When International Women’s Day comes around, I like to imagine a future where my two young daughters, then grown up, don’t need to celebrate the achievements of women as part of the fight for a gender-equal world.
A fanciful notion perhaps, given the pace of change in this area – only a century ago women didn’t even have the right to vote, after all – but at least things are moving in the right direction.
In many aspects of society, including the field of sport, our children’s world is very different to the one in which we grew up and largely for the better. At primary school, I and all the other boys played football in the winter, whilst the girls played netball. That was that. No questions asked.
Thankfully, children today have a far greater choice available to them. Just this weekend I was chuffed to hear how much my six-year-old niece is enjoying both her football and karate classes. This progress is to be celebrated and absolutely must continue, at all levels of sport.
Whilst the number of women getting top jobs at UK sporting bodies this week showed a worrying decline, opportunities for women and girls to play sport are greater than ever.
In December, Sport England announced that a record number of women are playing sport on a regular basis, reflecting the impact of positive female-focused initiatives, including the fantastic This Girl Can campaign.
The Football Association – who this week announced plans to increase the number of females on its board from one to three – are also aiming to double the number of people playing and watching women’s football by 2020.
Initiatives such as the popular Girls’ Football Weeks have helped the FA to harness the excitement generated by England’s success at the 2015 FIFA World Cup. Girls today want to play football and emulate the heroes they get to watch on TV – increased coverage being another welcome development in the game.
Perceptions are slowly changing in the field of coaching too but there is work to be done, according to former England international Rachel Yankee, one of a number of former Lionesses now studying for her UEFA ‘A’ Licence.
“When I started coaching in primary schools in 2004, the kids would see a woman walk into the playground and say: ‘Why have we got a female coach?'”, Yankee told the BBC in an interview for International Women’s Day.
“Thankfully, that sort of scenario doesn’t happen any more. The perception of women playing and coaching football has changed massively, but there’s still a lot to work on and the lack of female coaches at the top level is still an issue.”
The former Arsenal winger, who has 129 England caps, admits that the lack of female coaches is a difficult problem to solve, with no magic wand solution available, but she wants to see steps put in place to ensure prospective female coaches know where to look.
“There are problems in getting female coaches onto courses in the first place, and I think that’s where some hard work needs to happen.
“It might be that women don’t know when the courses are happening or they fear being rejected or laughed at, like girls used to when they wanted to play football. I can only say that football is a lot more tolerant now.”
Yankee helped blaze a trail for women’s football on the pitch for over 15 years and now, along with former team mates such as Casey Stoney and Kelly Smith – both also studying for their UEFA ‘A’ Licence – she might just do the same off the pitch.
The Women’s Super League – which continues to grow in popularity – has just five women occupying the 20 managerial positions across two divisions, whilst the prospect of a female manager in the Premier League or Football League seems a long way off, for now at least.
Change needs to happen faster and, whilst those at the top of the women’s game keep pushing football forward, the rest of us must also play our part – and the same goes for every sport.
All of us involved in grassroots sport, whether as a coach, player or parent, must keep encouraging girls to play as much sport as possible, keep opening doors for women who want to coach – or bang them down if needs be – and keep trying to raise standards across the board.
Whilst there is still an awful lot of work to be done, female sport has probably never been in better shape. Let’s keep things moving in the right direction and keep celebrating women’s and girls’ sport the whole year round.