A View From the Top: Women Leaders and Contradictory Constructions of Gender Inequality in English Football

Through biographic interviews with 23 women leaders in English football, this paper examines how women leaders make sense of ongoing inequalities in football and under what conditions they challenge or repudiate gender inequalities. With reference to feminist critiques of neoliberal feminism I find that women challenged the perception of football as a sexist industry while acknowledging gender inequalities in football leadership. Women also made sense of their own success through the neoliberal rhetoric of hard work but also acknowledged that success was uneven for different women and so sought to remove barriers for other women through ‘quiet resistance’. In order to resolve these contradictions, women leaders swung back and forth between making gender invisible through neoliberal discourses and making gender matter through feminist discourses. This created an ‘ideological dilemma’ which resulted in anxiety and additional pressures for women leaders as they navigated these opposing demands. I argue that women leaders in football occupy a complex and contradictory middle ground between ‘agents of change’ and ‘cogs in the machine’ literature and that more work is needed to understand the complexities of women’s leadership experiences if we are to moves beyond gender quotas and leadership courses as remedies for inequality.