SINGAPORE – During a casual football session at Bishan Park last year, Puah Jing Wen, Brander Na and a friend received an unsolicited lecture from a man who was passing by on how to play the sport.
Unsure of how to react, the group, who had been playing football for over 15 years, remained silent but were unable to put the incident behind them.
Puah said: “That incident weighed on our minds and in hindsight, it was a classic mansplaining incident where a man just felt that he had more experience in football and wanted to show a bunch of girls that he should teach us how to kick a ball.
“A part of us wanted to research more because we didn’t know at that point of time how to respond to it.”
That drove Puah and Na, both 28, Stefanie Dana Oh, 22, and Cheng Lynn, 27, to start a campaign called Keeping:Score, to educate people about the discrimination that women in sport face and equip female athletes with knowledge and skills to respond to unequal treatment.
Puah and Oh had co-founded Soccer Girl Goals early last year, an initiative to shine the light on women’s football in Asia, an area that they felt was overlooked.
They decided to extend the Keeping:Score campaign beyond football and researched the discrimination that women in sport face, writing a literature review and interviewing over 20 local athletes and experts from various sports.
As part of the campaign, which was launched on Soccer Girl Goals’ social media platforms in April, the team has been putting out information about the various forms of inequality that women face in sport, touching on topics such as unequal pay, the lack of media coverage and discriminatory attitudes towards female athletes.
On the campaign that is backed by the National Youth Council and Youth Change Makers, Puah said: “We hope that we can also bring the sporting community together. In terms of grey areas that may or may not be covered by the national sports associations or (Sport Singapore’s) Safe Sport Taskforce, that’s when we can come together as a community to discuss it, to be able to stand up for ourselves as a community of athletes.”
From their interviews with athletes, they found that a common reason why athletes did not stand up against discrimination was for fear of retaliation, which was why they felt it was important to get national athletes to talk about their own experiences.
Former national footballer Chris Yip-Au, one of the athletes featured in the campaign, recalled how an instructor at a coaching course she attended in 2018 refused to acknowledge her presence in the room of male coaches.
She dealt with the situation by answering all the questions he posed to the class to show that she had earned her right to attend the course.
The 27-year-old, who is a coach with the ActiveSG football academy and the Football Association of Singapore, said: “Being able to share my experience can help others to gain awareness about what being a female in a male-dominated world is like. I know many girls want to play football, but because of societal views and culture, they actually don’t want to try it.
“If someone stepped up, shared their story and showed that they’ve overcome all these adversities, I think it would inspire more girls to take up sport. It might not be soccer, it might be another male-dominated sport like rugby so eventually we just really want an equal world.”
As part of the campaign, national hockey player Gene Leck shared how during a training session, a passer-by, who was accompanied by a younger boy, commented “look at their thunder thighs”.
She said: “I couldn’t react in time, but if I had the time, I would’ve said something to him to let him know that he should not have said that and in front of a young boy.
“Kids are very impressionable, so if you say something like that in front of him, he’s going to think it’s okay and it’s a vicious cycle.
“I would’ve asked him what’s wrong with my thighs. If anything they are a testament to my efforts, not just a set of thunder thighs you can mock.”
Na, who does cloud strategy and operations at Google, is encouraged by the progress that was achieved by the United States women’s national team, who have fought relentlessly for equal pay.
In the United Kingdom, the Football Association signed a three-year deal with the BBC and Sky Sport for broadcast rights to the Women’s Super League in March, which at about £8 million (S$15 million) per season is believed to be the biggest broadcast deal of any professional women’s football league globally.
Since the Keeping:Score campaign started two months ago, the group has seen a 30 per cent growth in the number of followers as they near 1,000 followers, and Na hopes to that they will be able to inspire more conversations to raise the profile of women’s sport.
She said: “I was quite excited and inspired by the US soccer team and how they achieved equality, and how women’s soccer is being elevated in Europe. They’ve come a long way – it’s quite heartening to see the type of progress that’s happening in Europe but then it also makes you wonder what’s happening in Asia.
“We’re poking the holes and getting people talking about it. If you ask me if it’ll be solved in our lifetime, I don’t think so but I’m just hoping that we’re taking the right steps forward.”