Giant step for women in sport
This referee takes charge of a men’s rugby international tomorrow – and hopes her historic moment will prove an inspiration
It has become fashionable, amid all the sound and fury about reshaping British sovereignty, to hanker after the “Norway model”. Leave the European Union, but retain access to the single market: how pleasantly semi-detached life over there seems. Forget the fact that Tromso is consumed for 57 days a year by polar darkness, or that a cup of coffee in Oslo costs enough to leave you convalescing from open-wallet surgery. As for Norwegian television. “The best that can be said,” argued Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There, “is that it gives you the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience”.
But our Norse brethren are, undeniably, a progressive bunch. This week, Norway’s football federation approved a deal where, for the first time, male and female players would receive the same money – around £574,000 per year, per team – for representing their nation. To achieve such equality, the men have had to agree to give up an annual £53,000 in marketing payments. The symbolism of the gesture is profound. “This means everything for us, for our sport,” Caroline Graham Hansen, Norway’s captain, said, addressing her male counterparts. “For you to say that equal pay is how it should be makes me want to cry.”
Norway, in common with other Scandinavian countries, already has a record on gender equality that puts Britain to shame. Women constitute the majority of the highly-skilled workforce. Publicly listed companies have been required, for the best part of the decade, to have at least 40 per cent of each sex on their boards. The country has not just a woman as prime minister, but as finance minister, too. With the extension of such enlightenment to football, it appears as if one of the last bastions of patriarchy is being stormed. Implacable freemarketeers mutter, predictably, that it is all a nonsense, that male players bring in the broadcasting bucks and therefore they should be paid vastly more. Norway’s equal-pay revolution was even characterised this week as merely a subsidy that rewarded women footballers for being less productive.
Where to start with this? For one thing, it assumes that men and women playing the game have the same opportunities to begin with. The reality is very different: Anders Konradsen and Anders Trondsen, involved with both the men’s national team and leading Norwegian club Rosenborg, command comfortable if not lavish wages. For the women, the story involves juggling football with work or study to command even a halfway respectable income.
No wonder their captain acknowledged that the granting of a fixed wage for men and women alike would “make it a bit easier for us to achieve our dreams”.
As for the lack of productivity argument, it is as offensive as it is
The argument over lack of productivity is absurd. The women are ranked 14th, the men 73rd
absurd. The Norwegian men’s team once commanded vast respect, having vanquished Brazil in the 1998 World Cup and Spain at Euro 2000, but ever since they have been in a tailspin. Come Qatar 2022, they will have gone 24 years without reaching a World Cup. The indignity was summed up last year, when they allowed San Marino to score a first away goal since 2001. The women’s record is more lustrous: after all, they won a World Cup in 1995. They stand 14th in Fifa’s global rankings, as against 73rd for the men.
It is long overdue, then, that such success is properly remunerated. Even now, there is a temptation among those who should know better to airbrush women’s football out of the picture. Take this week’s existential angst in the US about the men’s team’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018. Useless laggards, the lot of them, goes the cry. Replant the grass roots. Nothing less than a root-andbranch restructure will suffice, apparently, after a defeat against Trinidad and Tobago – one that Taylor Twellman, a former Major League Soccer star, claimed would give all the players “nightmares for the rest of their lives”. Where in this is an acknowledgement that the women’s side remain in rude health or that they have won the World Cup three times? Casual sexism, of the kind to which Andy Murray alluded at Wimbledon this year, is alive and well. Murray icily rebuked a reporter who described Sam Querrey as the first American to advance to a major semi-final since 2009, somehow forgetting that Serena Williams had done so 17 times. Once again, sportswomen of the calibre of Ali Krieger and Amy Rodriguez, with 228 international caps between them, are being treated as afterthoughts, as if they do not matter in the wider debate. Thankfully, Scandinavia is showing the way. Tomorrow in Helsinki, another glass ceiling will be shattered when Spanish referee Alhambra Nievas becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s international rugby union fixture, between Finland and Norway. Even more encouragingly, she will be part of an all-female trio of officials.
Nievas is adamant that she only ever wants to be considered for refereeing duties on merit, not on gender. This is why Norway’s move to equal pay in football so rankles with diehard meritocrats: it is seen as gimmickry, an exercise in virtue-signalling. It is anything but. A system simply paying athletes according to the revenues their performances generate threatens to hold women’s football back indefinitely. Critics of Norway’s action insist that they want to see equality of outcome for women, but they seem perfectly content to accept inequality of opportunity. Scoffing at such progress does more than demean women – it is also patronising to those on the Norwegian men’s team who are playing their part in redressing an ugly status quo. One by one, doors for women in sport are being prised open. Norway’s is an example to emulate, not to denigrate.
Delighted: Norway captain Caroline Graham Hansen