ESSEC Sports Chair Professor Karoline Strauss interviewed Laura Georges, General Secretary of the French Football Federation, about gender equality, promoting women’s football, and the importance of role models.
A former defender of outstanding talent, Laura Georges has been selected for the French National team 188 times. She has played for Olympique Lyonnais, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern München, and she now serves as an ambassador to FIFA and UEFA. She is a Team EDF athlete.
Karoline: You would probably agree that women’s football is on the rise. According to a 2019 FIFA survey, there are now 13.36 million girls and women playing organized football; although FIFA estimates that there may be 265 million football players globally, so this is still a relatively small share. At least historically football has been a male dominated sport. You have spoken in the past about how you yourself have had a very positive experience, with your family being very supportive, with male players being very supportive, but you have also acknowledged that other women and girls may have had different experiences that I am sure you hear about in your role as General Secretary at the French Football Federation.
Laura: When we organized the World Cup in 2019, I was sure that every girl in France has the chance to play football. I thought that in France, in 2019, everyone knew about women’s football. But that was not the case. When we hosted the World Cup, in 9 different cities, we asked the mayors of the different cities to tell us what they were expecting from the World Cup. One of the cities in the Brittany region wanted to see more girls in the community involved in playing football, and I was really surprised because I thought: is it still a problem? For girls to play football? And yet it was. Not every girl is able to play, and is being considered as a player, in 2019, in France. So here we are not even talking about other countries. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I travelled with FIFA to the Lebanon to see one of their programs promoting football in schools, and girls were not even able to play outside of their own home. People do not let them play, the boys do not accept girls as players. But as part of FIFA’s program, girls had the opportunity to play at football in school. They received more attention and respect, and school is a safe place for them to play. So in France, we are comparatively lucky. Women’s sport receives attention and is promoted, but abroad, it is more complicated. It is really difficult within some countries and continents.
Karoline: I’d like to ask you about three main areas in which we may want to address inequality: access to sport, which you have just mentioned, eliminating barriers women and girls wanting to play; athletes’ conditions, and within that we may want to think about equal media coverage; and sports leadership, so the presence of women at the very top positions of sport organisations. Let’s start with access to sport: things seem to be improving, as you have just mentioned. But surveys also show that particularly teenage girls, for example, are less likely to practice sport than boys. What do you think is the current situation? What are the main barriers preventing women and girls from practicing sports, and what can we do about it?
Laura: Focusing specifically on women’s football in France, last year we reached 200.000 female players. In general, I do not think that there are major problems with the conditions for female players in France. It may be that it can be difficult to have football fields available. In some clubs, the best time slots are often given to the male teams. That is why when we organized the World Cup it was really important to make sure that more consideration is given to women’s teams; that people feel: we need to support the girls even more. Yes, they can play too! So I feel that what today we still need to improve is that we need to see a change in mentality in clubs, presidents of clubs, and mayors. They need to think about giving more support to the girls, and provide them with better schedules so that they can train every day. And in some regions in France, girls still need to train with the boys because there are not enough female players in some clubs.
Today, thanks to social media, we see more and more people training and practicing sports, and we practice sports differently. We no longer have this old-fashioned mentality where girls are only doing gymnastics and other “feminine” sports. Because of the promotion of women’s football on TV, the mentality is changing. Today, communication is really pushing women and girls to do more sports.
Karoline: Talking about the conditions of athletes and about media coverage, so what do you think can be done to level the playing field?
Laura: Media coverage is the basis. To promote the sport, it is really important. I did my Masters thesis on the impact of media coverage on women’s football, in 2009. And the conclusion of my thesis was: it is not that women’s football will not be on TV, but we will need to use digital. I am happy that women’s football is on TV, but today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can really see how important digital is. We need to think differently, because people cannot go into the stadium any more. We need to think about how we bring people close to the players, how we make sure that people are really interested in the game.
The issues around TV rights of men’s football in France are impacting the women’s game. So we need to think differently: how can we bring more money to the women’s game? Digital is really important in this. Radio, TV, and print press are of course important in promoting the sport, but I tell the players: Let’s not wait for the media to raise awareness, let’s do it, let’s promote the women’s sport on social media and support each other!
Karoline: Let’s talk about women at the top of sports organisations or in other positions of power and visibility. Can you tell us about the campaign “Moi aussi je peux arbitrer (Me too I can referee)”?
Laura: As a player I was appointed to support and to develop female referees. This is one of the most challenging projects that I have ever had. The campaign “Me too I can referee” is about telling girls that they can not only be a great player, but there are also opportunities for them to be a referee. In general, people have a distorted idea of what it means to be a referee. They think of them as the person who has to make the best and the right decision at the right time. But it is really hard. Yet this position is so interesting. Whether you are a girl or a boy, when you take the responsibility to be a referee, you are already preparing to be a leader. Let’s imagine you are in the middle of a field, with 22 players, with 50.000 people around you, with coaches, with managers, and everybody is a referee around you. Everybody wants to tell you what the right decision is. But when you take this responsibility in front of everyone, in front of the world – because you are on TV – it is really hard. You are facing what managers are facing: making decisions, being under pressure, communicating in the right way, in a crisis situation. This campaign to me is about much more than raising the number of female referees. It is about giving the opportunity to girls to stand up and say: I can be a leader. I can lead men on the field. I can lead women on the field.
Karoline: Carrying on with the theme of women in positions of high visibility. Of the 12 managers in D1 Arkema, only 2 are women, and none of the managers of the men’s teams are. What can be done? Whose court is the ball in? Who needs to take action?
Laura: I think people get inspired when they see women succeeding at the top level. Having Corinne Diacre as the coach of the national team is a signal. It shows that you can be the coach of the national team and you can be a woman. When you see women achieving at the top level, you want to be one of them. The more we see women at the top level, the more people will be inspired and want to take action themselves.
When we talk about quotas, it is interesting. On one hand, it is showing us that there is a problem. There are no women in the executive board and that is why we have quotas. But when you have quotas, people have to think about it. When the president [of a federation] is visiting different regions, meeting people, they pay more attention to women, because they know they have to bring women onto the board.
Karoline: Speaking about the importance of role models, what is it like for you to be held up as a role model to women and girls?
Laura: It is a nice opportunity. It is nice to feel that you are impacting the girls. But I don’t think about it when I meet the kids, because I think everybody has to have the mindset that we are role models for people around us. It is not about status. We do not need status to inspire people. Taking the right actions inspires people. It is our responsibility to think that we are all ambassadors, we are all role models for the young generation. We all have the opportunity to bring something special to people.