Women shouldn’t have to choose between their sport and having children.
Female athletes have historically been negatively affected by having children and many women quit professional sports because they do not feel supported enough to do both.
Professional football player Emma Mukandi spoke out about the issue on maternity policies in women’s football in the latest episode of Off the Ball’s podcast, ‘The COYGIG Pod’. Having just returned to professional football for her club, Reading, she has had first-hand experience on the matter.
The maternity policy that is in place for the top two tiers of women’s football in England includes 14 weeks of full pay for players after giving birth. Thanks to the new rules implemented by FIFA for the 2022-23 season, clubs must also make sure to reintegrate players into the club after giving birth and provide “adequate ongoing medical support”. However, in the podcast, Mukandi claims that the policy and these new rules are not enough to support female football players who want to become mothers and continue their football careers.
The policy also brings other problems. Operating as a minimum standard in the leagues, it leaves too much room for interpretation from clubs, meaning the maternity support differs hugely dependent on the club. The top clubs in the Women’s Super League have more resources, meaning their players will get more support and therefore have less barriers to face when having children. “But I think the lower down the league you go it’s easier for club CEOs to be like ‘No, this isn’t happening.’” Mukandi says. She also questions whether the policy has been made by the right people — who have experienced playing football and having a baby themselves.
Mukandi’s own experience includes having to breast pump in a cupboard and not being allowed to bring her baby on site because of club policy. When she found out she was pregnant, they didn’t have anything in place regarding maternity support in their contracts. Out of fear that it would not “go down well”, she had to fake an injury to hide her pregnancy and felt the pressure to come down to every training session because she was still getting paid. On the contrary, the support she has gotten from the Scottish National Team has been more positive, where arrangements have been made to allow her to bring her baby to camps.
Female football players need more support to so they can have children without having to give up their football careers. We’ve just seen change starting to happen around the issue — with the new maternity rules from FIFA being implemented and Nike announcing a new maternity policy for their sponsored athletes in 2021. However, more still needs to be done to support female athletes who want to have children.
Should the existing maternity policy in women’s football in England be revised to improve the minimum standards? Should it be a requirement for clubs and organisations in professional sports to have a maternity policy in place across all sports?