You could be forgiven for thinking the UEFA president was operating in the art of deflection.
After knocking back interrogative queries from a baying, largely male media room about his three-term-presidency-turned-potential-dynasty-turned-back-to-three-term-presidency, Aleksander Ceferin cut the figure of a man who looked, as he said, “tired”.
“In case you didn’t know,” he declared, the sliding scale of his increasing impatience thinly veiled, “the changing of the statutes was also about a female position. Just a suggestion for you since I see all the men here, you should think about gender equality.”
Ceferin is not wrong. At the 48th annual UEFA Congress in Paris last week, the number of women who attended as media couldn’t fill out a seven-a-side team.
A similarly lopsided ratio unfurled in the Maison de la Mutualité main hall. Of the 130 general secretaries, presidents and Executive Committee members of UEFA’s 55 member states invited to attend, the list of women read: six general secretaries, four presidents (a number which will shrink to three next year with Iceland’s Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir’s stepping down)…
“And one ExCo member” says Laura McAllister, the deputy chair of UEFA’s Women’s Football Committee and the only woman currently on the body’s Executive Committee. “Me.”
It’s just enough women to field a starting XI.
At an annual congress that’s host city was changed from Madrid to Paris not because of a fevered penchant for high fashion and miniaturised foie gras but rather because of the Luis Rubiales scandal, it’s arguably appropriate to make gender equality a focus of discussion. Not to mention, as Ceferin did, the change in statute to increase the number of women-designated seats on UEFA’s 20-member Executive Committee from one to two.
“That might not sound like a great breakthrough,” says McAllister, who currently occupies the original one seat and was key in pushing the amendment through. “But there’s multiple ways of looking at this. Doubling one isn’t great, but it’s still one more [ExCo seat] than we had before, it’s double the number that we had from last year. It’s progress.”
If there’s one thing to note it’s that McAllister can never be accused of happily accepting crumbs when it comes to enacting change. She has rarely, if ever, shied away from her convictions.
But coming up on the first full year of her Executive Committee tenure and with an extensive background in sporting governance, the former Sport Wales chair knows how the world of politics works, and the value of manoeuvring it deftly. Being a woman, even more so.
So while some might write off the amendment as trivial, McAllister is judicial.
The addition of a second seat was a recommendation made by her and her team when working to address gender misrepresentation in UEFA’s own internal structures a few years ago. It’s now turned into tangible change, from which McAllister can stand and “try something more muscular that can deliver real change” as she heads up UEFA’s newly formed Gender Equality Committee, the group tasked with improving the profile and representation of women in European football.
The task is heady. Last year, UEFA’s Executive Committee, featuring the newly elected McAllister, announced a new composition mandate of 25 percent female for its committees and panels for the 2023-2027 period.
Yet, in the 409 positions available on UEFA committees in the last year, 335 were occupied by men (81.9%), while women occupied just 74 seats (18.1%). The latter figure conspicuously decreases upon the removal of the Women’s Football Committee and the Social and Environmental Sustainability Committee, which McAllister also chairs.
“You have to be in the room to instigate change,” McAllister says. “You can complain on the outside as much as you like but until we have women’s voices with agency in the room, we’re not going to change things.”
The timing of UEFA’s amendment is striking, arriving not only after the Rubiales’ scandal but when the topic of women in any football room has become particularly volatile as crusades from former footballer Joey Barton and others over perceived quota-driven agendas gather steam.
McAllister understands that the amendment might enrage this corner of football, and football governance hierarchies who are less enthusiastic about the use of quotas. That is a reality that McAllister finds disappointing as it speaks to a lack of understanding of the nature of the challenge women face, as well as a blind faith in a meritocracy which doesn’t exist; the worldview that quotas are an unnecessary– even unjust –protocol is a privileged one.
“I understand people who say they don’t believe in quotas, you should get there on your own merit. That’d be great if it was a meritocracy generally, but it really isn’t,” McAllister says. “And sport governance never has been really. We all know that it’s about more complex reasons than that.
“Therefore, we have to create conditions for women to be there in the first place and then change from within. There are so many talented women out there. And they may not be in presidential or vice presidential positions and there’s a reason for that. There’s a blockage in the system.
“For women to progress, men have to give up some power as well. That’s just the reality. Unless you enlarge boards which become unwieldy, somewhere there has to be a relinquishing of a role so that women can come into it.
“And if that means, we take quota places and if that means someone sees me as a ‘token’ woman, then I’ll quietly get on with the work of trying to make football a better, more modern and equal game because I’m perfectly confident in my own merit.
“But I genuinely don’t think it’s up to me alone. There’s a real groundswell of support now, from women and men, who want to see things change.”
The ongoing battle for greater gender equity has manifested into the Gender Equality Committee, led by McAllister. While the idea for this type of group has been in the pipeline for some time at UEFA, events at the Women’s World Cup medal ceremony and the subsequent fallout “added impetus”.
The committee met ahead of the annual Congress, and McAllister describes a productive session in which aspirations and remits were hashed out.
“There’s a real consensus that the group’s purpose is to create a governance structure that represents the game in every sense, because it clearly doesn’t at the moment,” McAllister says. “It’d be hard to argue, and I don’t think anyone would, that it does.”
The group has momentum. Ceferin is understood to be a particularly zealous proponent in making UEFA the world leader in gender reform, and his backing of the committee has been strong. Such support will be necessary if McAllister and her committee are to successfully dismantle entrenched biases and operations.
The group features strong female voices similar to McAllister, as well as male representatives from federations historically unaffiliated with progressive gender reform – yet becoming crucial allies. Armenia FA president Armen Melikbekyan is one such member and has begun to look inwards at his own national association to see where changes need to be made following conversations with McAllister and others.
“Western European nations generally get the reputation [for being more progressive], but most still haven’t managed to really create properly sustainable gender balance boards,” McAllister says. “There are some countries that have driven forward gender equality, including us in Wales. We’ve got three women on a board of 11 now. Which is not superb, but nor is it dreadful.
“Clearly, there’s uneven terrain, and someone like Armen shows that there is leadership on this across the whole continent.”
McAllister emphasises the need to bring people “with us”, rather than force change through punitive sanctions or fines: “To get proper gender equality you need to really create a kind of organised belief in it and a consensus that this is a good thing.”
The drive for equality comes at a time when women’s football is grappling with uncharted issues, coinciding with its unprecedented success. At UEFA’s Congress, myriad presentations trumpeted the trajectory of the women’s game.
Yet, the inordinate rate of injuries is alarming. Elite players, such as England’s Leah Williamson who has only just returned from rupturing her ACL, have been vigorous in calls for change to international and domestic fixture schedules. Prospective investors, meanwhile, want more games and increased quality. The two rarely go hand in hand.
In decision-making spaces, equality-driven boards will have a better chance at navigating this new world, rather than sticking to the blueprints of men’s football.
Who takes the seat beside McAllister on UEFA’s Executive Committee next year remains to be seen, but there’s no shortage of qualified candidates.
The fact an additional space exists is a success, however small it might feel in its immediacy. It’s often how women in sport have had to force change: gradually chipping away at the system, assembling “small” wins to topple the system. In this light, McAllister is positive for the future, even if the committee’s very existence is a measure of the strides that women in football still face.
“Sometimes you need a crisis to spark change,” she says. “And maybe the incidents at the World Cup, while they were hugely regrettable and stole the moment from players who shouldn’t have to contend with that, looking back on it in history, maybe we’ll say that it was the moment when we were able to unite and really push through some proper structural change.
“That’s what the group is trying to do.”
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