Written by Salma Ouaguira

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup confirmed once again the participation and empowerment of women through sports in the international stage. Women are increasingly gaining relevance and impacting the world of sport. Today a future for women in sport is brighter than ever before. 

Sara Panizo, the FIFA Project coordinator, assures that things are going to change in the long term. “I was in the final in Lyon for the Women’s World Cup. There were a lot of families with a lot of little girls with their jerseys on, shouting for their teams, and I have never seen that before,” she says.

Much has been done for gender equality but the fight is still alive and women from different areas work hard to overcome all types of constraints in the sports industry. Sara Panizo along with Marianne Cornejo and Kristy Burrows drew on their own experiences of being a woman in a male-dominated sector.

“For most of my career, I got used to walking into a room and be the only female,”

Marianne Cornejo, International Motorsports Junior Manager for Red Bull says. Gender diversity in the boardroom is still a vibrant issue nowadays. In the sports industry, a lack of women in the table translates in a gap of diverse perspectives in the debate, especially about harassment and abuse.

“If you look at gender and diversity in general within the boardroom in sport, you don’t get much diversity, and then try to empower women and to create the pathway in order for them to be in the boardroom is really tricky,” says Kristy Burrows, Managing Director of Sports Rights Solutions.

“People sometimes look for fast solutions such as quotas,” she says. Effective solutions come as a whole pack of small changes from different areas in order to improve opportunities for women and girls.

“We need to look at how we communicate. Do we say ‘he was powerful’ and ‘she was beautiful’?” she adds.

Sexism is still part of a persistent glass ceiling in the sports industry. “I could guarantee that none of my colleagues have been asked when they are planning on having children,” explains Marianne Cornejo.

Nevertheless, as generations pass, the glass ceiling becomes thinner and women are taking advantage of every opportunity to break down any barriers.

“I see how we are activating and we are using all our resources such as social media to raise awareness,” explains Marianne. For her, the US women’s football team is an inspirational case of the fight against gender discrimination.

US women’s team sued US Soccer over institutionalized gender discrimination and championed seeking equal pay with male counterparts.

“What is happening with the US football team is fascinating. There are many changes happening in the media to make sure that there is more awareness, and people are paying the consequences for their actions,” says Marianne Cornejo.

The Q&A gets underway at DMU with Professor Polley chairing (source: dmu.ac.uk)

Sport has become a vehicle to drive change within society. “It can have the potential to cover all number of boundaries,” says Kirsty Burrows. During her first job as a physiotherapist, she travelled all around Asia with the National Youth Academy.

She was part of the Winter Olympic Games in 2018. “Although rising tensions with North Korea, we had a joint Korean team competing together, North and South Korean,” she says.

 “Through sport, you can have a dialogue which has, especially when you look at things like human rights, huge cultural potential and it is a medium through which we can have an impact in everyday lives, it is a wonderful tool,” Kirsty explains.

Through this and other initiatives, new programmes are created in order to help the new generations of women to have equal opportunities to participate in sports.

“In FIFA we have created a dedicated division to women’s football. That can help to the game exponentially because they have a team that is purely dedicated to women’s game,” says Sara Panizo.

But to successfully improve access to girls and women in sport there are many aspects to consider. Uniforms are an important factor that can become a barrier if not tackled properly. It was in 2014 when FIFA finally lifted the ban on the headscarf, before then, women had to choose between their faith or football.

“That hugely impacted the ability of girls to be able to play football in different levels of grassroots. National and international federations have a lot to do regarding this issue. We need to focus on where the key barriers are and how can we lower them.” Says Kirsty Burrows.

But this struggle is not only a women’s fight, “we as women don’t need to do it alone, we need to work with men and other stakeholders. This is not a women’s issue; it is a sports issue and it affects everyone,” argues Marianne.

Changes are coming at a fast pace and people are learning the lessons from the past. Boardrooms and fields are increasingly filled with strong and capable women. “Every generation is going to add more women into the table. Prepared and strong women,” says Sara Panizo.

FIFA Master celebrates its 20th anniversary with alumni giving a talk and then a Q&A about women in sport. (source:dmu.ac.uk)