Hidden gender

Sarah Gilmore looks at the reasons for the marked increase in the number of women writing and reporting on football in recent times, and the hurdles they still have to overcome

Over the past few years we have seen an explosion of women writing, editing and presenting on football. They seem to have come from nowhere and arrived at the top of their professions, giving their views with authority. 

Women have always played football, have always watched it and commentated on what they saw. It is just that much of our contribution and experience is sometimes insignificant when compared with the sheer ‘volume’ of our male counterparts. So what is going on now? Are we seeing an aspirant generation of women invading and laying claim to territory which has been a traditional male preserve for a century or more?
Through talking to a sample of women across all sections of the sports media, along with Rob Shepherd, formerly of Today, I set out to discover whether we will see a distinctive women’s view of football emerging in the media.
The backgrounds of all of the women were fairly similar and their careers had significant parallells. Nearly all had started out at university – writing for the student newspaper on sport and progressing from higher education to local papers, radio and TV stations. So, for example, Eleanor Oldroyd of Radio 5 Live’s Sunday Sport went from university to a local radio station in Worcester working on sport, and from there to four years at Newsbeat before working exclusively on the subject in 1991.
Jane Hoffen’s CV is very similar, coming to work exclusively on sport – ultimately at Sky – via a background in local TV. It is easy to dismiss the years spent in local media, but the ‘training’ that they received and the earning of dues takes time: meteoric rises to fame are rare.
Amy Lawrence had a slightly different story having started her football writing for the fanzine The Gooner, pursuing it through university via the newspaper and subsequently freelancing prior to gaining her job at Four Four Two.
The accent on knowing your stuff – being able to show your credentials – has always been something women have either doggedly followed or rejected, preferring to make up their own rules. Sometimes the latter pays off, but in the area of football journalism the option of short cuts is not on the agenda.
Eleanor Oldroyd is concerned that some companies are jumping on the bandwagon of increased female attendances at games and seeking to get their programmes/magazines staffed and fronted by women whose knowledge might not match their ambitions. “It is important to keep your skills base,” she says, “women in this profession have to know at least as much as men.” A view echoed by Jane Hoffen. Both deny any attempts by male colleagues to hold them back from pursuing their careers in extremely male dominated areas, but Hoffen has no illusions as to her abilities and how she has used male criticism.“A lot of eyes were on me – especially at Sky. You cannot be an idiot in front of a camera. I confess to being pretty ropy at Sky at first, but I’ve worked on it. I’ve used the criticisms made of me to improve and much of that criticism has been helpful.”
Is life really that rosy? Is it possible for women working in these environments to publicly criticize former and present colleagues? “You can’t get annoyed about the banter unless it’s outrageous,” says Hoffen. “You’re in a heavily male environment.” Amy Lawrence admits – like the others – to the “one letter in a hundred” which says, “What do you know – you’re only a woman . . .” but feels that she has had to watch her step in relation to men she has worked with. “It’s there. You have to be careful. People do want to trip you up. There’s a lot of inherent jealousy.” But in the final analysis? “Attitudes towards me have been pretty good. I think that I’ve been treated equally.”
It could be that the new generation of glossy magazines and meritocratic broadcast media are more liberal and that women will fare better working with men who are potentially more empathetic and more used to their presence – even if they are prone to feelings of jealousy. However, the same approach might not necessarily be seen in the tabloids. There are few women writers in the tabloids, although that is changing in the Sun, which might be a breakthrough of sorts.
Rob Shepherd’s view is this: “Some of it’s a generational thing – women come in through different routes. They tend to go for the bigger stories where you can expand, rather than going for clipped, precise prose, telling the story. They’re not so interested in the investigative role or getting involved in the trench warfare of tabloids which, after all, break the stories. This is a much harder skill.”
However, he concedes a point made by Amy Lawrence that if a woman is steeped in the game, then she can pass the test of credibility. “Most men couldn’t tell the gender of a match reporter. You could take the name of the writer off the report and I don’t believe that anyone could tell the difference. There’s possibly a more subtle difference between women and men writers – especially in a one-to-one interview – where you can see your interviewee visibly relax when he sees that its a woman who’s come to interview him. They don’t think that you’re there to put the boot in or stitch him up.”
Another reason put forward by Shepherd as to the relative lack of women in the tabloids concerns the tricky business of building and sustaining relationships in the male-dominated échelons of football. “It’s a laddish environment,” he says, “and one which is not conducive to a man/woman relationship because it can be misinterpreted.” Probably by other tabloid writers?
One major factor which the women seem to share is their class origins. All of the women I spoke to cited their background as being middle class and although none of them thought that this was a pertinent issue, there are arguments which suggest that class is extremely important. The increase of women attending matches is seen by many as being part of the takeover of football by middle-class-come-latelies who are using their financial clout to push clubs down the road of superstores, share ownership, and increased seat prices.
The Guardian’s Laura Thompson concluded an article written on this subject thus: “. . . a desire to attract women to the game has led to better facilities and a safer environment, which can only be a good thing. But it would be far less good if it led, at the same time, to football being twisted around a powerful female finger, beneath which gleams an even more powerful credit card.”
Clubs made these changes to attract greater gates, but aimed mainly at audiences of men. The fact that women also started to attend in greater numbers was a secondary benefit to clubs. So what does all of this have to do with women broadcasters? It is this. The majority of the media are run by middle class, white, heterosexual men. Most of these men have attended university. Women who also share this background are finding it easier to break into a previously all-male terrain.
Some women like Jane Hoffen also think that feminism has had its impact here and on the increasing numbers of women who believe that they have just as much right as men to indulge their passion for the game. According to Eleanor Oldroyd “Class is a spurious issue. Journalistic skill is more important.” But middle class people rarely think that class is an issue, possibly because they have not been held back or judged by their lack of it.
Working class people’s experiences are different and this might point to another reason for the envy which Amy Lawrence referred to. Men night envy women like her who have steeped themselves in a game they love. Many might envy the fact that she has had the chance to go to nearly all of the 92 grounds, go to Italia ’90 and get where she has at a relatively young age. We do not see the work that the likes of Jane Hoffen, Charlotte Nichol and Cynthia Bateman put into their trade, we see them as the fully-finished article, successful, middle class and reporting on football. What do they know?
None of the women I spoke to believed that their experiences of the game were different to those of men. Rob Shepherd did, though, and pointed to the fact that women will not consistently travel to away or European matches and are much less likely to be prepared to sleep in the back of a transit to get a glimpse of their team play.
There may be several reasons for this: the socialization of women generally and the early pigeon-holing of working class women in particular mitigates against the kind of devotion shown by a hard core of men and is bound to have consequences for women writing and commenting on football. We might have exactly the same emotions relating to the game itself but if we don’t experience some of the bonding processes associated with it then, some might argue, we will be in some way less able to write about the broader issues connected to football.
Currently women write for an overwhelmingly male audience. We have to assimilate ourselves into a culture we did not create and do not in any way control. Clearly it is in our interests to be indistinguishable from male counterparts. But will there ever come a point when our views and experience will be recognized as a distinct, valued and shared one? Will we write definitive books?
Perhaps it is too early for this to occur, given that women have only recently gone back to the game in large numbers and it will obviously take time for us to build up a shared culture. Perhaps it will never happen – maybe all this interest is merely a fad. It may also be that the current generation of writers and commentators are too stuck in the present cultural climate to make the necessary leap: the time is not yet right.
When I asked Jane Hoffen how she would react to women doing match commentaries, she relied that it would not be her cup of tea. When pushed, she said that her reticence to see women commentating was based on tradition: that football was a game managed by men and played by them. The obvious implication being ‘so far, and no further . . . at least not for now’, that it would be unacceptable. A woman commentator might do Match of the Day eventually, she said, but not in her life time.
So perhaps the position of women within the football media is not as secure as it might seem. Surely one of the major reasons why there are no female commentators must be that significant numbers of men would not accept it and could exert their power by simply turning off.
Let’s extrapolate this further. Men can end women’s interest in football within a season. They can do that by reverting to the violence seen in the late seventies to mid eighties. The traditional male supporter has power in this situation. He can refuse to hear us or read us and get us out of the stadia with great ease.
For some men, football has always been a secure bolt hole from all that women represent in the world – and they will do all they can to keep it that way.

From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month