Sat at my kitchen table, drinking a blue smoothie that claims to energise me, I am just about ready to reflect on an experience of a lifetime; 34 days at the Women’s World Cup. For those of you that don’t know me, I am a 21-year-old sports journalist specialising in women’s football, I have worked in the industry for the likes of BBC Sport, the Independent and The Times during my sports journalism degree at Staffordshire University, which I completed earlier this summer.
I graduated with first class honours, not an easy feat while balancing several jobs in an industry that does not have an off button. Transfers and stories do not wait while you finish that essay that is due in at midnight and represents 50% of your entire grade…I was lucky to have tutors that understood the need to balance of studies and job prospects.
I have been lucky. There is no getting around it or hiding it. I got my ‘big break’ sat in a small office in my lecture room, told by my head lecturer there was a small column available in The Times for a women’s football round-up, because none of the established (male) writers fancied rolling their sleeves up and getting up close and personal with the Women’s Super League – understandably - there are more attractive prospects in the industry.
I was chosen in some part because of my academic and written ability, but it would be wrong to suggest my gender played no part. I was a woman, and it was women’s football. Now, I am not saying this is right, or any of my peers couldn’t be in the position I am now if they had been given that opportunity, because there are plenty talented enough.
I have mixed feelings about gender quotas, and this probably isn’t the place for them. Put simply, I believe the best person for the job regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation should get the job. I always say I would hate to get a job I didn’t deserve, and at times over the past two years it has felt as though that was the case. I have fast-tracked a career and experienced FA Cup finals, and a World Cup for a national newspaper that career journalists may never get to experience – and I certainly don’t take that for granted.
But, something has to change to transform a landscape that does not inspire minorities or half of the population. If you do not have role models you will not succeed and trying to find a female byline in a national newspaper, particularly in the sports section, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
It does not help that even in sports journalism courses the ratio of women to men is still embarrassing. In my year there was just myself and one other woman in a class of 20+. This poses the discussion of role models and achievable goals which still seem absent and make this career path difficult to navigate for women.
If that means sometimes strong, young women are given a chance, then that should not be resented. I highlight the word strong because if you are not, you will be eaten alive. I’ve watched people crumble in a press box, at the heat of deadline and it is not an easy job. But when you finish a match report and read it in a newspaper with your byline, I’m yet to experience anything better.
In my two years in women’s football I could count on one hand the amount of times I have faced discrimination, and ironically that has come from older women in the industry in disbelief that somebody like me could work for The Times. Don’t worry, I question it too. It is only natural.
My experience in men’s football prior to this was not always pleasant, and being the only female in a press box, can be a genuinely draining experience. The solitary female in a room of men, you are not privy to the in jokes or the friendship groups built over socialising away from the pitch for years ‘on their patch’. It tested my resolve to do this job, and every man that looked at me in surprise when I wrote something insightful or answered a loaded question successfully pushed me on.
My first experience in women’s football was much the same, walking into the City Academy stadium for my first WSL game, with a new press pack to prove myself to as I also got to grips with writing for a national newspaper. In women’s football the tide is slowly turning as more and more national organisations begin to employ talented young women, alongside the core of male reporters that have been covering the game for several years.
Fast forward two years and a growing amount of coverage and column inches in The Times, and it was the Women’s World Cup, my target from that first mention of the job at university. Looking back, I’m not sure what I expected from my first tournament. There was a lot of the unknown and a mixture of nerves and excitement for a tournament that I knew would determine whether I could live this dream full-time or go back to working men’s football part-time.
I was under no illusions. I am 21, a white woman from a council estate in a small town, and I was walking into an international tournament, competing with journalists that have worked in the industry for years and years and earned their stripes many times over. If they were the karate black belts, then I was still learning to tie a white one.
Any major tournament, particularly since the appointment of Phil Neville as England manager, signals an influx of men’s football journalists, and chief sports writers following the team until they undoubtedly lose and they return home to the cushioned press boxes of the Premier League. If the women’s football scene features equality – a mix of genders and backgrounds – then this influx plays to all of the old journalism stereotypes. Mostly middle-aged white men, from privileged backgrounds. The type of people I have been taught my entire life would resent my very existence in their sacred industry.
I won’t name names, if you have been following me on twitter or the World Cup coverage as a whole you will know the journalists I am referring to. But you will also notice the amount of positive comments from them about myself and many other young women. Their approach was not of a chief writer stomping around their patch, sparking out the creativity and fresh approach of the young, instead it was a quiet word in a packed press room telling you that you were doing well, that people were impressed with your content and to keep going. Making sure you were not isolated at a point where you had lost track of how many hotels you had stayed in, and internal flights you had caught, these writers that have been doing this before I was even born, genuinely cared.
I wondered if this was the turning of the tide. Where a crop of young talent, pushed by its male peers to believe in itself, could break into the mainstream and be the genuine future of print. They certainly seemed to think so. One by one, as England lost and the journalists went home and returned to their usual patches, they sent words of encouragement, an outstretched palm for when we returned to England without job security and back to the weekly grind of the WSL. They said this press pack was a refreshing change, a modern approach at journalism both in print and socially.
I missed them terribly. I still do. In fact, returning home to watch them go back to breaking exclusives and watching the verified ticks on Twitter I feel proud to know that these men are what I believe is the future of feminism. Not divisive, simply strong and confident in their own masculinity, a growing wave of male allies for the next generation. I hope they realise the impact they made on all of us.
Not once at the World Cup did I consider I was watching women’s football, just football. I did not feel like a women’s sports journalist, a minority, just a sports journalist on an equal playing field as my colleagues.
As US captain Megan Rapinoe called for equality for everything from pay to gay rights, she also highlighted the need for women to tell women’s stories.
So, in true Marta style…if you read women’s football coverage this tournament and saw it was written by a woman, and you enjoy writing, why don’t you give it a go? It is not easy, but it is rewarding, and working in football really is living the dream. The women’s super league is crying out for coverage and even those of us covering the game regularly or full-time can only be at one game a day.
If you can succeed in a male-dominated industry (yes, it still is), then you aren’t just proving that you are good enough, you are proving that women are good enough, that this is an achievable dream for the next generation. Whether that is in five years, ten years or even further into the future than that. I have been inspired by the likes of Alyson Rudd, Louise Taylor and Jacqui Oatley who amongst many others have fought this fight in far worse conditions than I have experienced.
We have male allies, at every single major newspaper and national outlet in this country. It is not a very female thing to back yourself or put yourself out there. But sometimes you have to take a leap, and like me, you might fly further than you ever dreamt. Now is the time.