On 12 December 2016, The FA found itself being openly criticised for its efforts to increase participation in women and girls football. At the centre of the criticism is a document posted on the Sussex FA’s website entitled “Considerations for increasing participation in women and girls football”. The document is stated to have been “… compiled by national and regional FA staff with input from the Women Sport and Fitness Foundation”. There are few who would question the document’s objectives; there are many who have questioned its suggested methods of achieving those objectives.

A selection of the document’s most quoted suggestions is that:

  • Football training sessions should be “advertise[d] in places where girls go i.e. coffee shops or on the back of toilet doors”;
  • Bibs should be colourful and “clean and smell nice!”;
  • Girls should be allowed to “…check their phones within a session or incorporate a twitter break so participants can tweet about the session”; and
  • The suggestion that girls could be offered incentives to participate in the football training sessions such as iTunes or cinema vouchers, pink whistles or pink knitted gloves.

The FA’s loudest critics were the deputy headmaster of County Durham based Lumley Junior School and some of her female pupils. The girls have been quoted as saying that the document treats them like “brainless baby Barbies”. The FA responded by saying:

“The FA is committed to doubling female football participation by 2020 and to growing the women’s game at all levels, from elite to grassroots.

The document is aimed at engaging young women who don’t currently play football. It was created following research into women and girls playing football, with feedback from both participants and non-participants, and encourages a creative approach to increasing participation numbers.

We’re very pleased to see how many girls at the school play football and the passion for the game that they clearly have.”

The FA’s guidance may not have been well received in some quarters but it seeks to address a real problem in British society: a report of the findings of a pilot project published by Women in Sport, an organisation that seeks to transform sport for the “benefit of every woman and girl in the UK”, earlier this year found that only “7% of girls currently meet the government recommendations for physical activity and a third of girls age 12-15 are classified as overweight or obese”. The report also explained that nearly two million fewer women than men take part in sport at least once per week and, as a result, suggested it was important to allow “girls to help shape sports programmes more effectively to their needs, and to express their motivations and ideas, thus improving participation. This is most often achieved by establishing a way to capture the girls’ voices and working with the girls directly”.

The FA has run other initiatives to get more girls into football. Earlier this year, Women in Sport and The FA partnered to host The FA Girls’ Football Week which aimed to drive participation in the sport, aiming to get 17,340 girls aged five-16 attend in the first week alone. That is to be commended. And it is not the only governing body seeking to get more girls and women involved in sport. In 2015, Sport England launched its flagship campaign, This Girl Can, to try to ‘change behaviour’ and get more women involved in sport. Independent research suggested that 2.8 million women aged 14 to 40 had recognised that the campaign had made them do some or more activity as a result of watching it.

Football is not the only sport to be struggling to attract and retain young female talent. Research by the Women’s Sports Foundation identified that by age 14 “girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys” and identified a range of reasons why that was the case including a lack of positive female role models, social stigma and a lack of access to facilities.

Health benefits aside, there are numerous other benefits to girls getting into (and staying in) sport including increased confidence, transferrable skills and better prospects in their later careers and in obtaining leadership positions.

The FA’s guidance may not have had its intended effect but its failings highlight the difficulty that our society faces: we accept that more girls and women should be involved in sport; we accept the numerous health and well-being benefits sport can bring; we accept it provides participants with transferrable skills; but we cannot seem to quite work out the key to attracting and retaining female talent in sport. This author would argue that it is a cause undoubtedly worth investigating further.