Is the playground sexist?

Friday, July 02

By Cerys McAdam

As I’m sure you’re aware, football creates many arguments – in the home and on the pitch. It is a sport that undoubtedly has a positive and negative impact on the world around us. It is a sport that creates communities and competition internationally, but that may also promote violence and discourage gender equality. Children worldwide will grow up with football, if not in the home, then in education and social groups. This means that children are almost guaranteed to hear how boys play football and girls do not. So, let us discuss: is football in schools just another way of creating a sexist world or does it do the opposite and promote gender equality and inclusion on the playground? 

We send children to school with the aim that they will be educated. We choose schools by looking at Ofsted reports, league tables and past performance, and we go to open days to ensure that our children are being taught by educators that we deem suitable and reliable. We look at the building to ensure that the school has passed safety inspections and gaze over the playground to check that there are no broken swings hidden behind an untrimmed bush. We do all this because education is crucial. But let’s pause our gaze at the playground for a second longer: is it as suitable for learning as the classrooms are? It should be. Children, particularly those that are young and likely to spend time on the swing set, learn so much more than the national curriculum during the 9 am to 3 pm weekdays. They learn values that will stay in their brain to be applied in their future work in years to come, values like teamwork, fairness and determination. But do they also learn how to be sexist? I think, and I’m sure you will agree with me, that the answer is sometimes. Picture this: the kids have been well behaved, and so they are rewarded an extra five minutes of playtime- where they choose to play football on the field by taking off their school jumpers and throwing them on the grass to mark the goalposts. It takes only one person to say that the girls shouldn’t play because that’s what the sports channels have taught them, for that thought to become permanently lodged in the back of their head for years to come too.

Children are undoubtedly much more susceptible to the world around us than we are. We have more experience in dealing with controversial views that shouldn’t be controversial, and, if someone says something that we don’t agree with, we have the ability to dismiss it and never think of it again. Children, however, haven’t learnt how to do that yet, and they will quite happily absorb everything that someone tells them if they say it confidently enough. If they have no one to teach them that football is for both genders and is an activity that has positive impacts, then they’ll listen to that one person telling them the opposite- don’t underestimate the powerful effect of peer pressure. Football is not a gender-specific sport because that is not a thing. This illusion comes from sports channels showing only men’s football and putting male footballers on the front of magazines because male football has the budget to do that through betting and financial investment. However, I can’t avoid the fact that large progression within women’s football, at club and international levels, has been made in recent years. We have seen a huge increase in the number of women playing football, and the number watching it. According to the Football Association (FA) data in 2020, 3.4 million women and girls in England now play football – which is a figure that has doubled in just three years, suggesting a clear turning point in the popularity of women’s football. But this is just not enough – it needs to keep doubling until it reaches the point where we no longer feel the need to call it women’s football, simply: football.

As a society, we have a responsibility to educate children, boys and girls, as best we can about the positive impact that football can have on the world around us. Internationally speaking, football creates communities, promotes physical and mental fitness and encourages competition. Why would this be any different on the playground? Children learn through other people and activities like football. The world of football is based on competing: the whole aim is to win against rival teams, and this may be why some adults discourage the sport, especially to their “weak and fragile” daughters. But, realistically speaking, competition is good for children. I do not support the belief that children’s self-esteem is damaged by this, I think that the workplace is built on competition and that knowing how to deal with losing is another beneficial life skill that the classroom won’t directly teach them.

Children need to stop growing up with the belief that football is a gender-specific sport. Within educational environments, they are likely to learn this, and it is our job as a society to educate both genders on the benefits of football. It promotes competition and fitness and, in discouraging girls to play, our society is discouraging gender equality and putting girls at a disadvantage. Let’s stop that.


*first published in the Worcester Evening News, by the same author*

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