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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Sexist attitudes need challenging

I was at my brother's in Blackburn over the weekend. On Saturday evening a group of us sat down to watch a dramatic World Cup Quarter-Final football match between England and France. It was enthralling stuff. Two hours and a penalty shoot-out later I couldn't quite believe how absorbing it had been as a spectacle - after all, it was England who were playing!

What you might have realised by now is that the football match in question was a crunch match in the FIFA Women's World Cup. The fact that it was shown at all was quite a triumph for both the public and politicians. The BBC originally had no plans to show any live games, involving England or otherwise, until an unexpectedly large number of viewers tuned into the highlights programme (on at a time when all sane people are assumed to be in bed) and a number of MPs - including Andy Burnham - called on the BBC to support the national team and allow British viewers to get behind the girls.

I can't quite believe that Andy Burnham and others had to do this. The national team is in the quarter-finals of a major tournament. The BBC, rather than sensibly considering how they could help raise the profile of the women's national team at the same time as screening some welcome action before the new season starts, instead subscribed to the belief that no-one in England could possibly be interested. This is, after all, women's football. Nobody cares about that, even the thousands of fans who watched the Women's FA Cup Final only weeks ago.

This is institutional sexism, plain and simple. And if it's true that there isn't a huge amount of interest in women's football, I wonder whose fault that might be? Perhaps that of a media that continually marginalises and dismisses it?

As a Scotland fan, I'm not regularly witnessed cheering on an England team. On this occasion it was a bit different - not least because I felt English success at the World Cup might have had a significant impact not only on awareness and interest in the women's game, but could potentially have led to further investment into British women's football at grassroots level. This is obviously something else the BBC overlooked.

Ultimately, it was the normal hard-luck story for England. A promising performance, resistance against the odds and defeat in a penalty shoot-out. For all the disappointment, it was a dignified exit which is more than can be said for England's other team at the 2010 World Cup. In fact, the women on the pitch on Saturday night looked far more worthy of wearing their country's shirt than some of Fabio Capello's overpaid "stars".

That said, I was more than annoyed at one of my brother's friends who, following the game, said: "Well, at least it wasn't the real England team." The real England team? I see...for "real" read "male".

It's attitudes such as this that have to be eradicated if women's achievements in football (or in other sports, or even in certain professions) are to be taken seriously, let alone applauded. The institutional prejudices of the BBC and the assumptions that women are naturally inferior (or at the very least, less important) might be dismissed casually as an inevitable by-product of the male-centric nature of British sport. What they actively demonstrate is the need for the media to step up to the mark when it comes to promoting women's sport - or at least to adequately cover it. They have an opportunity - no, an obligation - to inform the public about British sporting achievements in a fair and objective way that erodes both prejudices and sporting stereotypes.

Then again, I don't expect any change of heart from the British media...they do, after all, have other problems pre-occupying them at the minute...

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