Unconscious bias

Football is so widely consumed that it is no surprise when subjects to the wider world are caught in its tentacles. Arsene Wenger often champions football and its team ethic as one of planet earth’s only true democracies. In the competitive environment of the pitch, quality is the only qualification necessary to succeed. Whilst the lack of black managers, declared homosexual footballers and Indian footballers suggests that the politics that surrounds football is hardly impervious to inequality, on the actual pitch, football is quite progressive when set against industry.

Football has very publicly tackled many an ‘ism’ in recent years. The ‘quality first’ arbiter of team construction hasn’t always chimed with the political conditioning of the terraces. Whilst plenty of challenges still remain, visible progress has been made in much of Europe tackling the majority of visible (or even audible) racism. The gears are just beginning to grind with regards to confronting homophobia in football.

A lot of football’s remaining challenges in these areas relate to tackling unconscious bias. That’s a trickier battle. It’s reasonably easy to identify the extremists and educate the world as to why, making monkey noises at a black player for instance, is an abhorrent thing to do. Those that do it also realise they are being wantonly prejudicial. It’s a more precarious task alerting people about their unconscious biases (which we all have) when they don’t believe they have any.

During this World Cup, I have noticed quite a few incidents of misogyny and casual sexism and it’s caused me to reflect on the issue of gender equality amongst football fans. In the build up to this year’s competition, I am sure you have seen those ‘rules for the girlfriend during the World Cup’ memes from lurid social media accounts, usually prefaced with the word ‘lad.’ The most amusing thing about them is the idea that the creators actually have girlfriends.

The germ of the thought began to form when I read this piece by @SianyMacalarny. Broadcaster Jacqui Oatley highlighted an email circular soon after advertising ‘girly football escapes’ which promised to save ‘World Cup widows’ with a promise of ‘bubbles, gossip and pampering.’ As well as Match of the Day’s first ever female commentator, the marketing circular made its way into the inbox of England Ladies international Becky Easton.

A pub in London’s Covent Garden has rebranded itself a ‘pink pub’ where girls can “do serious amounts of footballer leg ogling (tops off goals are preferable please boys)” during the tournament. (I’m not linking the advert for fear of affording them publicity). Heineken, an official UEFA partner, featured an advertising campaign in Brazil for the Champions League final with a mock shoe sale advertisement so that the female folk may be inclined to leave the house and let the men watch the football.

There are thornier issues with this summer’s World Cup coverage too. As this article highlights, of the BBC’s 20 strong pundit / presenter crew at the World Cup, none are female. I can already hear the cries of ‘tokenism’ before I finished that sentence. The only arbiter for good pundits ought to be the quality of their insights and the way in which they deliver them, there’s no argument there. But you’d have to go some way to convince me there are literally no women that can best Shearer and Savage in the insight and eloquence stakes.

It’s not about tokenism, it’s about opportunity. It’s difficult to get people that levy the ‘tokenist, sandal wearing mumbo jumbo’ accusation to understand that. The mould always has to be broken somewhere. There were few, if any, black or foreign pundits or analysts in football’s comfy television studios 20 or 30 years ago. Then when they started arriving, we realised that the sky hadn’t fallen in. Some were great, some were average and some were excellent. The quality of the output didn’t suffer as a result, so the opportunity was advanced.

If anything, it just gave television producers a bit more choice. I’m not convinced that the argument that ex-professionals are better analysts stands much scrutiny either. Who has added more value to the BBC’s World Cup coverage? Tim Vickery or Alan Shearer? Whose analysis do you think is more likely to unearth hitherto undiscovered insights? Robbie Savage or Michael Cox? There’s room for variety. Thierry Henry for instance, has actually applied valuable professional experience to his analysis this summer.

It’s the same reason that there is a ‘Gay Gooners’ banner at Arsenal’s home ground. It’s not about tokenism or ‘rubbing your nose in it.’ This sort of thing is necessary at the beginning of an equality battle. Increased visibility reduces resistance. If you make something part of somebody’s every day reality and they gradually realise that it has no residual effect on them, then acceptance begins to foment. Getting people accustomed to the fact that there are homosexual people in the ground who are doing the same thing you are for the same reason without threatening your ‘experience’ is crucial in reducing unconscious bias. The banner won’t be there in the future because it won’t need to be.

Even up until the early 1990s, there was a consensus that black footballers were physically gifted, but lazy and that they didn’t like playing in the winter months. Of course, once more black players began to arrive on the scene, that discourse was proved to be nonsense. When Arsene Wenger first arrived at Arsenal, I recall many wondering aloud whether a team with such a Gallicw influence would have the ‘bottle’ and fight for the Premier League. That question, based on casual cultural stereotyping, mysteriously disappeared once the trophies started rolling in.

Football is a male dominated environment for obvious reasons and certainly will be for the duration of our lifetimes. That’s not evil or wrong and there are rather obvious reasons for it. Yet more women watch football than ever. Increasingly, stadium attendances and television viewing figures of football games are becoming more female. So it seems a tad curious to me that the levels of casual sexism don’t seem to be reducing.

Maybe the World Cup is more prone to it because of the more general appeal of the tournament. The casual fan is more of a target for broadcasters and advertisers, so maybe the message becomes more vulnerable to ‘laddish’ generalisations. With the exception of ITV’s Gabby Logan, the only real role women have visibly been afforded in this World Cup is eye candy as we are repeatedly subjected to the perversions of the producer. Doe eyed young women in clinging tops are the sole female presence.

This might seem harmless enough, but the role the media plays in representation cannot be underestimated. Especially television. Television gets you at your most intellectually submissive, your least thinking and your most accepting. We thoroughly absorb television’s subliminal messaging. The only subconscious messages we are being transmitted about this World Cup are not positive ones for women. We’re being sold the idea that girls are either entirely disinterested in the game (unless they’re ‘leg ogling’ of course) and the interested girls are only relevant if they’re flashing cleavage.

You’d imagine that this will have to change soon enough and it’s surprising it hasn’t already, even if only for commercial reasons. It’s true that the ‘consumer profile’ of football is male dominated. Yes there are a lot of women (and men) that are not interested in football. But broadcasters and advertisers aren’t doing themselves any favours when the reality is, clearly, that a large number of women do like and are able to comment coherently on football. Why would you continue to undermine such a large part of your audience, even if only subliminally?

The Women in Football task-force  surveyed 600 women working in football and 66.4% said they’d encountered sexism in the workplace. 31% said they’d witnessed women being told they couldn’t do their jobs because of their gender. That’s nearly 200 people! It’s difficult to argue that the messages being transmitted outwards by football and the behaviours existing within it are anything other than problematic and unfair for women. That being the case, it’s an issue that warrants attention. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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