In September, something happened that seems to be happening a lot lately: a coach for a top women’s national soccer team was sacked. What is unique about the firing of Emily Lima, the first female head coach of the Brazilian Women’s National Team (WNT), is that her players are fighting back and the world is paying attention as soccer’s elite join in protest against the sidelining of women that’s been taking place in women’s soccer.
Two years ago, FIFA, the powerful governing body for global soccer lurched into crisis in spectacular fashion, with top leaders frog-marched out of a luxury hotel in a pre-dawn raid. FIFA then set about to reform itself, putting in place measures (among other things) to make the game more accessible to women and girls. With long overdue gender inclusion reforms, came specific commitments to fight discrimination in all its forms, to grow the women’s game, and to promote women in leadership and governance roles in soccer.
It seemed we were finally moving the ball down the field for women to access and lead the world’s most popular game.
So in late 2017, those gender reforms should be bearing fruit, right?
Wrong. Instead, we’re seeing dark skies in women’s soccer.
Let’s start with the September 25 firing of Emily Lima. As the first female to lead Brazil’s women’s national team, her hiring brought hope to her players that women could break into the top coaching ranks for a career after playing. Possibilities of future employment and economic empowerment seemed within reach to players, at last.
But Lima was dismissed only 10 months after being given the remit to rebuild the team. Five national team mainstays, including superstar Cristiane, promptly quit in protest, and Cristiane’s articulate, emotional video address to the leadership of the Brazilian Soccer Federation is a heartbreaking plea for fairness, dignity and help from one of the game’s greatest players. (Click here to watch Cristiane’s full video statement announcing her retirement.)
Former members of the national team met Tuesday with the Brazilian Soccer Federation after eight of them sent the body an open letter urging action. The result of the meeting was an agreement to a joint committee for the development of the sport — a promising start, especially coming from a governing body that has been notoriously resistant to reform. Yet it took eight former players, with more than 500 caps between them, to achieve this – even though the man they appointed to run women’s football, Marco Aurelio Cunha, has been disrespecting women in plain view for years. His public comments include attributing the growing success of women’s football to makeup and shorter shorts, and explaining that discrimination exists with the person who imagines the discrimination.
But the sport’s problems go far beyond what’s happening in Brazil. Also in September, the head coach of the England women’s team, Mark Sampson, was fired for “inappropriate relationships” he’d had with female players in his last coaching job. Women’s national teams from several continents went on strike over basic pay issues. Late in August, a former female FIFA referee in Central America came forward alleging systemic sexual harassment by a well-known FIFA referee instructor, who was quietly suspended, while other women are reportedly being threatened if they come forward with similar allegations against him.
This perfect storm for women’s soccer is no accident. At the heart of these problems is not what’s happening — it’s what’s missing: women. As a former member of the U.S. women’s national team, I spent eight years in an environment where we talked every day about what drives performance. A management consultant by training and profession, I spent time at Accenture, Deloitte and now my own firm, where performance is at the core of everything we do. I am also a former senior executive at FIFA, where for five years, I was the only woman in the room in most of the meetings I attended. It was a vivid case study in how men and women process information differently, arrive at decisions differently and how diversity — or lack thereof — impacts performance.
My experience isn’t unique. The United Nations cites women as key factors in nation building and economic empowerment. In its groundbreaking report “Women Matter,” McKinsey & Co. set out how women drive corporate performance, demonstrating a clear link between the value women in senior roles bring to companies, particularly if they occupy a minimum of three seats on the board.
Sports governance can — and should — take a page from major multinationals who are influenced by market factors and respect women in senior roles driving performance. FIFA started this process with the reforms in 2016, but the work to implement these reforms down to the member associations and confederations, has barely begun.
I repeatedly hear the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women to recruit for these senior roles. This is not remotely true.
It has now been 26 years since the first FIFA Women’s World Cup and there are generations of women with in-depth experience in the game as international players, referees, coaches, and administrators. In fact, since 2000, winners of all major women’s competitions except one were coached by women.
Further, former female athletes have succeeded in industries outside of sports governance, and they figure prominently among women who have broken through the glass ceiling. An Ernst&Young/espnW global study of senior women executives shows that sport drives leadership performance and achievement, and that executive women are more likely to have played sport and to hire other women who played. In fact, the study finds that 94 percent of women in the C-suite played sports.
Qualified women exist. Women being kept out of soccer leadership is not a talent issue — it’s an access issue.
Many involved in reforming FIFA have stated that for soccer to change, its culture has to change. Culture change is enormously difficult, but it starts by fundamentally changing who is in the room. Bringing in more women offers the best hope yet to make progress.
The good news, is that women’s soccer internationally is on the rise, growing rapidly, attracting large crowds to watch women play from Cameroon to Australia to Venezuela. Happily, the growing collective action of the game’s women is calling out decades-old conduct.
For now, however, women have more to offer soccer than soccer is willing to offer them. Given everything the sport has endured, can it really afford to wait?
Mary V. Harvey is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, a 1991 Women’s World Cup winner, and a 1996 Olympic gold medalist. She was the first female senior executive at FIFA. Follow her on Twitter here.