How Lewes FC is breaking the glass ceiling in football

Karen Dobres, volunteer press officer for Lewes Football Club

By Charlotte Hance

Football – a universally spoken language that is loved and watched by millions around the globe. Week by week, fans across the world flock to stadiums, stream from their smart phones and rush to their TVs to watch the important games of the season and support their favourite team.

Every street in every major city feature football adverts. Every brand of trainer is endorsed by popular male footballers. TV panels are comprised of male football legends and young boys constantly fight over what football hero they would like to be when they grow up. Football is engrained into every part of our society, but only male athletes get the starring roles.

The Movement

What happens to young girls who have no female football heroes because no one has ever heard of them? It is almost laughable when girls say they want to play like Ronaldo when they are older, because the sad reality is that girls will never be recognised on that level in the footballing world. The glass ceiling in football is so thick for women, it is hard to even make a small dent into it, but Karen Dobres is helping to break the glass one piece at a time.

Karen is the volunteer press officer for Lewes Football Club, which says it is the “Only professional, or semi-professional football club in the world to start paying its women footballers the same as its men”. Karen’s voluntary work focuses on the Lewes FC women’s team where she often goes to assemblies, schools, and organisations in the area to encourage women and men to come to the Lewes FC women’s matches.

Karen dedicates a lot of her time to promote and support the women’s team. She turns up to every match, actively tweets about match days, events, has great working relationships and importantly, friendships with many of the women players. So why does she do so much work to support women’s football? She says: “Women players have accepted so much, they accept they will have to travel further to play football than men, they accept they will have to pay more for training and I want to change that.”

We met in a small café in Lewes and she gives me a tour of The Dripping Pan – the name of their stadium. She proudly told me how legend says it got its name from monks at Lewes Priory who used to extract the salt from the ground with pans. She excitedly nudged me when she spotted a young boy rocking a Lewes FC shirt with the hashtag #WhatIf splayed across the front – a campaign started by Women in Football. Karen says the hashtag helps to display the determination of the women’s game and encourages people to think what they can do to further the growth of women’s football.

What is Being Done

Instead of their women players not playing in the same stadium as the men – which is common in women’s Super League clubs, the Lewes FC women’s team train and play in the same grounds as the men. But she says: “There is plenty more in football that needs to change in terms of parity and we need people to come to women’s matches so that we can prove how successful the women’s game can be.”

Karen joined Lewes FC when she heard about their Equality FC campaign and since then with her and many others’ vital help, the club has grown from strength to strength. Karen admits she was never much of a fan of football herself, something that seems hard to believe nowadays as she attends every match rocking her Lewes FC merchandise, cheering on the players from the stands at The Dripping Pan.

So why did she have a change of heart about liking football? She says: “I went to watch a women’s match and it was totally different to what I usually see on the TV of men’s football. Different because it is not often that we can go somewhere and relate to women physically but also we don’t usually see reflections of ourselves in public places doing powerful things and not caring how we are presented.”

The Stereotype

The day after watching the match, Karen was recruiting her friends and family to come to the next games. Slowly but surely the crowds started to increase and recently the women reached a record crowd of 714 attendees to a league match, only a year after launching their Equality FC campaign.

But Karen says Lewes FC is not without its critics, particularly those who believe women’s matches will not draw in the same crowds as the men.

Football is stereotypically associated with male players but women players were actually drawing in huge crowds back in the 1900s. During World War I, women took on the duties of men, including football.  Women factory workers set up matches in their break times playing against other factories in the area. What was meant to be a bit of fun, turned into scheduled matches and formal teams. A Boxing Day match at Goodison Park in 1920 drew in a crowd of more than 50,000 – the number of people a men’s Premier League match usually see nowadays. However, in 1921 The FA inflicted a ban on women’s football, which lasted for a staggering 50 years. The FA banned women’s football because women supported mining strikes at their matches. Shockingly, the reason the FA used to enforce the immediate ban was by getting a doctor to confirm that if women continued playing football, their gynaecological health would be badly affected.

Karen says: “How can we expect to draw in the same crowds as the men straight away when historically we are not starting from a level playing field with the men?” She says crucially, she must “respect their critics” because they have a point, but women have some catching up to do before the figures will be a fair and accurate representation of popularity.

Equality in Football

Importantly, she also emphasises celebrating and encouraging both the men and women’s teams. She says: “We believe what we’re doing could at Lewes could have important consequences for women in football and beyond the pitch too. At a time when gender equality is part of our zeitgeist, the club are pioneers in a male bastion. As we are 100 per cent community-owned we aim to continue crafting value in our community locally and even in the international community.” Karen strives for a future where neither women or men are dominating but where there is an equal level of pay, respect and resources.

She references Lewes FC’s match posters as a good example of equal respect. Often women in competitive environments are portrayed in an antagonistic way and there is a clear sense of opposition. Lewes’ match day posters feature an inspirational famous woman from the opposition’s team or area. When Lewes FC played Tottenham Hotspur, Adele and one of the Lewes FC players were featured on the poster. This unique style of marketing is designed to “support and champion all women,” says Karen.  Their marketing campaign is refreshing in a culture that constantly pits women against each other.

So what does the future hold for Lewes FC? Karen says: “What we are doing feels important, so we will carry on – regardless of criticism to help make women feel valued and equal.”

As is the case with many culture-changing initiatives, there are many others involved in Lewes’ determination to break sexist boundaries in football. Directors of Lewes FC and the many volunteers who put their energy into the club support each other in their quest to change culture, and Karen is quick to praise their work. She also mentions proudly, that the Lewes FC Women support the Red Box Project in Brighton, an organisation working to end period poverty; CARE, a humanitarian organisation working to empower girls and women; RISE, the Sussex-based domestic abuse charity, and Brighton Women’s Centre, a women’s charity, to name a few.

Although she says there is a constant pressure for her and the club to prove themselves and their decision, her work at Lewes FC is helping to transform the face of football and the opinions of many.

For more information on Lewes FC women and their match-day fixtures visit: https://www.lewesfc.com

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