Lewes Football Club – flying the flag for equality in football

Karen Dobres is co-director at Lewes Football Club, the first team in the world to pay its women players the same as the men.

Photos by Katie Vandyck of Lewes FC Women

I live in a town called Lewes in Sussex, and until just over two years ago football was never on my agenda.

A world first in football

But back in July 2017, my local football club, Lewes FC, achieved a world first, becoming the first ever football club to pay its women players the same as the men.

Intrigued, (did women actually play football?), I gamely went along to watch the women’s team. I wasn’t used to seeing women in a public place being powerful, athletic, and focused on winning.

Usually females in the public eye were on the TV in shows like The X Factor, or on Instagram posing in nightclub bathrooms. So watching these football players was a welcome revelation to me, and I loved the example they were setting.

Aiming for equality

Jane English said: “If women do not attain roughly equal fame and fortune in sports, it leads both men and women to think of women as naturally inferior.”

Hands up to this. I realised I’d been guilty, through no fault of my own, of believing that women weren’t very good at sports, and certainly not football.

I’d never seriously seen girls or women playing it – I’d presumed it was a man’s game. Watching Lewes FC Women play I saw that women weren’t ‘naturally inferior’ and that, by extension, neither was I.

I followed the game with interest, willing the players on, and walked out of the ground a changed person.

Photos by Katie Vandyck of Lewes FC Women

Football as a vehicle for social change

So how did Lewes make the decision to value its women players in an arena where the women’s game is often at best, second fiddle to the men’s, and at worst, completely ignored?

Lewes Football Club is 100 per cent community-owned. This means anyone, the world over, can become a co-owner, and get one share, and one vote in it.

It also means that the club seeks not to make a profit for shareholders (as most other football clubs do) but rather to create value for the community it’s beholden to.

Therefore the club uses football as a vehicle for social change, the equality initiative tackling the problem of discrimination so prevalent in our communities and workplaces, and even in ourselves.

Looking at the numbers

Some time ago the board looked at the playing budgets for both first teams and questioned that the women received less than the men.

After all, they put in just as much training, and even played in a higher league than the men – why were they given less?

The women’s budget was raised to make it equal to the men’s, and extra marketing resource put behind the team in order to level a previously uneven playing field.

This meant that themed posters were produced, and someone was needed to tell women, who may never even have considered watching football, or be aware that women played it, to come along and give a women’s match a try in solidarity with the cause for equality.

I was so impressed with the equality message the club were sending, that I volunteered to do the task.

Understanding the offside rule, and the difference between cup and league games, corners and free kicks, would come later. First off, people had to know about this game-changing club. With the massive social influence of football, I felt that something had started that could change culture for the better, and I was only too pleased to help.

Photos by Katie Vandyck of Lewes FC Women

Confidence from the fashion world

My background is in fashion modelling and counseling.

I’ve walked on runways for designers, and I’ve counselled people in times of emotional difficulty.

Both of these are valid professions, giving me confidence to operate as a woman within the patriarchal system, but both conforming to traditional female decorative and care-giving roles. So, encouraging women to come to football matches was new for me, and I could feel that I was going to have to fight my own internal misogynistic messages in order to do Lewes FC’s message justice.

I needed to help find other women who didn’t like football, and unearth the new market of women (and their daughters), which I was sure was there.

Inspiration and hope

And here’s where inspiration and hope comes in. Because women have begun flocking to our women’s matches, along with men who have been disillusioned by the trajectory of men’s football, to see high-quality football in a safe and inclusive environment.

Women’s match day gate figures have quadrupled since July 2017, and the men’s gate has risen too. If I had a mic, consider it dropped.

At Lewes FC matches (men’s and women’s) kids under 16 go free, well-behaved dogs are welcome, vegan pie ‘n’ mash is on the menu (as well as more traditional football fayre!) and Prosecco is available in the Rook Inn, alongside beer.

photos by Katie Vandyck of Lewes FC Women

The Sistership

A Sistership of women-supporting groups has a special relationship with Lewes FC Women and come regularly to matches.

Stalls, drummers, bands and chanting practices are to be found at women’s matches, along with free facepainting for kids.

The Football Association

Lewes FC has also challenged the FA with an open letter regarding the glaring gender-based disparity in the Prize Fund (£3.6 million in total for the men, 25K for the women anyone?).

It is planning a campaign to ask for 50:50 media representation of men’s and women’s sports.

Important when you consider that women’s sport receives five per cent of the coverage of men’s, and women’s football just one per cent.

The club hopes to see both teams progress up the leagues so that we have as big a platform as possible for equality.

We also aim to become the most-owned club in the world: bigger even than Barcelona who have 150,000 owners.

If you like what we do, join us, own it, take your place in the revolution.

For us, knowing football’s influence beyond the pitch, it’s clear what needs to be done to change the world so that women have the same respect and opportunities as men. The women’s game needs more attention and more resources. We hope that we can influence other football clubs to follow the path we are carving.

Lewes FC recently won a UN Women UK award for being inspirational. I just hope that we can offer hope and inspiration to the girls and young women who read this website. It’s so important that they feel encouraged and confident about what they want to do, and free to pursue it.

For fixtures and more information about the club, click here

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