Navigating the Challenges: The Unfolding Story of Female Leadership in English Football

Posted by Jenny Tong on 12 março 2024


In the ever-evolving landscape of men’s and women’s football in England, the pursuit of gender equality in leadership roles is both pivotal and pressing. The introduction of The Football Leadership Diversity Code (FLDC) in 2020 by the Football Association (The FA) marked a significant step towards a more representative and inclusive leadership structure. However, the third annual update from The FA in November 2023, reported by the BBC, demonstrates that progress is slow. This article delves into the current situation regarding women in leadership and coaching roles in English football, draws lessons from gender equality work elsewhere in sports, and explores how these insights might be applied to football.

Current Landscape: Women in Leadership Roles

It was reported in November that fifty-three teams spanning the Premier League, Football League, and Women's Super League had enrolled in the voluntary FLDC initiative since its launch. As part of this commitment, each club agreed to annually disclose some information on the demographic breakdown of their workforce. Despite this being the third year of participation, within the period from August 1, 2022, to July 31, 2023, the collective effort of these clubs fell short of meeting annual FLDC recruitment objectives, particularly in relation to the hiring of women in Senior Leadership and Coaching roles. Notably, only a select few clubs, including Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, managed to attain 90% and 80% success in meeting their respective targets. More broadly, considering the involvement of the FA, Premier League, and EFL, only one target was successfully accomplished, attaining over 30% female representation in new team operations appointments. While this success in hiring more women for operations roles should be recognised, the collective failure to meet female leadership targets raises questions. It prompts consideration of a lingering bias that may pigeonhole women into administrative roles, potentially hindering their progress into those more prominent leadership positions.

FLDC Headline Results: A Critical Examination

Code Segment




Collective average


15% of new executive appointments to be black, Asian or of mixed heritage




30% female





15% of new team operations appointments to be black, Asian or of mixed heritage




30% female





25% of new men's coaching appointments will be black, Asian or of mixed heritage




10% of senior coaching appointments will be black, Asian or of mixed heritage





50% of new women's football coaching appointments will be female




15% of new women's coaching appointments will be black, Asian or of mixed heritage




(Source: FLDC Code Results 2022-23, page 9)

The FLDC, emphasising equal opportunity and targeted hiring, provides a framework for addressing gender inequality. Its effectiveness, however, relies on the commitment and accountability of football organisations. FLDC co-founder Paul Elliot's proposed mandatory disclosure (which is being discussed for the 2024-25 season) would foster transparency and encourage compliance. Moreover, integrating diversity targets into the regulatory frameworks of the FA, Premier League, and EFL, coupled with sanctions for non-compliance, would further strengthen the code's impact.

A report commissioned by UK Sport in 2021 found that quotas or targets for female representation only worked if they included rules for implementation or sanctions for non-compliance. Federations and organisations with quotas (but without associated rules) had on average 1% fewer women in leadership than those without quotas when compared to 5% more women in leadership if those quotas had rules for implementation.

Yet, while the FLDC champions equal opportunity and targeted hiring, the realisation of genuine change transcends mere mandatory disclosure policies or the targets themselves. True progress necessitates a cultural shift within football—an internal transformation fostered by enhanced policies and dedicated programmes. During his address to delegates at the recent Next Steps for Football Governance in England forum, Tony Burnett, CEO of Kick it Out claimed that the FLDC had ‘died a death’, suggesting that until the FLDC was mandatory nothing would change.

The experience of the FLDC so far suggests that simply establishing targets is insufficient; the onus lies on football organisations to actively cultivate an environment that embraces diversity, bringing about lasting change from within.

Understanding the Challenges: Root Causes of Gender Disparity

Understanding the multifaceted challenges contributing to the gender gap in coaching within football reveals specific issues deeply ingrained in the sport's culture and structures. A recent literature review underscores organisational and sociocultural factors accounting for limited coaching opportunities for women, rooted in traditional perceptions that coaching is a male-dominated domain. Gender stereotypes persist due to a lack of exposure and networking avenues for female coaches, exacerbated by insufficient attention to gender-related issues at leadership levels within football organisations.

Moreover, a 2015 literature review identified barriers contributing to the limited representation of women in sport leadership. Macro-level factors include organisational demography, hegemonic masculinity, power dynamics, stakeholder influence, and institutionalized discrimination. The internal functioning of organisations sustains a perception of men as powerful and women as compliant, with negative stereotypes, discrimination, and organisational culture further entrenching this dynamic. At the micro level, women face restricted access to social capital, encompassing networks and mentors, leading to fewer opportunities—a situation influenced by dominant masculinity and its associated negative stereotypes.

As an EU expert group identified, interpersonal challenges within the sport compound the issue. Inadequate support from training coordinators, often influenced by deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, perpetuates biased behaviours. In women’s football specifically, challenges relating to coaching include inadequate compensation, reflecting the historic undervaluation of women's contributions in the sport, and the struggle to balance family responsibilities with full-time coaching commitments. Notably, women's football coaching often involves minimal or unpaid coaching positions, similar to many grassroots coaching roles in other sports.

While the influence of female role models in boosting women's participation in sports is well-documented, coaching seems to present a unique challenge. Despite its crucial role in retention, the presence of female mentors doesn't seem to have the same effect on coaching. Research suggests that women who enter coaching are more likely to stay if they have a female role model, highlighting the importance of mentorship programs. However, the benefits of such initiatives are largely confined to individual and interpersonal levels.

These challenges impact self-confidence and are exacerbated by a lack of impactful educational programmes tailored to the unique needs and experiences of female coaches and leaders. In the context of football, these issues threaten to continue hindering the progress of increasing female representation in coaching and leadership roles within the sport, regardless of any externally or self-imposed targets.

To effect systemic change, a dual strategy addressing both organisational and sociocultural levels is imperative. This involves implementing formal regulations, such as gender representation targets, alongside women-centric approaches, aiding in the recruitment and empowerment of women coaches.

Navigating Criticisms: Gender Targets and Tokenism

"Women shouldn't be talking with any kind of authority in the men's game”

The intricate relationship between gender targets and accusations of tokenism cannot be denied and demands a critical examination. While some critics worry that hiring targets potentially lead to tokenistic gestures rather than meaningful internal change, others worry that such initiatives might inadvertently prioritise meeting numerical targets over merit-based selections. Integrating the understanding of the difference between quotas and targets is crucial here; quotas involve specific numerical requirements, while targets are more flexible aspirational goals.

In December 2023, ex-professional footballer turned failed manager Joey Barton publicly declared that the standard of commentating on the men’s game was declining due to the increase of token female pundits whom he claimed did not understand the game. Whether you agree or disagree with Barton’s view, it does bring attention to potential criticisms of gender targets, specifically the appointment of potentially inexperienced or underqualified individuals, prompting queries about merit-based recruitment. Navigating these potential pitfalls requires a more deliberate and thoughtful approach.

Recruitment strategies must transcend the mere assessment of skills and experience; they should serve as integral elements within a broader, internal cultural transformation. Crafting a strategy that not only recognises but actively addresses the intricate gender dynamics within leadership, especially in football, is vital to fostering an environment where female leaders and coaches in English football can authentically influence and contribute. It's essential to approach targets or quotas with a nuanced understanding of their potential impact. An appointee should not be burdened with the perception of having secured the position solely due to meeting specific criteria. Such considerations ensure that the focus remains on genuine competence and merit, reinforcing the positive intent behind initiatives promoting gender diversity in leadership role.

Gender Equality Lessons: Insights from Sports Initiatives

Football is not alone in falling short on gender equality. Recent research commissioned by UK Sport in 2021 reveals a significant underrepresentation of women within decision-making positions in international sport organisations. Among the federations and organisations surveyed, women made up only 22% of members of boards or executive committees, 7% of presidents or chairs and 21% of CEOs or secretary general. The findings pose a multifaceted challenge in achieving gender parity in decision-making. Research on coaching specifically is also informative. According to a study by All In Plus, only 20-30% of sports coaches in Europe are women, and women represented merely 13% of coaches at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. While in football, the FLDC 2022-23 Summary reported that collective average targets for new female hires were reached neither for Senior Leadership Teams, nor for Coaching (women’s clubs).

In the pursuit of advancing gender equality within men's and women’s football leadership, valuable lessons and successful strategies gleaned from various gender equality initiatives elsewhere in sport can offer a roadmap for transformative change. Educational initiatives addressing unconscious bias, such as World Athletics #WeGrowAthletics campaign in 2021, could be tailored for football executives to foster awareness. Supportive work-life balance policies will also prove pivotal for elevating and retaining women in leadership and coaching roles. Strategic adaptation ensures a supportive recruitment process for diverse and equal opportunities. Through the integration of these lessons and strategies, football can navigate challenges and rectify gender imbalances, paving the way for a more inclusive and diverse leadership landscape.

Drawing inspiration from successful strategies in other sports, football can take cues from athletics and cricket in setting gender representation targets, and learn from basketball and rugby in implementing effective mentoring schemes. By leveraging proven strategies and tailoring them to the unique context of football, the sport can foster a more inclusive and diverse leadership hierarchy.

Initiatives Driving Change

Among various initiatives in football, Leadership Women Football (LWF) and the Female Leaders in Football programme, spearheaded by the World Football Summit, are focused on gender equality. However, the effectiveness of existing programmes remains uncertain, particularly in relation to increasing the number of women working in the men’s game. At the time of writing, there has been no news on the Female Leaders in Football website for several months, since mid-2023, reinforcing the argument for more than superficial attempts to tackle the lack of female representation.

Ben Carter, Non-Executive Director of Women in Football, highlighted the issue in an interview, stating, “There’s a distorted professional pyramid in women’s football… There simply aren’t enough pathways to build solid pipelines.”

Recognising and amplifying women’s achievements can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment. According to UK Sport research, a greater proportion of women holding leadership positions in international sports—many of which involve voluntary and elected roles, in contrast to the predominantly employed roles at the upper echelons of football—credited their success to personal drive, governance experience, and sporting accomplishments. While in contrast, a higher percentage of men credited success to networking skills and support from their international federation. In-depth interviews revealed that networking dynamics within international sports federations played a crucial role in the under-representation of women in leadership roles. Furthermore, unequal financial barriers and discomfort in male-dominated informal networking spaces hindered women from participating in decision-making opportunities. The research revealed that crucial decisions frequently get made in informal networking hubs, such as hotel bars, where women are commonly excluded or not invited, hindering their opportunities to impact decisions and foster essential relationships for leadership positions. These obstacles to and within networking highlight the need for training programs and initiatives to establish more inclusive informal networking spaces. A mandatory, holistic and sustained endeavor is necessary to effect meaningful change. UK Sport’s proposed '5 P’s Model of Networking' provides a multifaceted framework involving training programmes, inclusive networking initiatives, financial support reviews, continuous career advice, and increased investment in talent identification for female athletes interested in sports governance.


In conclusion, while initiatives such as the FLDC are welcome, their impact hinges on football organisations' commitment and accountability. At present time, the FLDC is seen by some to have failed in its attempt to bring greater diversity into the realms of leadership on football. Integrating mandatory diversity targets into regulations, with sanctions for non-compliance, could increase effectiveness. Yet, achieving genuine change requires cultural shifts facilitated by enhanced policies and dedicated programmes, especially given the under-representation of women in international sports leadership.

To address criticisms of gender targets, recruitment strategies must be combined with broader cultural transformations. Drawing insights from successful gender equality initiatives in other sports, such as mentoring schemes and work-life balance policies, can inform strategies for improving gender representation in football leadership. Balancing the scale requires recognising women's achievements, establishing inclusive networking spaces, and investing in talent identification, as outlined in UK Sport's proposed '5 P's Model of Networking'.

One recent tool which may be relevant to football organisations is the GAMES Project's 'Pool of Actions' for National Olympic Committees, helping to translate ideas into action. Recommendations include designing comprehensive training and mentorship programmes, ensuring gender representation among mentors and trainers, and providing continuous professional development opportunities. These initiatives aim to equip women with the skills and confidence for leadership roles. Additionally, creating career transition programmes for women players can steadily increase their involvement in leadership and governance positions.

Drawing further on guidance in international sport, the EU High-Level Group on Gender Equality in Sport (2022) suggests the implementation of gender-sensitive and transparent selection processes for recruitment and succession planning, alongside the development of tailored leadership programmes to empower women seeking decision-making roles. Similarly, the Council of Europe (2019) advocates for supporting women in taking on new positions through targeted training and mentoring initiatives, including specialised programmes designed for former female athletes.

Fundamental actions outlined to address these recommendations include designing comprehensive training, mentorship and job-shadowing programmes tailored for women within organisations. These initiatives aim to tackle succession planning challenges, equipping women with the necessary skills and confidence to pursue leadership roles. Furthermore, awareness training and workshops are proposed for management and leadership roles, with a focus on fostering gender equality, diversity, and inclusive leadership practices.

Through these actions, football organisations can pave the way for a more equitable, inclusive and diverse leadership landscape, ultimately driving positive change within the sport and helping it to realise its full potential.

Navigating the Challenges: The Unfolding Story of Female Leadership in English Football

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