At the end of 2018 we all watched with horror as Ada Hegerberg, the first female winner of the coveted Ballon d’Or, was asked whether she could twerk. It was a tremendously disappointing moment on several levels, seeming to denigrate not only the achievements of Hegerberg herself but also the status and underlying struggle of women’s football to be seen as a worthy equal to its male counterpart.
As the headmaster of an all-through girls’ school with a thriving football programme and the dad to two football-mad daughters, I cringed at the imbecility of the host’s question. It provided an object lesson, had we needed one, in the prejudices and barriers that continue to beleaguer women and girls, even at a time when women’s football is gaining unprecedented recognition and acclaim. Look elsewhere, and we see the same systemic inequality writ large in the continuing pay gap in the salaries of professional men and women footballers.
And yet, for all its injustice, it’s probably true that this disparity in the upper echelons of the game is part of the reason why the football I see being played at my own school or at the local club to which I ferry my daughters every weekend is so exciting and full of promise. Boys in their mid-teens, at the bottom of the academy pyramid, are often so focused on the elusive dream of getting signed to a professional club that the joy of playing can be lost in the pursuit of money and fame. But girls’ football isn’t like that. It retains an egalitarian, "jumpers for goalposts" love of the game which is clearly helping to open up the sport to players of all ages, inspiring boys as well as girls, mums as well as dads.
Football breaks down gender barriers
I see evidence of this all around me. My eldest, for example, is a huge fan of Flo Fyfe, Oxford United’s creative and free-scoring midfielder. When I asked her what it is she admires about her, she answered simply that players like Flo "are just more relatable". Is it possible to calculate the value of having such a positive role model for a young girl, particularly as we seek to counteract outdated gender stereotypes? When I take the girls to play football on a Saturday morning at our local club, Summertown Stars, and see them emulating the moves of their heroes with such joy and fire, then I would have to say that, no, there really isn’t.
At Oxford High School, where we introduced football into our core sports programme three years ago, I see further evidence of this passion for the game. In recent entrance interviews, for example, I have been struck by the sheer number of girls who proudly declare football as their favourite sporting activity. (Sadly, a number of girls have simultaneously professed a love of Arsenal, but then you can’t have everything!)
What’s behind this groundswell of popularity? Could it be the case that, by claiming a traditionally male domain, women’s football is giving girls permission to realign their perception of what is possible?
Perhaps that has something to do with it. But whatever the reason, we believe that promoting girls’ football in school – and raising up our own footballing champions – is helping us tackle gender stereotypes both on and off the field. It sends a powerful message to our community, and any other community which takes it up, that we are serious about tackling inequality in a male-dominated arena which continues to exert a seminal influence on the hopes and dreams of young people around the world.
That’s why we were so delighted to offer a sixth-form sports scholarship to Georgia Brown, an England Schools U15 player who has this season been selected for the ISFA (Independent Schools Football Association) Representative Team, received her first England Cap and joined Cheltenham Town Ladies, who are currently third in the Women’s National League. Not only does Georgia provide an incalculable boost to our U18 side, she’s also a very real, very "relatable" role model to the younger girls, showing just what is possible with the right support and motivation.
Another big project we are working on at the moment is "Girls on the Ball". Led by our assistant head (co-curricular), Claire Nebesnuick, and our head of football, Liam Gilbert, this partnership with over 25 local primary schools has enabled us to leverage our central-city location in the heart of Summertown to offer opportunities not merely in football but also hockey and netball, bringing together over 200 students from a wealth of different backgrounds from all over the city, in a way that only sport can do.
At the close of every season of Girls on the Ball, each girl gets to keep her own shirt with her team’s colours on. It serves as a reminder of what she’s capable of when she works with others and competes with respect. In an era when our communities and politics seem polarised by ideological difference and when female sporting icons are still patronised, it is a source of inspiration – and pride – to see sport play such a pivotal role for girls and their families.
Rewatching that clip of Ada Hegerberg, I notice something I missed before. Yes, the interviewer’s question was moronic. But look at Ada's response: it was calm, implacable, full of strength and confidence. I think our girls would recognise it.
Dr Philip Hills is the headmaster at Oxford High School GDST