Misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport among male football fans

Openly misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport may be common amongst male football fans, according to new research involving online message boards.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Leicester, the University of Durham and the University of South Australia, the study surveyed 1,950 male football fans on UK football fan message boards and found openly misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport among those surveyed, regardless of their age.

Progressive attitudes amongst men were also strongly represented but were not as common as hostile and sexist attitudes. This is set in the context of increased visibility of women’s sport in recent years, especially since the 2012 London Olympic Games and the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Co-author John Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, said: “The increase in media coverage of women’s sport on both the BBC and subscription channels was openly supported by some men. But it also clearly represents, for others, a visible threat, an attack on football as an arena for ‘doing’ masculinity. This is at a time when there are more widespread anxieties circulating among men about how to establish and perform satisfying masculine identities. For men like these, there was a pronounced anti-feminist backlash towards the women’s game.

“They tended to identify that rather conspiratorial, pseudo-feminist or liberal agendas were at the heart of what they argued to be unjustified support for the women’s game: the BBC was often accused of ‘political correctness’ in this regard. This was one of a range of strategies used by some men to try to undermine sportswomen, the women’s game and its new media presence. At the extreme end of this spectrum came some unreconstructed, covertly misogynistic, masculinities.”

The researchers suggest these dominant misogynistic attitudes show a backlash against advances in gender equality. They call for more coverage of women’s sport to drive more gender equality and promote social justice.

The survey was completed by 1,950 male football fans who responded to a call for participants on 150 UK football fan message boards.

The study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is published in the academic journal Sociology and was led by Durham University with researchers at the University of Leicester and University of South Australia.

Based on answers to the open-ended questions in the survey, the fans could broadly be split into three groups who either showed progressive masculinities, overt misogynistic masculinities or covert misogynistic masculinities.

Men with progressive attitudes showed strong support for equality in media coverage of women’s sport with many saying that the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup had been a positive turning point in terms of representation of women’s sport. Increased exposure of women’s sport was seen as a way to change attitudes for the better, inspire girls at grassroot levels and challenge assumptions about women’s alleged inferiority in sport. Media was seen as having a responsibility to promote women’s sport more.

The fans who held openly misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport saw it as inferior to men’s sport, in particular in relation to football, with some suggesting women should not participate in sport at all, or if they did, it should be ‘feminine’ sports, such as athletics. There was also extreme hostility towards increasing media coverage of women’s sport, which was seen as ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘PC nonsense’.

The final group of fans, who were in the minority, would express progressive attitudes in public but in more private moments reveal misogynistic views of women’s sport, adapting what they said depending on the social situation or who they were with.

Although the study looked at the specific area of sport, the researchers say it may also help to understand men’s varying responses to women in other settings such as the workplace, education or creative industries.

Football has largely been a male domain throughout much of the sport’s history and has arguably continued to be one of the ‘last bastions’ of male domination. 

Although women’s sport still takes up less than 10 per cent of annual print and TV coverage, there has been a new age of coverage of women’s sport in the UK. Developments include the launch of the professional FA Women’s Super League, the success of GB women athletes at the London 2012 Olympic Games and Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign.