The case of Canadian footballer Stephanie Labbé raises the question of why football is segregated by gender
Earlier this year, Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé was looking for a new team to train with. Having played for women’s teams in Europe and the US, and come home with a bronze medal from the Rio 2016 Olympics, she felt ready for a new challenge. “I just had this drive, this determination to do something different and to take my career in a different direction,” she says.
Her plan? To find a men’s team instead. Growing up, Labbé played ice hockey, and she looked up to female players such as Hayley Wickenheiser, who played for men’s leagues in Finland and Sweden. “I started thinking about that in soccer, but no one’s ever really done that in the soccer world,” she says. “I thought, why not me?”
She called around different clubs and met with a lot of resistance – until she found Tommy Wheeldon, who coaches the Calgary Foothills. He was open to the idea. “I said, ‘If you can keep the ball out of the net, I pick based on ability and not anything else,’” Wheeldon recalls.
Labbé started training with the team and was immediately impressed by the squad’s professionalism. Meanwhile, Wheeldon was very happy with his new player. “Her mentality and the way she approached the game were world-class,” he says. Moreover, her ability, attitude and high level of experience made her a valuable influence on the rest of the team.
Wheeldon could choose three goalkeepers to play with the Calgary Foothills in the US and Canadian Premier Development League (PDL), and he felt that Labbé had earned her spot. But when he contacted the PDL, they said it wouldn’t be possible. The PDL, officials explained, was a “gender-based league”. The Calgary Foothills was a men’s team. Labbé couldn’t play.
“They were pretty stern on it and weren’t open to talking about it,” Labbé says. “It was a pretty hard door-slam.”
The PDL is far from alone in its conviction that men and women shouldn’t play football together. Labbé is not even the first female player to be barred from joining a men’s team – in 2004, Fifa stopped Mexican club Atlético Celaya from signing female player Maribel Dominguez, stating that “there must be a clear separation between men’s and women’s football”. In England, the FA allows girls and boys to play together up to age 18, but segregates by gender after that.
A common argument against men and women playing together is that they simply have different physical characteristics and abilities. Paul Bradley, a sports scientist at Liverpool John Moores University, has led several studies looking at female football players’ performance, including a 2013 paper that compared aspects of match performance between male and female players competing in the UEFA Champions League. Here, Bradley and his co-authors noted some common trends. Male players covered a slightly higher total distance than female players during games, Bradley explains, but the difference was small.
“The real differences are in the high-intensity element,” he says. “When you look at the distance covered at high intensity and also the distance covered sprinting, you see between 30 and sometimes up to 200 per cent difference.” Bradley and his colleagues have also found that female players had lower scores than male players in some physiological tests.
But these findings are averages, and don’t mean that no woman can exist who is capable of achieving the same results as an elite male player. In fact, Bradley says that he has tested some top-class female players who have achieved higher scores on physiological tests such as endurance. One such test, called the Yo-Yo intermittent endurance test, is similar to the beep test you may have done at school, where you have to run from one side of the gym to the other before the beep sounds. The Yo-Yo test adds brief pauses to recover between sprints. “We tested some elite female players, and there was one player in particular, they would get a score of about 2,800 metres,” Bradley says. “An average for a male player in the Premier League might be 2,400 metres.”
There are some female players, then, who could potentially match or outperform their male peers on physical performance.
It’s also impossible to tell how much of the average gap is down to ‘innate’ gender difference and how much may be caused by environmental factors such as social differences. Male and female players do not start from the same point; from a young age, boys have more opportunities to develop their football skills than girls. This inequality continues into adulthood, even for professional teams, as there is more funding for the men’s game.
For this reason, Bradley says that it is difficult to really compare male and female players on a like for like basis; even at the same professional level, men and women may not receive the same standard of training or the same opportunities to develop their skills. “There is no level playing field there,” he says. “You’ve got female players who are probably part-time, training once or twice a week and have jobs on the side, then you’ve got professional male players who are training five times a week and playing two games. It’s really difficult to actually compare like for like.” He hopes that this may change as more is invested into the women’s game.
And football is not just about pure physical characteristics. Even among male players, there is a lot of variation in size, strength and speed. Just within the England team at the 2018 World Cup you can see clear differences: Harry Maguire was among the heaviest in the competition at 98kg, while Jesse Lingard was one of the lightest at just 60kg. Raheem Sterling was the shortest on the team at 170cm; Maguire towers over him at 194cm. Some players are known for belting it up the pitch; others are revered for their strategic play.
Labbé says that when she played with the Calgary Foothills, she did feel that she was at a physical disadvantage against most of the men. “But for me as a player, I pride myself on understanding the game and having a really good soccer IQ,” she says. For her, that was enough to keep her competitive.
Wheeldon agrees. Physically, he says, there was a noticeable difference between Labbé and the team’s male goalkeepers; she was shorter and lighter. “But for us, she offered something different.”
Regardless your thoughts on men’s and women’s relative abilities, arguments over performance also don’t really explain the apparent need to segregate men and women. Because if women simply weren’t good enough to play with men, then why would you need to ban them from doing so? Surely they’d just have no hope of getting selected for a men’s team anyway? Why stop those few elite women who prove their worth against men the chance to compete with their peers?
And there’s another complication too, in that separating by sex or gender suggests that sex and gender is binary, which is not the case. It is unclear where intersex or transgender athletes would fit in this paradigm.
Federico Luzzi, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Aberdeen who has written about gender equality in football, says that the current setup just doesn’t seem to make sense. “Generally speaking, it seems like sex is being treated – in a sports context, where we segregate on the basis of sex – differently to other characteristics,” he explains.
He gives the example of other ways sports currently segregate competitions, such as based on age or disability. Many sports – including football – have separate competitions that are ring-fenced for players under a certain age, and for players with disabilities. This gives these groups of players chance to compete when the majority of them would not be able to hold their own in the “mainstream” competition.
Both age and disability, however, are examples of “weak segregation”, meaning that, usually, if players in these groups are good enough to take part in the mainstream team, they are not prevented from doing so. A disabled athlete may participate in both the Paralympics and the Olympics if they meet the criteria. A young footballer may be selected for an older team. “By the same token, it’s weird that we don’t think in the same way when it comes to female footballers who are capable of playing with males,” Luzzi says.
A reason that’s often given for treating the male/female divide differently is safety – the idea being that it would be unsafe for women to play against men as they might be more likely to get hurt, perhaps because they are, on average, smaller. This seems to be the reasoning behind the FA segregating teams by gender. But this, Luzzi says, is rather paternalistic. “You never get that kind of concern for male players who are injury-prone or who are much lighter,” he explains. “No one says Neymar should not be able to play because he might get injured.”
Changing the rules
Stephanie Labbé doesn’t know the reasoning behind the PDL’s rule that forbids women from playing with men but says she thinks it’s an old rule that has never been challenged before. The PDL did not respond to requests for comment.
“I don’t understand it,” Labbé says, adding that she agrees there should be female-specific leagues so that women have a fair opportunity to compete in their sport. “But I think that, for the women that beat those odds and can overcome those disadvantages, it’s time we start thinking about how we can support them and put them in an environment that’s going to push them to the next level.”
It’s strange, Labbé says, to grow up playing mixed football only for the rules to change when you get older. “I don’t understand why, once we become 18 or 19, it all of a sudden becomes so divided and the crossover becomes so rare and foreign to everybody.”
It’s not as simple as telling elite female players to just join an equivalent women’s team, as many places do not offer women’s teams at the same level. Unable to play with the Calgary Foothills, Labbé joined Linköpings FC in Sweden. But she says she plans to try to get the rule revisited so that in future women may be able to have the same opportunities as men.
She’s also received lots of messages from young girls and parents of young girls who currently play with boys and want to continue doing so. “If I can get this rule changed for one of those young girls who dreams of doing this, who may grow up to be ten times the keeper I am today – if I can get this changed so that she can one day play in the PDL, that would be amazing.”