Women need safer spaces for fans at major football tournaments to eliminate hostility and abuse

With millions of people attending matches and enjoying Euro 2024 in fan zones across Germany, the issue of fan safety is paramount. However, how safe women feel at major tournaments and what can be done to create safer spaces for female fans is less important. The lack of safety is particularly worrying for women at prestigious men’s tournaments, including the Euro.

Crowd riots and violence at men’s international matches have always been widely covered in the media. After the Euro 2020 final against Italy, English football faced questions about crowd mentality but ignored the issue of misogyny, which included sexist chanting, sexual harassment and even sexual assault.

Netflix’s follow-up documentary The Final: Attack on Wembley , which examines scenes of chaos at England’s national football stadium, didn’t explore how this hypermasculine behavior affected women fans, policewomen, and flight attendants. Instead, it focused on the usual headlines: ticketless fans, cocaine, and alcohol consumption.

This is a serious oversight, especially as men’s football in England remains one of the last bastions of male dominance and faces serious problems of sexism and misogyny.

While researching my book The Feminization of Sports Fandom—an examination of the opening up of opportunities for women to become fans over the past three decades—I found that this interest in sports by women has neither led to greater equality nor addressed safety concerns for women.

A recent study of 1,950 male football fans found that openly misogynistic attitudes still dominate British football fandom. In that study, my colleagues and I identified three groups of fans.

Firstly, those with progressive attitudes who supported gender equality and greater coverage of women’s sport. Secondly, fans with openly misogynistic attitudes who viewed women’s sport as inferior – in effect, an anti-feminist backlash against women entering the traditionally male space of football, whether as fans or as players. And finally, fans with latent misogynistic attitudes who veered between progressive and misogynistic attitudes – publicly expressing support for gender equality but revealing more misogynistic attitudes in other spaces.

Fan attitudes towards women in football:

Durham University

Although progressive attitudes were represented, the most dominant group by far was that openly misogynistic. This was shown to be the case regardless of age. These findings are supported by my research into the experiences of female football fans. Male fans used a variety of strategies to challenge the status of female fans as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’.

Women are routinely required to prove they are true fans in a way that is not applied to men. Some have reported comments such as: “Shut up, you’re a woman, what do you know?” or being told they should “stay at home and wash pots”. This is supported by recent statistics from anti-discrimination campaigner Kick it Out, which has shown a 400% increase in reports of sexism and misogyny in the professional and grassroots game, and on social media.

My research shows that women who enter the traditionally male space of the football pitch suffer consequences. They can be perceived as encroaching on male territory, which causes some men to feel ‘threatened’ or ‘intimidated’. This has led to instances of extreme hostility towards women when they watch the match.

Making women feel safe and welcome

Concerns about sexism, misogyny and safety are amplified at men’s international tournaments such as the Euros. I explained to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Major Events Safety Committee how many women avoid going to men’s matches, especially international events, because they don’t feel safe.

Fan safety issues are not confined to the stadium. Women have reported feeling unsafe walking to and from venues, on public transport and in pubs. They have experienced violence and abuse, from misogynistic comments to sexual harassment and assault.

Our research into women’s football fans shows that these matches and tournaments are often perceived as offering a safer environment, with less profanity, drunkenness and physical aggression than sometimes experienced at men’s football. Some fans described the culture of men’s football in the UK as “intimidating” due to “hooligans” and perceived the atmosphere as “angry” and “hostile”.

There are mechanisms in place for fans to report incidents of discrimination at the Euros. UEFA has launched a reporting channel for anyone who has witnessed or been affected by an “incident or risky situation”. And the Football Supporters Europe network has launched the SaferSpaces app for those who feel harassed, discriminated against or threatened, which can provide on-site help and support.

In my Women and Football Fandom report, I call for a mechanism to report, respond to and resolve issues of sexism and misogyny in football. This could take the form of a national helpline with a consistent approach in every football stadium in the UK.

Currently, many women do not trust stewards and clubs to deal with complaints appropriately. A national reporting mechanism would ensure consistency in the way women report violence and abuse and that action is taken in response through police and stewards on matchdays.

This was confirmed by the recent House of Commons report on Safety at Major Sporting Events, which recommended the introduction of a “central reporting and recording system for incidents of discrimination and anti-social behaviour at sporting events”.

Tackling sexism and misogyny in British society must become a key priority for the new Labour government, which must now address the election-delayed Football Governance Bill.

Finding solutions to the problem of violence and abuse against women in men’s football will also require urgent research. There should be cooperation between the police, government, football governing bodies, clubs and anti-discrimination organisations. It is clear that making positive changes to address sexism and misogyny in football will have huge benefits for society as a whole.