Women in Football’s ground-breaking #WhatIf campaign launched in May 2018 aiming to change the football landscape by helping create new opportunities for girls and women.
In the latest of a special mini-series we take a look at another key pledge made since that official launch at Twitter’s London HQ as Women in Football CEO Jane Purdon speaks with Tom Corbett, Head of Sponsorship at Barclays, Women in Football’s lead partner, to find out why they got involved and what has happened since.
#WhatIf Barclays conducted a full-scale research project to understand the position of women in the football industry?
How and why did Barclays first get involved with Women in Football?
Some of this pre-dates me being at Barclays but we’ve had a long history with football, in fact at a point in time this year we will celebrate 20 years of involvement in the professional game. That’s a big milestone for us. A major part of that period of time has been focused on the men’s game, the professional men’s game, and that’s been an incredibly rewarding partnership for us, for customers, for colleagues. But there came a point when we realised that focus on the men’s professional game, in a very male dominated and male driven environment, about 10 years ago we commenced some conversations with WIF as we were both interested and impressed with the intent and the work that was being done to make the football environment both on and off the pitch much more diverse, equitable and accessible. For us that was really important and from that point forward that relationship has grown to where we are today.
We see it as an incredibly valuable partnership and one that absolutely compliments everything we do in football, which to date has predominantly focused around on the pitch activity, but clearly football and the industry is much broader than the team on the pitch. There’s hundreds and thousands of people involved making the game what it is on and off the pitch and that’s a big part of what you do to make that happen.
What was the thinking behind Barclays’ pledge at the #WhatIf event and what did you hope to find out?
I reflect back on that event and I was really moved that evening, seeing that group of people in the room making a whole range of pledges that have had the ability, and continue to transform the football industry on and off the pitch for women. That was my first real experience of the power of #WhatIf and made me realise how important this is to help us achieve what we are trying to achieve.
We did one of the biggest pieces of research that has been done in this area; there were some fascinating findings coming out of it. I know within WIF you’re working hard on at the moment to address, not least working very closely with HR communities across football clubs to break down some of those barriers to entering into the game and why actually today some women still feel uncomfortable entering into that place of work and that environment which in many respects is still quite male dominated. That piece of research was incredibly valuable and something that we would look to keep doing on a regular basis because it also helps us understand how the industry is responding to the work that we’re doing.
Barclays’ commitment to equality
In addition to the research we feel very proud that we have been supporting The FA with their commitment and ultimately their #WhatIf pledge, which is to make football available to every girl in England by 2024.
It is amazing to think that we live in a world today where that is not available, where there is not equal access for girls playing and it’s absolutely not a level playing field. That commitment we made in partnership with The FA will see us ensure that every girl in England has exactly the same opportunity as a boy to play football in school.
It’s not about football for football’s sake, it’s about giving girls the choice and the options and allowing them to experience football and the benefits it will give them in later life. We believe in equality and diversity, both at Barclays and in everything that we do. I talked a bit earlier about our 17, 18, 19 years involved in the men’s game and it’s absolutely right that we turn a big part of that attention to the women’s game and make that a big part of what we do.
To make that happen we believe that girls need to be given the opportunity to play, it’s as much about seeing the talent on the pitch in the Women’s Super League day in, day out as it is about giving younger girls the ability to play at school, alongside boys, in the right environment.
The FA’s commitment is a significant one and one that we are very proud to support. It’s progressing incredibly well, we now have 42 per cent coverage across England, so that’s nearly 9,000 schools where girls have exactly the same access as boys, as they should, and within a couple of years we are hoping, we intend for that to be at 100 per cent.
What have been the positive actions to come from Barclays’ partnership with The FA
From the moment we made the announcement to be the title sponsor of the Women’s Super League we saw an unprecedented level of coverage and a huge amount of support for the investment that we were making. That really took us by surprise. For someone who has not directly experienced the challenges that women and girls face in this space, it is probably why I was taken by surprise. This has been a journey for me to learn more about it, day in, day out. The response from the press, from the sports press, from our customers, our clients, was all overwhelming.
Today as we track it, we continue to see that it is one of the things that make people the most proud to work for Barclays and indeed for customers to be associated with us, and that means a huge amount.
It’s down to the impact I see us having on girls and women around the country; we have enjoyed seeing the professional league grow, even over the last 18- 24 months; whether it is the coverage, whether it’s the volume of broadcasting deals that have been record-breaking, whether it is record numbers at stadiums, you’ve got players now who are household names who may not have been two or three years ago. We don’t take credit of that, of course, that’s down to the players, The FA, Women in Football as well. That makes us incredibly proud to be associated with it. To see how the focus on women’s football has completely shifted over the past 18 to 24 months and the impact we see this having on young girls in particular. To see them have the experience, to have role models on the pitch -some of these big names - actually whether they are male or female - we’ve been a big part of making that happen. To see the confidence girls get from being able to play the game day in, day in and how it will set them up for later life, that’s been one of the many benefits that we are seeing through this partnership, with much more to come.
Looking to the future
In the short term we are desperate to get girls back playing football in school and we want to continue on this journey of training and developing that we are doing with relationships with you and our other allies. When you look back to where WIF has come from, where the game has come from there is an incredible momentum. Some of that has been upset slightly by the pandemic, in more ways than one, but there’s very few walks of life that haven’t been impacted and I do believe when things do start getting back to normal, that the need and the desire for football for both men and women will be stronger than ever. Particularly from a local community perspective right the way through to the pro game which is still running at the moment, which is incredibly important.
I think there will be a real focus on the power of sport, the benefit of sport, the benefit of football and in turn that can only help the work that we are doing to grow and attract more allies to the game, to understand some of the challenges that are still faced. I believe we will see some significant fall out from this, particularly in the lower leagues and in the women’s side where funding is not as strong as it could be, where they don’t have the deep pockets as some of the men’s clubs do. There will be impacts there and there will be some sad stories but it will come back as the game continues to grow. The more people involved in this and support it and move it in the right direction, the better. I see and hope there will be bigger interest in this area, in women’s football and sport overall as I think it will be healing as we come out of this process.
I think the professional game as such, despite the pandemic, is continuing to develop and grow. We are seeing positive signs with broadcasting deals and ongoing professionalisation of the game. That is incredibly valuable for the work Women in Football are doing. We’ve seen there has been an awful of coverage about the Super League and travel, we are not here to debate whether they should or should not have done that, what is interesting is that it is a debate, if we went back a couple of years it probably wouldn’t have been. We are seeing a real connection between the fans and players that’s leading to this debate about whether it is right or wrong - it shows the profile of the game has risen so much for this to be an issue. The point I make is the fact that people are so animated there are positives within that; the game has moved on to be so valuable, so close to peoples’ hearts, so professional and I think that will continue.
There is a lot of concern about making comparisons with the men’s game, and salaries involved, and again I think there’s a valuable role for organisations like Women in Football to play there. All the work we do, you do around training, development and Leadership, particularly in a football environment, can only help move that in the right direction.
Why are male allies such as yourself so important and what difference can they make?
We are very proud to play a role in the men’s and women’s game. We see an incredibly valuable role there, having a relationship there with both professional leagues. It’s not about comparing one with the other, it’s about football for all, football for men, football for women, wherever you come from, wherever you live, whatever walk of life. We truly believe about football creating opportunities for all and that’s why our relationship with both the Premier League and Women’s Super League is so incredibly important, but also the ability to use male allies to help promote and champion the game has been so powerful for us.
There are a few things that stand out; I came into this role at Barclays and inherited a partnership, a relationship, with Women in Football and within that time we moved to become the title sponsor of the Women’s Super League. In that time, it was all a learning curve for me. I really did not have a grasp of what was going on in the football industry and where some of the challenges were for either women wanting to play, whether at grassroots level or professionally, right the way through to people who want to work in the industry. I have been incredibly fortunate to have spent time with people who have really educated me around that area, and I include yourself in that, and many other members of Women in Football who are from a similar background. I admire that commitment to take all that learning, all that experience and trying to transform it into something good and something that other people don’t have to experience when they want to enter into the industry.
I’ve also had the ability to spend time with players and managers; Kelly Smith is one that always stands out for me. I love hearing her talk about her story - there’s parts of it not to love, her experience of trying to make it as a professional in this country was hampered at every step of the way, whether it was people not believing in her, the infrastructure or simply girls didn’t play football at a professional level as there was no professional league.
There were so many barriers that eventually she had to leave the country and go to the US to professionalise. Stories like that really brought it home to me and of course stories like this are not isolated to football, these are isolated to every walk of life, whether it is the corporate world right the way through to the sporting world. I’ve had a steep learning curve, but a very valuable learning curve from some very influential people in this area and some passionate people in this area and I feel very fortunate to have had that.
It has made me open my eyes to some of the challenges more than I ever had before and when I bring it right back down to my own situation and I’ve talked about this story many times, I have a young daughter who today is still faced with some of these challenges in school around playing football, which blows my mind. So things like that annoy you but they make you want to do more so that other children, other women don’t face that.
That’s why I believe male allies to be so important. They dominate certain parts of the football industry and they have very powerful voices and very powerful platforms, particularly when you move over to the professional side, which is why I think it is so important, so valuable, for them to be a part of this.
Ian Wright is a great example; his commitment, his passion and pioneering spirit and the momentum he wants to create with transforming the women’s game is heard by hundreds of thousands of people, which is so valuable as we move on this journey as we can’t do it alone. For me, the more male allies the better.
I would encourage anyone to come and spend time with Women in Football, attend one of their events. You only have to be there for five minutes to think ‘I want to be part of this and I can make a difference’ with some very simple things that we don’t always think about day in, day out that could help transform the experience of girls or women within the game and make it a better place for all.
Jane Purdon image credit: Brad Merrett http://www.bradmerrett.com/