Written by: Abigail Goh
Edited by: Brenda Tan
Illustrations/Design by: Davida Enara & Catharina Schultz
The phrase: 'you play like a girl', is being redefined. What was once an insult is now empowering women to own its true meaning. In reality, there is nothing negative about being a girl in sport. Normalising what it means to #PlayLikeAGirl rejects the notion that females are less than, unskillful, or undeserving. Instead, celebrating the strength and power in being a woman.
Football like many other sports has been unfairly reserved for men throughout history as a ‘men’s game’. From fans watching at home or in the stands, to business and management, the fight for inclusion and representation has been a long one. Depending on where you live in the world, millions of women still face barriers that ‘forbid them from entering the pitch’ (or stadium). These barriers are entrenched by cultural, religious or even legal restrictions, causing cases of violence and tragedy (for example, the #BlueGirl stadium entry-ban for women in Iran).
On an informal level, women and girls face restrictions in neighbourhoods and schools when accused of playing a sport that’s not ‘feminine’ through bias, microaggressions and other forms of verbal abuse (i.e. heckling and catcalling). However, this gender-exclusivity is slowly being dismantled when the restrictions of a ‘man’s sport’ is played by everyone, including young girls. Girls United Football Association (GU) is a growing organisation empowering young girls through football. Thus, demonstrating that the beautiful game can be inclusive and diverse.
Women Unbounded (WU) is spotlighting GU as an organisation that excels in representing an inclusive game of football. Founder and CEO Romina is an entrepreneur and footballer who set up the GU FA in 2016, with clubs operating in Mexico (Bacalar) and in the UK (London). The two clubs conduct programs with the vision:
"…for girls around the world to have equal access to sport and to provide them with skills and abilities that will broaden their opportunities to participate in education and in the economy. We are bridging the gap between sport and education."
We interviewed a few of the GU team to learn more about the mission
they are working to achieve.
Romina Calatayud, Founder & CEO
Abigail Ingram, London Club Manager
Camilla Johnsen, Marketing Strategy Manager
Mabel Velarde, Mexico Project Manager
Greer-Aylece Robinson, London Coach
Image Courtesy of Girls United Football Association
The aims that GU works to achieve are community-driven by creating safe spaces for players and their communities. The girls aged 5-18 can feel supported in a network of their family, friends, and coaches. This support is pivotal, as US-based survey-data (collected over 25 years) revealed that ‘by the age of 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys, according to the Women's Sports Foundation'.
The reasons cited by the WSF include but are not limited to:
1. Lack of access
Girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys have.
2. Safety and transport issues
Sports require a place to participate – and for many girls, especially in dense urban environments, that means travelling to facilities through unsafe neighbourhoods or lacking any means to get to a good facility miles away.
3. Social stigma
Despite recent progress, discrimination based on the real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of female athletes persists. Girls in sports may experience bullying, social isolation, negative performance evaluations, or the loss of their starting position.
4. Decreased quality of experience
As girls grow up, the quality level of their sports experience may decline. The facilities are not as good as the boys’ venues and the playing times may not be optimal.
Fewer opportunities within schools mean families must pay to play in private programs while also footing the bill for expensive coaches, equipment and out-of-pocket travel requirements. This additional expense is just not possible for many families.
6. Lack of positive role models
Today’s girls are bombarded with [limited] images of external beauty, not those of confident, strong female athletic role models.
Additionally, the communities that GU works with specifically face restricting gender-roles where girls have to take up responsibilities in their household such as becoming care-takers of younger members of the family, at a young age themselves (Romina explains). These responsibilities may cause girls to drop out of school at an early age and also leaves them with less access and time for activities, such as playing a sport. Furthermore, this often causes perceptions to be formed around ‘free time’ and can define what it means to be female as limited. GU describes this phenomena:
Due to negative stereotypes and limiting gender roles, girls and women do not have access to the same opportunities, resulting in gender gaps that go beyond the pitch and into society. There is a significant offering gap for female football, which opens the opportunity for us [GU] to become a key player in the industry.
By empowering young girls to learn and play these gender norms, stereotypes and perceptions are being debunked and transformed.
Representation and Visibility
When speaking to the GU team, the passion and drive for change was a clear motivating factor in their work. They want to make a better future for the girls, for football and for society as a whole. Additionally, all of us had varying but shared experiences of discrimination in the sport, despite coming from very different backgrounds around the world.
‘I think we’ve all encountered a point where we’ve had to play with guys…where there’s no set up for girls to play or we didn’t feel accepted or welcome in an environment in football or not, maybe just as women. I think that is a huge motivation to want to change something’ (Camilla).
Coach G (Greer-Aylece) highlighted that she wanted the girls to have different experiences than she had – to make it a good experience. The want and need to create a better future is possible with increased opportunity through education of girls and women (as a part of the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 4 and SDG 5). GU is a perfect example of the work that is being done to ensure this future. Utilising football to educate not just in the technical-sport sense, but also through an emphasis on socio-emotional and behavioural learning. Through sport, the girls are able to learn how to manage emotions, which is highly beneficial to mental health wellbeing. Additionally, self-confidence, a healthy mindset towards sports, teamwork and communication are skills that GU coaches nurture in their players.
It is necessary that future generations of players, both girls and boys, are able to experience an inclusive sport which challenges male-dominated structures. For Coach G, she expressed that ‘it’s always good to see someone who looks like you’, especially to feel confident and comfortable. At the same time, the environment GU has created is one that is safe and diverse, a standard that is against the norm in the sport.
Level The Playing Field and Allies
The gender gap in sports is a historical plight. Mabel (Mexico Project Manager) brought up that the Women’s World Cup only came into being a whole 61 years later – 1930 Men’s First World Cup vs. 1991 Women’s First World Cup. Mabel, a past-World Cup Player herself, questioned: ‘why is it that we [women] did not have the same “rights'' for so long’. This gender ‘play’ gap has caused many to call for the playing field to be ‘levelled’. To ‘level the playing field’ means to give everyone ‘equal access to the same opportunities, starting on the same ground’. This can be done when everyone is empowered to feel as though they are able to do whatever they want to do by gaining ‘skills and confidence’. Camilla further shared that it’s not about driving the girls ‘to become professional football players necessarily’, but instead for them ‘to feel like they can pursue something they want to’ no matter what that is.
London Club Manager, Abigail, added that it’s not just important to have strong women in the game but also the presence of strong men that believe in the cause. Specifically, examples of family members and friends believing in the cause where ‘all genders support girls to play sport’ as allies . Moreover, the organisation has been able to partner with football clubs, players and others in the industry to take part. The impact of showing a support network of allies in professionals gives the players confidence and a positive vision of what their future could look like.
Takeaways Going Forward
Women’s sports have existed for hundreds of years, and it is important to have these discussions to change an oppressive narrative. On an individual level it is helpful to be more ‘proactive in terms of the media you're consuming’, and to normalise diversity in football. A big takeaway is to understand that girls and women belong in the game in football, and in other spaces that were previously labelled as ‘men’s’. Representation and visibility in sport not only shows that women deserve a chance, but that access is necessary for greater social change. Romina set out creating GU in 2016 to try and achieve societal change explaining that communities, mindsets and the economy can be transformed through these football programs.
‘The heavy masculine dominated field that is grassroots football and elite sports, GU has done a better job at making it accessible for everyone…so it’s not out of reach…not just for the players but for the coaches as well’ (Coach G).
Gender equality and non-discrimination within football and sports more widely is a continuous challenge that we must actively work to combat. Nonetheless, the possibilities that organisations like GU creates, has no bounds for the girls, their families and communities involved. We would like to thank GU for showcasing the power that lies in being able to #PlayLikeAGirl.
Our interview with the Girls United team will be released in the coming weeks, stay tuned!
Photo Credits: https://www.facebook.com/girlsunitedfa/ / @girlsunitedfa.