The power of role models and how to change our bias towards women’s sport

By Rachel Lilburn

My 11-year-old boy is football mad. He’s played since he was four.

We lived in Chile until he was seven, and we would often go to Chilean Premier Division Matches. It was a predominantly male crowd, watching men play, with male referees and officials.

We watch his male idols on TV, and he follows the glory moments of male footballers on social media.

As a young boy, he can see himself reflected in players and spectators; he can see a pathway through his teens, and on to playing as an adult.

The majority of the television coverage available is for men’s games. He’s completely unaware of the unconscious bias he is already developing.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup on our doorstep has not only been a chance to watch some world-class football, but an opportunity to shift perspectives of the sport he lives and breathes.

It’s important to me that he, and his friends and teammates, grow up with the idea that the Beautiful Game is played by men and women, and that we support football, regardless of who it is played by.

World champions Spain … different role models for future generations. Photo credit: FIFA.

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. My son and I headed to Hamilton to see Argentina v Sweden; and to Auckland for the semi-final.

Sitting with 43,000 other fans at Eden Park watching Spanish v Sweden, soaking in the atmosphere of a world cup semi-final, roaring off his seat for the goals — it was exciting, fun, fantastic football.

Half the boys in my son’s team went to at least one game; and/or watched more on television. We talked about the games and the goals and the results at trainings. They can name several players.

If that was being repeated in clubs throughout the country, then I hope it bodes well for a sea change in attitudes for the next generation of footballers and their families.

The power of role models

Our football club here in Taupo isn’t big enough to support a female league. Our girls play in mixed (mainly boys) teams during the season, and girls’ teams are formed for some festivals and tournaments.

For our girls, not only getting to see women as the stars of the show on the pitch, but also having women referees and officials cannot be underestimated.

Our young boys see themselves everywhere — our girls do not.

I hope the power of our girls having these visuals of what they can aspire to in front of them lives on as a legacy, and I hope coaches and club administrators can see the benefit in creating female spaces for football.

The Fantails initiative being rolled out around the country is an example of a legacy that has the potential to hugely impact the next generation of female footballers coming through.

Before the media surrounding the World Cup, I didn’t know that women’s football was banned here from 1921 until 1971.

We followed in the footsteps of the English FA.

READ MORE: The history of women’s football in the UK >>>>

READ MORE: How women’s football got its start in New Zealand in the 1920s >>>>

Women’s football was first played in New Zealand in 1921. Photo credit: Auckland Weekly News — University of Auckland Library.

The sponsorship and media

I loved the (French Telecom Company) Orange ad that went viral in June. Showcasing action clips of Les Bleus, including Antoine Griezman and Kylian MBappe, it’s revealed at the end to be a deep fake, with the male player’s faces edited onto clips of Les Blues, the French Women’s team.

The company’s stated intention was to prove that “women’s football is as technical as men’s football”.

It was a really simple and clever way of challenging stereotypes of women’s sport, and women’s football.

If you haven’t already, watch it here:

Correct the Internet

It’s not just people that are biased. The internet is too.

Ask simple, ungendered questions to find sporting facts, internet search engines will incorrectly put men ahead of statistically superior women in search results.

Rebecca Sowden.

This New Zealand-created campaign from earlier in 2023 aims to highlight and correct search results.

Former Football Fern Rebecca Sowden (41), an Auckland-based specialist sports marketing consultant, is one of the founding partners. She said:

“Many of the world’s leading athletes are women. Many of the world’s sporting records are held by women. But when people search online for factual sporting information about athletes, the results favour the sportsmen, even when the sportswomen have greater statistics.”

READ MORE: ‘Correct The Internet’ campaign aims to help make sportswomen more visible >>>>

A one-minute movie explaining the campaign was screened at half-time during the Football Ferns’ international friendly with the United States at Auckland’s Eden Park early in 2023.

Here it is:

Rachel Lilburn

Rachel Lilburn is Taupo-based and a keen follower of her son’s progress as a junior player. Her feature articles for Friends of Football have included a special feature on Taupo’s McCartney Invitational Tournament, a profile of New Zealand U-17 men’s captain Dylan Gardiner, a World Cup for over-40s and a guideline to sideline behaviour.

READ MORE: Special feature: How a favour turned into a Taupo tournament for 2,000 juniors >>>>

READ MORE: Eighth annual Christchurch tournament draws 1,500 young players >>>>

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