Love football but not watching the women’s World Cup? What’s wrong with you?

John Nicholson
USA win women's World Cup
USA win women's World Cup

It’s a serious question – helped by research and a brilliant new Women’s World Cup ad from Orange that challenges our innate bias.

A recent study carried out at Stavanger University in Norway found that when 600 people were shown clips of men’s and women’s elite football, they rated the men’s games higher quality than the women. But when they were shown clips of men’s and women’s elite games with the players blurred, so that it was impossible to tell what gender they were, the same cohort found no difference in the quality of the clips.

In other words, knowing the gender of the players affects how people judge football.

This news comes after last week’s breathtakingly sexist Mailbox contribution from an anonymous man who seemed to be a slave to his libido to such an extent it stopped him being able to watch women play sport. His stance was comprehensively taken apart by other contributors but it is almost certainly more common than we might wish it to be, if last year’s study from Durham University is anything to go by.

It discovered 75% of men were misogynistically dismissive of women in football and women’s sport more generally. It’s shocking reading, but it isn’t surprising.

This comes on the back of this brilliant advert…

…which absolutely subverts the viewers’ expectations and tells us something about ourselves. Well worth two minutes of your time.

We have to consciously and deliberately rid ourselves of preconceived conditioning when it comes to how we view what different genders do and how they do them. Both prove there is a profound and endemic bias against women which is built into our psychology and culture. But then we knew that already, didn’t we? And if we didn’t, reading Everyday Sexism should have shown us.

This research and the Orange video shows we see the world through skewed gender prisms and that is at the root of so much unfairness and discrimination on a granular, micro and macro level. Of course they’re brilliant, they’re the male French national team, full of great players playing great football. But it’s not them. It’s the women. How do you feel if you’d want to watch the men play like that, but not want to watch the women play like that? Because that is how they play, self-evidently.

We think we see things as they are, but we don’t. We arrive at the position of being a witness to anything with a whole set of values, assumptions, stereotypes and a million other flavours of lifelong influence.

That’s why when we read or hear people who claim to like football but won’t be watching the Women’s World Cup simply because they think it is somehow inferior, we shouldn’t believe them. Even if they think it’s true, it isn’t. Behind it is indoctrinated sexism or outright misogyny.

But why wouldn’t that be the case? We have been inculcated since birth into an unequal, unfair, discriminatory patriarchal society. A society built by men for men with women as an afterthought, if they are thought about at all.

Yes, other things such as economics, race and class also matter, but when it comes to gender, women have had the shitty end of the stick forever and that is as true in football as anything else. The privations women have endured and still suffer just to be able to kick a ball around is shameful.

England celebrate winning the UEFA Women's Finalissima 2023 at Wembley.
England celebrate winning the UEFA Women’s Finalissima 2023 at Wembley.

The defensiveness with which some will certainly react to this research probably reveals more than than they realise. Usually there are ad hominem attacks and put downs. It’s all liberal shit from a PC bleeding heart, isn’t it? There is always an assertion that the writer is virtue signalling or trying to make out that they’re morally superior, which is always a marker for a lost argument.

After that comes accusations of hypocrisy which therefore invalidates every word you’ve ever said. Yeah, yeah, sure. Whatever you say. Anything to avoid the truth, eh. Anything to avoid the truth.

Then there’s the ‘I’m married to a woman and my mother was one’ argument to disprove sexism. It doesn’t. Then there’s the ‘you can like it if you want but I don’t like it’ which never questions why or how they’ve arrived at this position. That will be followed up by some stats comparing men with women, to try and prove male superiority. But it’s all defending something fundamentally indefensible. The truth is eventually unavoidable no matter how much the resisters don’t want to confront it.

We can all think it’s other people who are like this, that it’s the bigot over there who is being obnoxious and not ourselves. We think all our personal choices are made objectively and with purity of thought and intention. But are they really? Have we really rid ourselves of this inbuilt gender bias? Until we ask ourselves, both men and women, if we really have overcome the millenia-old sexist assumptions by consciously stripping it out of our psyche and analysing how and why we think like we do, then we probably haven’t.

If you really like football, there’s really no excuse, because the Women’s World Cup absolutely is football, so you really should enjoy it. There will be some excellent, exciting soccer played in front of substantial crowds for record prize money. Australia’s first game will be in front of 83,500, such is the demand for tickets. Fifa reckon the global audience will be two billion. There will also be some crap, boring games. Because it’s football and there are always crap boring games. It’s built into the sport.

If you don’t want to watch it, there’s a reason and that reason is the gender of the players, pure and simple. We should all think about that. The Stavanger research reveals just how biased against women we are, even when we think we’re not. It’s time to quite consciously lose these shackles and break free of this out-moded, oppressive and frankly stupid way of thinking. We have absolutely nothing to gain by hanging on to it and much to lose.

Women’s football is redrawing boundaries and changing society. This makes life better for all of us and for the next generation and ever more people are embracing it, sometimes people who never thought they would.

The times they are a changin’ and it’s bloody brilliant. So if you’re still resisting, be honest and ask yourself why and then do something about it.