In recent weeks, women’s soccer has generated plenty of international headlines. Just not the international headlines the sport hopes to make.
Canada played the SheBelieves Cup under protest as players fought for equal pay and equal work conditions. National team members voiced outrage with budget cuts, inferior staff numbers, withheld pay and, generally, the Canadian soccer powers that be. Outrage also surfaced amid reports that Saudi Arabia would sponsor the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Dutch star Vivianne Miedema said FIFA “should be deeply ashamed” of doing business with a country that severely limits women’s rights and avidly engages in sportswashing.
Conversations about the Canadian protest and the Saudi Arabian sponsorship deal (not yet officially announced) could go in any number of important, yet separate, directions. But with International Women’s Day fast approaching and the 2023 Women’s World Cup starting in late July, we’re reminded of the interconnectedness of the issues women in sports face.
The Canadian protest and the Saudi Arabian sponsorship deal highlight familiar, persistent problems with male-dominated organizational cultures, decisions and decision-makers. The two situations remind us about the value of diverse leadership at the very top of organizations and the need to hold the powers that be accountable. In both cases, it’s easy to imagine different outcomes if women served as president of Canada Soccer and president of FIFA. (Last week, Canada Soccer President Nick Bontis resigned, potentially making a female president more than a thought experiment.)
The ever-present challenge for all involved: Diverse sports leadership that includes women requires openness to new decision-makers. It also requires career paths that develop them and networks that include them. This is as true with U.S. sports organizations as it is with leagues and teams overseas.
Creating culture change throughout German soccer, specifically getting leagues and teams to hire women for high-ranking leadership roles, is the mission that motivates nonprofit Fussball Kann Mehr. Translation: Football Can Do More. Started by nine women prominent in German soccer circles, including national team goalkeeper Almuth Schult and referee Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb, the organization’s efforts, experiences and progress provide a timely international perspective.
“We started as a voice to promote gender equality and diversity in football, to open the minds of people in football to the value of different perspectives,” said Jana Bernhard, managing director of Fussball Kann Mehr. “As a consequence of discussions with clubs, associations and the general public, we found we needed to support women with their career paths and help clubs and associations create career paths for women.”
When Fussball Kann Mehr launched in 2021, men occupied more than 90% of key decision-making positions in German football federations and clubs. In an attempt to change that, the nonprofit published a list of eight demands related to gender inequality and leadership opportunities in German soccer. The demands called on leagues and teams to employ more women in critical leadership roles and targeted positions at the president, managing director and board member level.
By 2024, Fussball Kann Mehr wants women to occupy at least 30% of those roles. Another specific goal for next year: At least one woman on the board of directors of every German professional football club.
The nonprofit aims to work with partners genuinely committed to sustainable change.
The specificity of the demands signals that. It also communicates that an optics-driven approach to diversity, a checklist mentality, won’t satisfy Fussball Kann Mehr. (Hiring and policymaking driven by optics and checklists shouldn’t satisfy anyone, but they still appear the norm.)
Fussball Kann Mehr chose the 30% minimum purposefully because, as Bernhard highlighted, research shows that 30% creates the critical mass necessary to change systems and structures. That aligns with the nonprofit’s larger goal: to change the traditional systems and structures used in German soccer so that leagues and teams not only hire more women for prominent leadership roles but invest in the development of those women.
Currently, women fill around 2% of all management positions in German soccer (four out of 167 jobs in Bundesliga 1 and 2). When it comes to the Bundesliga’s governing bodies, women occupy around 10% of all management positions (39 women out of 406 total jobs). But there are some signs of progress.
Bernhard cites the recent addition of Anne-Kathrin Laufmann to Werder Bremen’s four-person executive board as one noteworthy example. At the moment, Fussball Kann Mehr partners with four Bundesliga teams — Werder Bremen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hertha Berlin and VfB Stuttgart — to help define and implement strategies aimed at increased diversity in their leadership ranks. Fussball Kann Mehr sees itself as both a source of inspiration and a resource with a diverse network — government officials, lawyers, business strategists, soccer executives and players — ready to share experiences, data and best practices.
“We are advising clubs on how they can drive change internally and look outside of the organization to bring in more women, including women from outside the soccer world,” said Bernhard. “They have to help women see that they are capable of working in soccer organizations and that they can develop a career path there.”
Fussball Kann Mehr finds that its initiatives benefit from diverse perspectives, specifically input from inside and outside traditional soccer organizations and established soccer networks. Meanwhile, Canada Soccer and FIFA show what happens when leaders don’t seek out new and diverse perspectives. Familiar narratives and familiar outrage follow. And, to borrow from the words of protest written on T-shirts worn by Canadian players during the SheBelieves Cup, “Enough is Enough.”
Shira Springer writes about the intersection of sports and culture and teaches leadership communication at MIT Sloan.