VANCOUVER (Reuters) - More than 30 million women play organized soccer around the world, FIFA says. Only one has only ever been elected to a full term on world soccer’s all-powerful executive committee.
With the Swiss-based body currently mired in a corruption and bribery scandal, gender equality looks to be in danger of falling even further down its priorities.
But an enthralling Women’s World Cup tournament unfolding right now across Canada means that FIFA’s poor performance in the field of female soccer is being thrust into the spotlight.
“It is about time to have more women involved in all areas whatever it is - politics, government, business and sports organization,” Tatjana Haenni, FIFA deputy director of the competitions division and head of women’s soccer told reporters during a pre-tournament news conference.
“Soccer seems to be one of the more difficult ones... Personally I think we should have more women in decision-making positions.”
Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera sits alone as a female full member of the ExCo - the only woman in the 111-year history of the organization to attain that post.
Nsekera’s presence accounts for only four percent of the FIFA executive board, a strikingly low figure even taking into account gender inequality in areas like politics and business. Germany recently passed a law requiring the country’s top companies to have at least 30 percent women on their boards.
It’s also at odds with FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s description by other senior men in the executive as “the Godfather of women’s soccer.”
According to Karin Lofstrom, executive director of Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport (CAAWS), FIFA has in fact fallen behind more progressive sports in terms of appointing women to the highest levels of the organization.
“The IOC has been pushing for a standard of 20 percent, for international federations across the board they are about 17 percent average according to the last stats,” she said.
“FIFA have done a good job on some fronts but where it really counts the change we need to see is on the decision-making end of things.”
On the field the women’s game has been dazzling both in growth and skill.
A record 128 nations took part in qualifying for the 2015 World Cup. The competition now taking place features 24 teams, up eight from the 2011 tournament, and all the referees and many of the coaches and managers are also women.
Organizers say they are on target to fill the stands at six venues with 1.2 million fans, and the matches will be available for viewing in 187 countries and territories.
Early games have won plaudits for the strong and skillful play demonstrated.
But the players are a long way from receiving the same pay as the men competing in last year’s competition.
The 32 teams at the 2014 men’s World Cup finals shared a total prize fund of $576 million, with winners Germany getting $35 million. The 24 teams in the 2105 women’s World Cup will split $15 million. The winning nation will take home $2 million.
Protesting this inequality, more than 20,000 people have signed up to a campaign organized by anti-sexism group UltraViolet to pay soccer players equally regardless of gender.
However FIFA has lately appeared to be more absorbed in the issue of defining gender first, according to an article in ESPN that brought attention to the organization’s mandatory “gender verification” testing of women’s teams.
Members of the German and England national squads were sex-tested in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. In answer to questions about whether the same policies applied to men, FIFA said only that its gender verification regulations applied for all FIFA competitions.
The organization was also hit last year by a lawsuit filed by a group of elite players claiming it and the Canadian Soccer Association were both discriminating against women by staging the event on artificial turf. The men’s tournament is played on grass.
Martha Burk spearheaded the charge to have Augusta National Golf Club - the official site of the 2015 Masters Golf Tournament - open its membership to women.
She says she sees the same old boys club stereotypes and biases at work at world soccer’s Swiss headquarters.
“We do not take sex discrimination as seriously as we do race,” Burk, who works as a consultant for the National Counsel of Women’s Organizations, told Reuters.
“That is an extreme imbalance. Women’s representation has to reach a critical mass before meaningful change can be made and most experts consider that around 30 percent and that they are no longer seen as a special interest group.”
While Burk believes the way forward is to force change by protest and pressuring soccer sponsors, back at FIFA Nsekera says the solution will come in time.
“Women in soccer is a large program. I would like to remind you that in 2012 FIFA had decided that you would have a woman on the executive committee and in 2013 one woman was elected,” she said.
Editing by Sophie Walker