Short contracts, low salaries, and high childcare costs have often led talented women to leave professional football when they become mothers.
Like many women footballers in the early 2000s, Helen Ward had to “pay to play.”
“You might pay the club about £100 a year, and that would cover everything: training facilities, officials, kit, all that kind of stuff. That was just kind of the norm,” says Ward (pictured above).
Today, Ward is the captain of Watford FC’s women’s team and a team ambassador – two roles for which she is paid. She has done stints at Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as playing over 100 matches for her national team Wales.
Ward’s football career has mirrored the steady rise of the women’s game across the UK, culminating in the Lionesses winning the Euro 2022 championship last month. It was the first time that England had won a major football trophy for over 50 years.
There are high hopes that this victory will spur more equality in football, such as helping to close the huge gender pay gap between male and female players. But the industry also needs to work specifically on supporting mothers who work in professional football.
“A lot of women will choose to have children after they finish [their football career], or they will fall pregnant and decide not to come back,” says Ward, who has two children aged 7 and 4, which she says is relatively unusual amongst her colleagues. Short contracts, low salaries, and high childcare costs have often made it too hard for mothers to stay in the game.
There are signs that things are starting to change. All teams in the top two women’s leagues must now offer 14 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, under new rules that come into effect next month. Players in the top leagues are now paid monthly salaries, albeit far lower ones than their male counterparts, after years of women “paying to play’ or only earning fees on the days that they played matches.
Ward is happy about this progress but she hopes that teams will start offering more than 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave. “Everybody’s different – some women might not be able to play for up to a year after their birth, some women might be ready sooner,” she says. “And it’s not just [about being ready] physically, it’s psychologically too.”
Ward adds that teams also need more physiotherapists and medical experts who are trained in pre-natal and post-natal exercise, to help women get back on the pitch when they feel ready.
For women’s teams, some of the issues facing mothers lie beyond their reach. Ward says that 4-year and 5-year player contracts are common in men’s football, whereas 2-year contracts are the norm for women, and this lack of stability makes it tricky to start a family. But she acknowledges that women’s football has far less money than the men’s game, making it harder for teams to offer long commitments.
Another barrier for “soccer mums”, especially those with pre-school children, is the cost of childcare – British families pay the second-highest childcare costs in the developed world, according to OECD data. “We’ve seen, over many years, that many really talented footballers just drop out of the game. It’s just been too expensive for them to continue,” says Nicole Allison, a football consultant and the owner of Worcester City’s women’s team.
While higher salaries for players could help with childcare costs to a certain extent, the solution to this issue ultimately lies with the government. The UK does not have state-funded or heavily-subsidised nurseries, apart from a few exceptions, and instead parents have to pay private nurseries and childminders. Across all sectors, childcare costs are a major factor in women leaving their jobs.
Ward says that she’s starting to see more women returning to football after having babies, and she hopes this trend will continue. Returners sometimes ask her for advice; she encourages them to go at their own pace, instead of comparing themselves to other players or rushing back before they feel ready.
She also feels a solidarity with the other mother-players of her generation, who made it through against the odds. “I’ve played against the same players over and over, during the years, and I know the few who have had children. And I do notice that, at the end of a game, I’ll be drawn to [them] and we’ll have a little chat,” she says.
“It’s sort of an unspoken thing, but you just gravitate towards each other and give each other a fist-bump and say: ‘Yeah, we’ve done okay.’ ”
Photo credit: Kunjan Malde and The FAW