match. I’ve also seen a number of men bemoan the unfair treatment of men in the media who they seem to think are subject to a torrent of assumptions that they are incompetent idiots. Feelings that have been ignited perhaps by Tory MP Dominic Raad’s ignorant misunderstanding of gender inequality and misrepresentation of feminism in yesterday’s press. I personally am not entirely convinced as to the volume of insults men are apparently subjected to and I think that constructed ideas about ‘man-flu’ and men being rubbish at housework are not the work of nasty feminist bigots but rather the ugly by-product of patriarchy, ultimately serving to maintain traditional gender roles as women are reminded to be martyrs as they care for their families and clean their houses with pride while men go off to work and deal with all the important stuff. Anyway, the fact is there will always be a level of humour between the sexes based on exaggerated perceptions of difference and these will prove to irritate or offend different people to varying degrees, or not at all. Even I am willing to accept that. However, what happened to Sian Massey is a far cry from Jimmy Carr getting a cheap laugh at some stereotype about women’s sexual behaviour or the gals from ‘Loose Women’ laughing about their crap ex-husbands. What happened in this case is that the ability of a professional was seriously called into question solely on the basis of gender. While working at a high level within her chosen career, before she even had a chance to make a single call, she found herself being undermined by two powerful if not particularly well-liked men in her profession. That is totally unacceptable.

And it reminds me that power is the key issue here. It is clear from the tone of the conversation recorded and released to the press that Gray and Keys spoke with no level of irony or humour. Rather they sound serious and even a little bitter. Keys’ weary sigh half way through and his statement that “the game’s gone mad” reveal that their sexism comes from a genuine desire to keep women out of football and maintain the power and status quo. Just last week UEFA discussed research into European football that showed more than 99% of senior administrators at clubs and football associations are middle-aged to elderly white men. In Northern Ireland we have seen, through the controversy surrounding the IFA in recent years that the culture of an old boys’ club is very much alive and well in the sport’s governing body here, despite major achievements in tackling sectarian, racist and to a lesser extent sexist attitudes among the fans and players. It is important that the dark little corners of football where sexism festers and produces the kind of power-mongering that prevents talented young women from pursing their dreams is exposed, just as we have seen this week. The attitude of Gray and Keys makes me wonder, if this it the kind of treatment Sian Massey received at her level, what must it be like for all of the women trying to break through in refereeing at a local level who turn up every weekend to officiate at club matches in leagues up and down the country. How many skilled referees may have dropped out before now because they just got fed up with being taunted or ridiculed or sexually harassed? It would be nice to believe that wouldn’t happen but it is with some sadness that I would have to suspect it probably does. I’m glad Gray and Keys got caught because otherwise the legacy of Sian’s contribution to Saturday’s match would have been a plethora of football blogs and sports publications pedalling subtle but just as damaging sexism as they noted how the ‘female linesman’ made a really great call. At least this way we have had the chance to say, actually what on earth has her gender got to do with anything?



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