Paving the way for women in sport

Two of the greatest advocates for equality in female sports shared their stories on how they’ve broken down barriers and helped pave the way for future generations of women in sport.

Two of the greatest advocates for equality in female sports shared their stories on how they’ve broken down barriers and helped pave the way for future generations of women in sport.

At an event hosted by the Mills & Reeve Women in Sport team and attended by female representatives from the region’s biggest football clubs and sporting organisations, former England Women’s Captain, Steph Houghton, and ex-footballer turned boxer, Stacey Copeland, discussed the struggles they faced and challenges they overcame to get to the top of their game.

Steph began playing football at primary school and, at the age of 19, made her England debut in 2007. She played more than 100 times for the England women's national team. She was made England captain in January 2014, and went on to captain her country at two World Cups and a Women's Euro. She’s played for Leeds Carnegie, and Arsenal before joining Manchester City in 2014 where she played until her retirement this year.

While there have been many proud and special moments for Steph on the field, she says one of her proudest achievements is playing a role in securing the England Women Central Contracts, which she says were a game changer for the sport.

She says: “For me, the Central Contracts professionalised the game, not just from an England point of view but from a Women’s Super League perspective. Unlike other workers, we didn’t have maternity rights or pensions. It wasn't just about what we were getting paid, we were working as hard as anybody else in other jobs and we wanted to protect ourselves.

“We were fulltime athletes and we wanted change not just for us but for the next generation of young girls coming through. But it wasn’t easy we had to say no a lot more times than we said yes. I remember the first contract offer was maybe 10 or 13 grand and we stuck together and said no.

“As a group, you’ve got strength in numbers, and we had to be brave. I was scared and nervous, but we were determined. A lot of the negotiations were going on while I was Captain of England, and I went on the PFA board to give players a voice and speak to people who had influence.

“We wanted to take the game to another level and, with the help of Mills & Reeve and the PFA, we were able to get to a point where we knew we’d be protected.

“When I think back, the impact the Central Contracts had on the wider game was massive. Brands started to get really interested in female athletes and now it’s become the norm that they want a female ambassador. While back in the day we were fighting tooth and nail to get a pair of boots with our names on it!”

“I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing brands such as Nike, Virgin Media and Cadbury and they’ve played a major role in elevating the women’s game.

“I’m not going to say everything is perfect and there’s still a long way to go but we’re in a much better position than we were ten years ago.

“The women’s game is now massive and there are so many people who are real advocates for women doing what they need to do. It’s not just because you’re female you get rewarded, but because you’re the best person to do it.”

Stacey’s impact on equality in women’s sport has also been momentous. In 2017, Stacey set up the charity Pave the Way which aims to lift barriers to human potential by challenging gender stereotypes of girls, boys, men and women.

Stacey founded the charity after the struggles she had experienced as a female in male dominated sports and wanted to find a way to make things better for others.

Like Steph, Stacey was passionate about sport as a child with a love of both boxing and football but faced many hurdles on the way.

“I remember being picked to play for the school football team. I was so excited, and my dad went to Woolworths to buy me a pair of boots. But when I got there, I couldn’t play because I was a girl. I was devasted. I had my hair cut short and pretended to be a boy so I could play. People kept asking me why I wanted to be a boy, but I never wanted to be a boy, I just wanted to play football.”

Stacey also attended her grandfather’s boxing gym where she boxed from six years old, but when she reached 11, she was told it was now illegal.

Stacey pursued her second passion, football, playing for England U18s and then for Doncaster Belles and Tranmere Rovers. After gaining a scholarship, she played for St Edward’s University in Austin before ending her career in Sweden.

In 1996, the ban of women’s boxing was lifted. But Stacey, who became a European Silver Medallist and three times National ABA Champion, again faced challenges because of her gender.

She says: “At the London Olympics women’s boxing only had three weight categories unlike the men who had ten.  As I didn’t fall into any of them, I couldn’t compete and was devasted.”

Stacey’s biggest fight was in Zimbabwe when she became the first British women to take the Commonwealth title. However, her euphoria was short-lived when she was denied a belt.

“I was told that the manufacturer who made the replica belts had gone bust. When I offered to pay for one myself, I was told ‘you’ll need to have a sugar daddy to afford one’!”

Stacey went on to fight hard for a belt and her persistence paid off, ensuring no female fighter after her was denied one.

Steph also talked about her upcoming autobiography which says has been ‘therapeutic’ and her plans for retirement. Steph retired from Manchester City in May after 10 years at the club and is currently mulling her options and has plenty of offers on the table.

Steph says: “I want to stay in the game there's no question about that. I feel I've got so much to give and there’s ongoing discussions in terms of what that looks like. All I've known is training, keeping fit, travelling and being away from my family so I think it's important to get that balance right but I'm excited to be honest and it was the right time to retire. However, I will certainly continue as a role model for future generations and help drive forward equality in women’s sport.”

Both Steph and Stacey are fierce advocates of nurturing young talent and are trailblazers in fighting for equality in women’s sports. Both have had to defy stereotypes, stand up for their rights as an athlete and got to the top of their game.

Steph says: “When I was younger it was very rare to have girls coming to games in full kits with female players on the back, now it’s the norm. Also back in the day, boys didn’t want girls on their teams, now they don’t just see it as a boys’ sport. We’ve broken down barriers, but I think we can still push and push.”

Like Steph, Stacey says gender equity in sport has come a long way but there is still much to do.

She says: “I’m passionate about improving the lives of others. I believe in speaking up and my advice to others is question it, challenge it, then change it.”

The Women in Sport Event, held at the Dakota Hotel raised money through an auction of Steph’s memorabilia for the Darby Rimmer Foundation, the charity set up by Steph’s husband Stephen Darby after he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2018.

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