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Women’s football has come a long way since it was banned a century ago. From 1921-1970, women were not allowed to play on FA-affiliated pitches and the missed opportunities held back the female game long after the ban was lifted.

Today, The Football Association (The FA) could not be more different. Its commitment to the women’s sport is a key part of its mission to deliver football for all. The game has seen transformational growth in recent years and a sold-out Wembley will cheer on Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at The Adobe Women’s FA Cup Final 2024.

There have also been advances at grassroots level, but as a five-a-side player for two local teams, Kemptown Kickers and Hot Women FC, I know that there’s an opportunity to do more.

Inclusivity, on and off the pitch

Interest in the female game has increased dramatically in recent years, especially since England women won the Euros in 2022. According to The FA, 2.3 million more women and girls play football today than a year ago; this is an extraordinary rise. A TV audience of 12 million watched the Lionesses in the Women’s World Cup final last year and attendance at Women’s Super League games has risen strongly. Last year’s the Women’s FA Cup Final attracted 77,390 fans, a global world record attendance for a domestic women’s match.

And no wonder; women’s football is fantastic to watch. Tickets are affordable and matches are family-friendly. Diversity on and off the pitch promotes a superb pipeline of talent, breeds success and helps everyone to feel a part of the game. As Cognizant’s Global Director of Inclusion & Belonging, I’m proud to be a member of the Sussex County Football Association’s Inclusion Advisory Group, which supports the county to improve representation and equality, advising on issues including menopause policy and recommending ways to make the game more inclusive.

The same applies in business and my role; inclusion and equality serve as key drivers for competitive advantage in the corporate sector. At Cognizant, across the European workforce alone we have 40-plus nationalities which enriches our collective perspective. Diversity of thought is crucial for innovative problem solving and enables us to deliver optimal, bespoke solutions for our clients.

Sport and business, working together to break down barriers

Cognizant is The FA’s Digital Transformation Partner and our shared commitment to inclusion and accessibility underpins all aspects of our work together. We develop and produce the cutting-edge technological solutions which are empowering The FA in its mission to enhance the experience of players, coaches, teams, and fans, at every level. One example of this is the Find Football tool which we developed for the England Football website, allowing players to quickly and easily track down local games and clubs to join. This is a lifeline for the women’s game, where teams are often lower-profile because they don’t have the resources to advertise themselves.

We also created a new, interactive website for Kick It Out, an organisation that leads the fight against discrimination in football. As well as sharing key information and resources, the website has an easy-to-use tool for anyone wanting to report discrimination, of any kind, in the game.

Cognizant is proud to be an Official Partner of The Adobe Women’s FA Cup and I know from speaking to many women and girls that they feel valued when they see big corporates and brands getting behind the women’s game. The benefits are mutual: according to the Women’s Sport Trust, 29% of UK adults think more favourably of brands that sponsor women’s sport, compared to 17% for men’s sport.

Sponsorship and fitted shorts

But of course, there’s still work to do. There’s been a huge uplift in funding for girls’ football since the 2022 Euros, but the women’s grassroots game needs more. Playing football can cost amateurs more per month than membership of a high-end gym, with coaching fees on top. I’d certainly like to see more sponsorship and grants for women’s football. 

As the participation of women in football continues to grow, so too should the research into the optimisation of training, equipment and performance, taking into account the physiological and hormonal characteristics of female players. Most of us have to play in men’s shirts and shorts, which are loose and baggy but tight in all the places where you’d prefer them not to be. Lioness Lucy Bronze has spoken in interviews of having to cut out the netting in men's shorts.  The first England women’s bespoke kit didn’t come to market until 2019.  At least we have women’s football boots in the shops now, but until a few years ago we were wearing children’ boots which, surprisingly enough, didn’t fit well.

Finally, we should all fight discrimination against female coaches and referees. There is so much excellent work being done in the corporate workplace and in sport to foster inclusion through training, affinity groups and regular insight sessions. By adopting a similar approach, more can be done to help to educate parents, players and fans about the importance of respect.

The progress in women's football is testament to what can be achieved with dedication and commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s not just about playing the game; it's about changing the game. This is also true of business, where an inclusive environment gives everyone the opportunity to thrive and creates a strong foundation for success.

Football and business can work together to make a profound difference. If any local organisations in Sussex would like to support my club, please get in touch!

If you’re looking for a women’s team in England, the FA’s Find Football online tool will provide local clubs in just a few clicks:

Read more about Cognizant’s work with Kick It Out.

Shelley Tiltman

Director, Global Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Leader, EMEA & APJ, Cognizant

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elley Tiltman stands with her teammates, representing the Sussex FA IAG.  They have just won the Football vs Homophobia charity match (February 2024). The team is wearing a blue football kit and are smiling, holding medals and a trophy. Shelley Tiltman (third from right) representing the Sussex FA IAG, having won the Football vs Homophobia charity match, February 2024.

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