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What’s the real reason behind gender inequality in football?

Emmie Eernisse
March 20, 2019

Following a lawsuit involving the US national football team, the issue of equal pay is in the spotlight. Two Germany internationals talked to DW about the issue at a Berlin film festival focusing on women's football.

Frauenfussball - Deutschland (GER) - Slowenien (SLO) -Johanna Elsig
Image: picture-alliance/SvenSimon/O. Haist

While there's no doubt it exists, identifying the reasons for gender inequality in football requires looking away from the pitch. In the eyes of many observers, a legacy of women being sidelined from the sport keeps women's football an afterthought in the male-dominated, money-oriented football world.

One platform which has helped football's females gain more value and recognition is film. In its 16th edition, 11mm, the world's largest film festival dedicated solely to football, focuses primarily on women in football this year in Berlin. Now more than ever, cinematic representations of women in football are magnifying women's struggle to be taken seriously in the sport.

Signs of growing attention offer glimpses of hope

This summer's Women's World Cup in France has increased the focus on the sport while a crowd of over 60,000 at Sunday's match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona made history. Furthermore, in the past month, all 28 members of the US women's national soccer team sued their federation with allegations of institutional gender discrimination. These, and other recent events, seem to be signs that respect is growing. But is it incremental development or is fundamental change underway?

Germany goalkeeper Lisa Schmitz at the 11mm Film Festival in Berlin
Germany goalkeeper Lisa Schmitz at the 11mm Film Festival in BerlinImage: Judith Berganski

On Monday night German national players Johanna Elsig (pictured, top) and Lisa Schmitz (left) took a break from their busy routines as both pro footballers and university students to soak in some cinematic entertainment at Berlin's City Kino Wedding and get a better handle on that question.

The 11mm festival kicked off with the screening of the 2018 French underdog comedy "Let the Girls Play”. Set in Reims in 1968 when women were still banned from football, the film tells the story of the rule breaking pioneers who helped create France's first female team.

Work hard, play by the rules and success will follow?

Under the festival's umbrella theme of "Women in Football” 10 more international films deviate from cliched but attractive typical Hollywood sports films, which assume that anyone who works hard, remains determined and plays by the rules will succeed. Instead, 11mm's film selection brings attention to the varying socio-economic, political and cultural hurdles women still face while fighting for their rights in football all over the world.

According to the Global Sports Salary Survey 2017, not only are there far fewer opportunities for women to make a living wage from professional sport, but those that do earn only about one hundredth of the sums their male counterparts pull in.

Elsig still feels fortunate she is able to make a living from her passion. "You can earn money with football. It can be your job. That wouldn't have been possible in the 70s or 80s,” the defender told DW. But she is aware her career choice is provisional. "I think it's hard to have a double career. When you end your football career, you have to do something else. You have to go to university to have a job after.”

Sunday's match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona set a record attendance for a women's club match
Sunday's match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona set a record attendance for a women's club matchImage: Imago/EFE/K. Huesca

She also gives a stark example of the economic disparity between genders. "If you're a man and you get injured at 25 and have already played in the first league, you have more money that you can live from," she said. But as a woman, she maintained, "you better make sure you put away some savings, in case something happens."

Should compensation be revenue-based?

The most common argument explaining away the wage discrepancy in football is that men's football has many more spectators, generating more commercial revenue and sponsorship money for the men. While this logic seems rational, the scale of the disparity is often not.

UEFA delegates 99.8 percent of the Champions League money to the men's competition while the women get 0.2 percent, according to a 2017 statistic used in the opening of character-driven Swedish documentary "Football, for Better or Worse”. The film follows one of the world's highest-ranking female football clubs at the time, Rosengard, and its financial struggle to survive with inadequate support and sponsorship money. The film's protagonist and club's new sporting director states in the opening scene, "Men's football generates more money and it's right they get more. But the gap as it stands now, is not reasonable.”

Will women's football ever break free from male dominance?

While the lawsuit brought by the USA team has garnered global attention, Germany's goalkeeper Schmitz was doubtful something similar could happen in her country. She told DW she didn't think demands for equal wages would be tolerated. "Hopefully, the federation will take the first step and offer to help the women, and that we won't have to sue the federation ourselves,” she said.

Other countries have taken the initiative to pave the way for change in women's professional football. In October 2017 Norway became the first country to agree to same salary conditions for both its men's and women's national teams. As of now, Germany shows no inclination to follow the example of its Scandinavian neighbors.

While gender equality in football still seems a utopian concept to some, many increasingly think it is the future. To reach that, it's widely believed more financial investments and female-created structures must be created to encourage change. The progress of the last few months may just be the beginning.

DW's Bundesliga program Kick-Off! is a long-standing partner of the 11mm Football Film Festival. The festival takes place at Kino Babylon in Berlin and runs until March 25, featuring three DW productions on Friday March 22. For a full schedule, visit 11-mm.de.

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