Former England defender Fern Whelan hopes to help young girls believe “the dream can be achieved” with a new Professional Footballers’ Association initiative addressing ethnic minority under-representation in the women’s game.
With the ‘See It Achieve It’ campaign, the PFA aims to create a network for current Women’s Super League players from ethnic minority backgrounds, in which they will receive peer-to-peer mentoring and be given bespoke support, and it says increasing the visibility of diverse role models is a primary goal.
The union says there are 29 black, Asian or mixed heritage players out of 300 in the WSL, while the figure in the England squad for this summer’s home Women’s Euros is three out of 23.
Spearheading the campaign is Whelan, who became the PFA’s first women’s football equality, diversity and inclusion executive last September.
The former Liverpool, Everton, Notts County and Brighton player, who won three England caps and retired in 2020, told the PA news agency: “Before I got the job at the PFA it had already become apparent to me that representation and diversity across the Women’s Super League and the Lionesses was not what it could be.
“We want that representation to increase. When I first got into the role, it was something where I thought ‘what can personally I try to do about this, how can we at the PFA do something about it?’
“It was identified to me that the EDI team at the PFA was already, as part of their overall strategy, trying to increase representation in all parts of the game – women’s, men’s, coaching, players – and for me, See It Achieve It could fit in in terms of inspiring the next generation of young girls to want to get into the game from diverse backgrounds.
“I think for me the most important part of it is celebrating the current role models that we have in the game – I think you can’t underestimate the power of role models in football.
“So we want people to be able to see players in positions, playing in the WSL, playing for the Lionesses, that is someone they can identify with, and makes them think it’s possible, the dream can be achieved. We’re trying to get young girls across the country to dream really.”
The launch has included videos featuring stories from current England players Nikita Parris and Demi Stokes and former Lioness Anita Asante.
Whelan recalls the impact made on her by an encounter with former England winger Rachel Yankey when she was in a centre of excellence in her early teens.
“I went to a training session when I was really young and I don’t think I’d seen many black players,” Whelan said.
“Our manager at the time brought Rachel Yankey to a training session, and for me that was pivotal, massive, because I saw her and thought ‘that could be me in the future’, and I always related back to that when I was a youngster, I always thought back upon it.
“Now we have the media around it to really showcase what these players are about, the journeys they have been on, and the quality they possess. At the PFA, we want to tell those stories.”
The PFA said that alongside the campaign, it is implementing “a three-year strategy to improve diversity levels within the entire women’s football pyramid”.
In May the Football Association announced plans, supported by the Premier League, designed to create a wider and more diverse talent pool for the women’s game, with better accessibility among five identified areas of improvement.
There is to be a wider national network of what will be called Emerging Talent Centres for girls aged eight to 16, and the FA’s director of women’s football Baroness Sue Campbell has expressed her confidence that the plans and the ‘Discover My Talent’ project launched last summer will help create a “significant shift” in terms of diversity at the top end of the English women’s game.
Whelan said: “I do think access has been a problem. When we did a video (for the PFA campaign), I spoke to Nikita, and myself and her used to get taken to training by our manager and by our coach because we couldn’t get to training, because they were on the outskirts of the city, and accessibility was a main problem.
“The talent pathway is going through a restructuring, there’s a lot of work being done for that, and hopefully it will be really positive in allowing as many girls as possible to play.”