Hundreds of delegates came together at Wembley Stadium on 15 March for the first day of the Women in Football Be Inspired Conference in partnership with Barclays.
CEO of WIF Yvonne Harrison kicked the day off with a reflection on the last year for the organisation – with the conference now spanning two days – while also citing the Lionesses’ WEURO 2022 win and their subsequent legacy giving schoolgirls better access to football.
Yvonne stated: “Change is happening – success breeds success” before announcing the extension of WIF’s partnership with Barclays for another three years. Tom Corbett, Managing Director, Group Head of Sponsorship at Barclays, echoed Harrison’s delight over the past year and closed with a clear message: “We have to look forward, we have to look to the future.”
The first keynote speaker of the day was former England and Manchester City midfielder Jill Scott MBE, in conversation with Sky Sports’ Hayley McQueen.
Jill discussed the new government pledge allowing girls better access to football at schools, stating how it struck a chord with her as she said: “I was very fortunate we had a girls’ team [at school] but without that support, I wouldn’t have had the career I had.”
Since her retirement, Jill has appeared on TV in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here as well as a pundit while she prepares to start a role with the academy at Manchester City. Although she finds herself without a plan at the moment, she emphasised the importance of showing up: “Being visible is so important.”
Jill left delegates feeling entertained yet, recognising the importance of the new legacy in women’s football that encourages participation and creates a safe space.
At this point, delegates split off to attend the conference’s first breakout sessions, hosted in the Wembley Suite, The Arc and the Three Lions bar.
Backroom to Boardroom: Careers off the pitch
In this session broadcaster and journalist Faye Carruthers hosted a panel looking at the range of jobs throughout the footballing world.
Becks Martin, Director, Head of Strategy and Planning Group Sponsorship at Barclays, shared her career journey. Without a football background, she admitted, it was “a situation of right time, right place”. She highlighted the importance of creating relationships in the industry and networking at every opportunity.
Rachel Pavlou, Women’s Development Manager for Diversity and Inclusion at the FA, had a similar background, having worked in further education for nearly six years before volunteering and encouragement from others led her into women’s football.
Director of Marketing and Partnerships at Southampton FC Sarah Batters was forced to take matters into her own hands as she found commercial jobs in women’s football non-existent. She asked herself how she could persuade someone to give her a job in football and analysed her transferable skills. As Faye agreed: “Nowadays it’s quite important to have an outside skill set.”
Hannah Dingley, Academy Manager at Forest Green Rovers FC, added: “There were ups and downs, horrible experiences and really positive ones… I had to knock on a lot of doors and get a lot of pushbacks.”
The Power of Football: Football for social change
Yvonne Harrison hosted a panel made up of Alexandra Chalat, Kat Craig, Jurgen Griesbeck and Preeti Shetty, asking how football can be used to create social impact. Kat, CEO at Athlead, encouraged the audience to stick to their principles with conversations surrounding social change often being the difficult ones to have.
The panel considered the issue of legacy. Alexandra, Director of World Cup Legacy for the Qatar Foundation, shared the disappointing reality that there are high rates of girls who drop out of football at 12 years old due to feeling uncomfortable without a female coach. In more positive news, she revealed that the Community Stadium from the World Cup is being turned into a women’s-only facility.
Networking: Making the most of it
WIF director Jane Purdon’s masterclass brought delegates together to practise and develop their skills further. Urging delegates to “be yourself”, Jane then sent them off to network with three ten-minute sessions. The session was well received and what started as a quiet room ended up a buzz of like- minded people sharing their advice and stories.
Back in the Wembley Suite delegates reconvened for a plenary, ‘The Glass Ceiling Revisited: Have we smashed it?’ A panel of Dr Eva Carneiro, Monique Choudhuri, Anna Kessel MBE, Lungi Macebo and Michelle Walder, hosted by Mayi Cruz Blanco, revisited a conversation that was introduced at last year’s Be Inspired conference.
Anna admitted an aversion to the whole concept of the glass ceiling, feeling that it separates women from everyone else. For Eva, breaking the glass ceiling means access to equal opportunities, equal pay and the freedom for women not to feel obliged to align with their male counterparts. Her words resonated with many in the room as she simply stated: “Diversity works”, before confessing: “I wish it wasn’t required to be different as a woman.”
Lungi argued that the glass ceiling made her fatigued, which her fellow panellists identified with. Her message was that women should only have to smash the glass ceiling once, with the legacy being a lasting one. Monique reminded the audience that change isn’t quick but argued in favour of small and sustainable change to make a big impact.
While the definition of a glass ceiling differed somewhat across the panel, what’s certain is that the panellists felt a sense of unity with one another as well as the delegates in the room. Michelle closed the discussion with a unifying message that “the spirit with which you’re met is as important as getting there”.
The session was closed with more exciting news for WIF with the announcement of a new partnership with the Adecco Group, involving a leadership and development programme to support female players preparing for life after football.
After a break for lunch, which saw a bustling room of delegates and the WIF team speaking, networking and preparing for the afternoon, everyone was ready for the next round of breakout sessions.
Football: My journey to here
BBC Sports Correspondent Natalie Pinks was joined by a panel of Zarah Connolly, Helen Hardy, Charlotte Thomson and Grace Vella as they shared their routes into football and tips for success in the industry.
Zarah Connolly, Assistant Producer and Presenter at Manchester United FC, was keen to praise events like the Be Inspired Conference as an opportunity to create contacts and the network that allows her to thrive. Natalie applauded the stubbornness of the panel, who had all worked hard to get to where they were, while also echoing the importance of friendships and connections in the industry.
Helen reminded her audience of the importance of keeping a central reason at the back of your mind and returning to first principles as a boost to keep you going. Charlotte and Grace both acknowledged the struggles women can face but the importance of working with others to get through these struggles.
The Journalists and Broadcasters Leading the Way
Over in The Arc, Natalie Sawyer was joined by Faye Carruthers and Karthi Gnanasegaram, Suzy Wrack and Archie Kaylana. Faye kicked off the conversation with a harsh reality. “I had to fight,” she said – a requirement that proved all too common among the panel as Karthi recalled the many times when she was told she wasn’t very good, and encouraged others to just get up and try again.
Looking back at her career, Archie admitted that she wished she had spoken up more in her earlier days, acknowledging that sometimes you have to be disruptive to get somewhere.
It was an encouraging session for those listening as Faye reassured them that there’s no time limit on getting into broadcasting – which was supported by Suzy Wrack’s career story. Suzy’s advice not to say no to any opportunity left plenty feeling positive.
What also resonated with the audience was Faye’s reminder that this generation has to capitalise on the changes made by those before us and continue that change for the next generation until all the barriers have been broken.
Late Winners: Changing careers into football
In this session Broadcaster and journalist Anne-Marie Batson hosted Floss Andrews, Debbie Cook and Cassie Whittell. Anne-Marie began by explaining that she worked on the railways before getting into sports broadcasting, showing that it’s never too late to take a career shift.
Debbie, CEO of Grimsby Town FC, emphasised that a job in football can come in many different forms, which makes it accessible for a range of different people to aspire to. Floss, a mindset coach, has spent her career in different sectors of the industry, again showing the variety of opportunities that exist.
Operations Manager of the girls’ academy at Brighton and Hove Albion FC Cassie Whittell told the audience that she had felt out of place at football growing up, but seeing the wide variety of opportunities in the industry allowed her to find her way back into the sport she loved.
It’s fair to say the panel didn’t cover up the difficulties women can face when seeking a job in football, but Andrews spoke about the importance of having a strong sense of self which her colleagues agreed helps build up confidence.
After a short tea break the final three breakout sessions got under way, with the CEO of Fearless Women, Sue Anstiss MBE, hosting the panel ‘Firm Foundations: Working in the grassroots game’.
The panel comprised Kate Davidson, Delivery Manager at The Football Foundation; Tyra Miles from the Kinetic Foundation and Football Blacklist; Denise Richmond, Chair of the Kent FA; and Sharon Uka, Head of Girls at UPFC.
Firm Foundations: Working in the grassroots game
Tyra opened up about her experiences as a child in foster care and cited football and the community work around it at grassroots level as something that helped her manage her emotions. Kate talked about the value of volunteering at this level as it makes a meaningful change in the world.
Denise encouraged her audience to volunteer, admitting that without doing so, she wouldn’t have had the career she has in football.
When asked to reflect on their proudest moments as an end to the session, all four panellists discussed themes of equality to access and unity at a grassroots level which left the room feeling a real sense of power from even the first steps of football.
#WIFleaders: The stories of women in football
Meanwhile, presenter and producer at Wolverhampton Wanderers FC Gemma Frith hosted a panel of Helena Bowman, Head of Business Operations and Community at Middlesbrough FC; Danielle Gibson, Women’s Professional Game Compliance at the FA; Priya Kohli, Global Digital Category Growth Director Football at Adidas and Non-Executive Director at the Lancashire FA; and Lola Ogunbote, Head of Women’s Football at Burnley FC.
The panellists, all alumnae of the Women in Football Leadership Course in partnership with Barclays, shared their career stories one by one, assessing the highs and the lows of their paths. Some admitted that football wasn’t their first career or their initial plan.
What was clear was the overwhelming positivity towards the Leadership Course. Helena characterised it as a safe place which allowed the building of a supportive network, while Lola said it was “uplifting” and “the start of a journey”.
She also reflected on the sacrifices she was forced to make to work in football, especially due to a lack of support while growing up. The panel agreed that the course serves as that source of encouragement that many women lack when trying to break into the industry.
Delegates were inspired to hear about the opportunities available to Women in Football members, and no doubt these recommendations will lead further women to follow in their footsteps and complete this course.
Women in Tech: Is it a man’s world?
Back in the Three Lions Bar, WIF Director Ben Carter hosted a panel with Sanjay Bhandari, Victoire Cogevina Reynal, Tina Keech and Tanya Powell as they looked at digital media and opportunities for women to work in technology.
Tina Keech, Head of Women’s Football Research at Sports Interactive, gave a blunt one-word answer when asked about the biggest challenge she’s faced: “Men.”
Victoire – Vice President of Women’s Football at One Football, tech entrepreneur and UN ambassador for gender equality – echoed concerns over the lack of diversity in the tech space. Her only female role model while growing up, she said, was her mother. She encouraged delegates to be the evidence that things are possible for future generations.
Tanya, Co-CTO at Coding Black Females, spoke about the power of community in her workplace and the empowerment she felt through working with other women in the industry, emphasising the idea of building one another up.
Kick It Out Chair Sanjay reminded delegates of the importance of looking forward rather than pondering on past mistakes, and Keech agreed, citing the importance that technological advancements will have on enhancing the women’s game.
Delegates filed back into the Wembley Suite for the final session of day 1 of the conference, ‘Male Allies Investing in the Women’s Game’. WIF Chair Ebru Köksal hosted Polly Bancroft, Head of Women’s Football at Manchester United FC; Tom Corbett of Barclays; broadcaster and former player Dion Dublin; Maheta Molango, CEO at the Professional Footballers’ Association; and Alan Pace, Chairman of Burnley FC.
Ebru opened the session with a sobering statistic: on average, clubs have spent 1 per cent or less of their revenue on their women’s team.
Polly recalled her first women’s football game in 1992, a time where she saw no future for the sport, contrasting it with the success of WEURO 2022. However, her key message was that sustainable growth is the way forward, with the women’s game in some parts still resting on shaky foundations.
Dion Dublin echoed these concerns about the need for better infrastructure, starting from the very bottom of football: “If we start building a foundation where they get [support] from day dot, there’s no end.” He was keen to commend women’s football for the progress made so far given the lack of available resources, but felt there’s more to come. “There’s something here, there’s something big,” he said.
Maheta stated a desire to create change from the top end of football and ensure proper and equal support for women’s football at the PFA as he aims to build bridges and relationships with women’s football.
Tom was also keen to pledge his support to the growth of women’s football as he looks to continue the active role Barclays has taken with increased investment into the game. He said the work being done by organisations like WIF inspired him to join in with the movement and make change happen.
Reflecting on the changes he’s made at Burnley, Alan left the audience with a simple message: “If you’re not willing to invest, you won’t make a change.” His emphasis on dialogue and listening no doubt left the room feeling they certainly had a panel of allies in front of them and they weren’t left to face this fight on their own.
Ebru Köksal brought the Wembley Suite together to close the first day of the Be Inspired Conference, expressing her delight over day 1 and the inspiration she felt in the room after a day of stories, advice and networking.
She shared some further statistics about the lack of diversity at the top end of football. Only 9 per cent of Premier League club directors are women, she said, and the voice of youth was also missing, with the Premier League’s youngest club boardroom averaging out at 47 years of age.
Before closing, Ebru left delegates with one final message: “Use your power for your own personal growth.”
The hundreds who had joined WIF for the first day of the Be Inspired Conference showed their appreciation with plenty of applause before making their way out of the Wembley Suite for some further networking, building upon the inspiring relationships formed across the day.
Carla Devine is a freelance football writer currently studying a masters at UCFB. Find her on LinkedIn