Tackling online abuse and representation: The in-tray for PFA's first women's equality chief

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Former WSL footballer Fern Whelan the PFA's first EDI executive - Paul Cooper
Former WSL footballer Fern Whelan the PFA's first EDI executive - Paul Cooper

As the Professional Football Association’s first executive for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in women’s football - a position which she has taken up just six months after giving birth to her first child - Fern Whelan has her hands full.

During our half-hour chat, the former Brighton star takes me on a whistle-stop tour of the change she wants to help spearhead in the female game. As a relatively new mum to baby Jenson, it is unsurprising that maternity contracts - which remain practically non-existent in the women’s top-flight - are just one of a number of priorities on her list, along with tackling online abuse.

Last weekend, Georgia Stanway was the latest victim to be on the receiving end of abusive messages after being sent off in the Manchester derby - a match which drew a record peak 1.1 million audience on BBC One as the WSL continues to reap the rewards of its £8m broadcast deal. “It’s probably bigger than us and the PFA,” says Whelan. “Obviously, the players are in the public eye a lot more - a couple of years ago, Georgia Stanway wouldn’t have gotten that abuse. My role is about being a face for the players so they know that we’re there as their union - that’s the first bit I want to delve into as much as possible.”

It has been over a year since Whelan hung up her boots after endless knee injuries put paid to her 15-year career which included spells at Everton, Liverpool and Notts County and three England caps. Retirement offered time for reflection, which has become something of a buzzword for women’s football of late after it was rocked with allegations of sexual abuse in America, Australia and Venezuela. Whelan is quick to point out that each WSL club has a designated safeguarding officer to report such concerns - or players can approach the PFA directly - and insists she wants to help foster a culture where players can air any grievances openly.

“You’d like to hope that these types of things haven’t happened in our league - but as you saw over the course of the week, all the players are standing up for the players across the rest of the world, which is amazing to see,” says Whelan, touching on the show of solidarity from the English players at last weekend’s matches. “I think there might have been a culture in the past, where players were scared to say anything, but we want players to feel comfortable and know that they have a safe space [to report concerns].”

Never one to publicly air her views as a player, having experienced the women’s game largely before the explosion of social media, Whelan admits the murder of George Floyd last year was a “turning point” in terms of her wanting to being more vocal about the lack of diversity in women’s football.

Black athletes make up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of players in the WSL - significantly less than in the men's top tier - and Whelan points to the grassroots scene as the instigator for change. “It’s about chatting to the academies, their recruitment departments, seeing how they generate their pools of players,” says Whelan, who used to be ferried by her mum and sister on public transport on a four-hour round trip from her home on the outskirts of Liverpool to Tranmere’s centre of excellence as a child. “Is every young female getting access to training or the elite level? Or are they having to get six million buses? We want them [players of colour] to be visible, for the pathways to follow through, so they can get to the WSL stage and filter through to our Lionesses team so we have more people from diverse backgrounds playing for England on the big stage.”

At the heart of Whelan’s determination is the desire to repay an organisation that helped her throughout so much of her career: “I got my physiotherapy degree through the PFA. Wellbeing-wise, I’ve seen a lot of their councillors from time to time. I really lent on them.” Now, she says, is the time to give back by helping to elevate the female game.

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