90min are releasing a series of articles from some of women's football's leading figures – on and off the pitch – around the SheBelieves Cup in the US. Here, Jo Tongue – director of Women in Football and CEO of Tongue Tied Media – talks about changing attitudes to women in football.
Football is what my family did. Every weekend my parents would take the four of us (my brothers and sister) to games. We laugh about it now, but we genuinely say to my mum, how did you manage, in the 80s, to take the four of us to the football every weekend?! And it wasn’t just football – it was cricket, it was rugby, it was just what we did. If you didn’t like sport in our family you didn’t feature very much in conversation at the dinner table!
Their idea of a fun family day out was pulling up the weeds on the terraces at The Valley to try and get Charlton back to the local area!
I never felt it was unusual or uncool as a young girl to love football as much as I did. Well, until perhaps I got to my secondary school. But then came Italia ‘90 and Gazza’s tears, so it became an in thing to like football.
I knew football so well that I automatically had something I was happy to speak to boys about comfortably and I never really felt intimidated within a male dominated environment. The fact that I could talk about football and was comfortable with my knowledge, meant that I felt safe in football surroundings.
I was always going to be involved in football in some way within my career. Seeing my dad travel from big football tournament to big football tournament for his work as a journalist was an inspiration to me. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll just do everything I can across the board to learn about every area of football and then I’ll work out what job it is I’m going to do.’
My parents' idea of a fun family day out was pulling up the weeds on the terraces at The Valley to try and get Charlton back to the local area!
I was 15 when I went to the World Cup in 1994 in America with my Mum and Dad. I watched closely how the media worked. I did work experience at the BBC in my summer holidays, where I still work on the BBC 606 show now. I made sure I saw everything in action.
I could see how all the pieces moved, I could see how hard my dad worked, I also saw the relationship between the press and the players – although it was entirely different then. We went to training grounds in half term holidays and were welcomed! I got my coaching badges at 18 and I think at one point I even considered being a referee (I’m bossy enough!).
I joined the BBC after university and I really looked up to women like Eleanor Oldroyd, Charlotte Nicol and Shelley Alexander, who was then editor of Football Focus. One day she came to me and said, ‘We’re setting up a group for women working in football, we’re going to have an event,' and asked if I would be interested in going. Of course I was interested!
That event was the first time ever that, we as women working within the football space, openly discussed the different issues we all experienced day to day. We had a group of 30 of us, with a panel of women including Heather Rabbatts, Jacqui Oatley and Dr Misia Gervis. As a 21 or 22 year old reporter and I found myself thinking ‘Wow all these things I assumed were ‘just how it was in football’ are actually issues that other people have also faced.’
The wages were eye opening. I was pretty appalled, if I’m honest, at the gap between the male and female players.
Press rooms can sometimes be cliquey and intimidating places. Even more so when you would walk into the room as the only woman. That feeling of intimidation increased as you realised 20 or so white men were looking at you, none of whom would talk to you.
I’d think ‘Oh god Jo grow up, stop being so nervous, you’re confident in so many other walks of life, why are you thinking about this?’ Then I’d take on this persona. I’d take a deep breath, put my shoulders back and think ‘Okay, I’ve got this.’
Those feelings went beyond the atmosphere in press rooms. It would sometimes be within your own work place. You would be regularly overlooked for roles, and then of course there’s the equal pay discussion. So when Women in Football began, it was just really nice to know that there was someone, somewhere, having similar experiences to you.
Four of us who were there that night are still heavily involved within Women in Football: Anna Kessel, Jacqui Oatley, Vikki Orvice who we so heartbreakingly lost to cancer this month, and I.
What started as a group of 30 is now a network of 3000 women. Knowing you’ve got someone there, a supportive friend, a mentor, a guide, is so important. I speak to someone from Women in Football every single day. Having a group of friends around you that can completely understand the industry and its challenges is a lifesaver at times.
I’ve always felt the need to represent people fairly, hence my agency (Tongue Tied Media), and it’s been an interesting curve especially working closely with female players. Eniola Aluko was the first female player we represented. She’d come back from playing in the USA, was in the FAWSL and was about to go to the Olympics. She has 100 more caps than most of the male players I work with.
I just couldn’t believe the disparity between her life and the life of the male footballers. The wages were eye opening. I was pretty appalled, if I’m honest, at the gap between the male and female players. And things like players paying for their own travel and accommodation to trial at a club before a transfer.
Working with the male players has shown me what’s achievable. It’s also shown me that we shouldn’t settle for sub-standard situations when you know exactly what the men get. Men’s football isn’t always the benchmark but it certainly helps show how much improvement is needed in women’s football off the pitch.
I want any young women to be able to look and say, 'Wow that job sounds really interesting, I’d love to try that.'
What is great is that every FAWSL player we work with really understands the responsibility they have. Not as a burden, but as a privilege. They know the generation before them, who are not that much older, weren’t able to make a professional career out of playing football.
They feel a responsibility to be good role models to the next generation as well. They now tread that fine line between being incredibly grateful for what they’ve got and striving to achieve further equality, to create more opportunities and to create further parity for the women’s game.
The industry has changed beyond recognition in the time I’ve worked in it, especially the amount of women and the amount of jobs that are available to women within this space. I think it’s so important now for women in football to be as visible as possible. I want any young women to be able to look and say, 'Wow that job sounds really interesting, I’d love to try that.'
Until young people see it, they don’t know that they can do it. So whether that be players, coaches, managers or even someone like me saying ‘look where I ended up’, it’s so important to be visible. There are so many interesting jobs in football, the only qualification that you really need is the knowledge and passion to go after it.