As Vancouver prepares to host its share of next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup games, the first female inductee into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame wants to harness the occasion to challenge the sport’s gender inequalities.
Carrie Serwetnyk, who is openly gay, says girls and women now constitute 47 percent of registered soccer players in Canada, yet receive less than 10 percent of the funding.
Women also account for less than one percent of paid decision-makers on national and provincial soccer boards, and are nearly invisible as professional coaches in Canada, she says.
“It seems like all the money, all the funding is back into the men’s game. It’s not right,” says Serwetnyk, who in 2014 founded the non-profit organization Equal Play FC to bring awareness to the gender gaps in Canadian soccer.
“My hope is that we can create new equity policy where girls and women’s sport gets 50 percent of funding across the country,” she says.
“We are constantly hearing the message ‘you’re important, but not important enough,’” she continues. “It hurts people. It affects them.”
Despite the gender imbalance, Serwetnyk says women’s soccer is gaining momentum both in Canada and abroad.
Not surprisingly, she credits US soccer player Brandi Chastain with one of soccer’s most defining moments for women when, in 1999, she kicked the winning goal in a FIFA World Cup final match, whipped off her shirt, and was photographed, muscular body fully flexed, in triumphant victory.
“It was one of those moments where everyone could remember where they were,” Serwetnyk says. “It shifted things. It was a celebration for women, but it was also a shifting for the minds of men.”
Today, she says, Canada’s national team “is full of women’s role models that we can dream about,” she says.
She is particularly impressed with openly gay soccer players like Erin McLeod, whom she respects as a “great goalkeeper” and an “amazing role model,” both as a player and as a person. “She must send such a ripple of hope for many female athletes who might live in fear of their sexuality.”
It was a different era, Serwetnyk says, when she played on Canada’s national women’s team from 1986–96. Back then, being openly lesbian could have cost her sponsorships, she says, and maybe even her spot on the team. It was “almost the worst word you could use,” she says, describing the word ‘lesbian’ as a weapon.
“Now it is 2014, it’s different, but in my time period, I definitely had that fear.”
These days, McLeod describes a “very liberal and accepting environment” on the women’s national team. She is out to the team and, in December, told Xtra that coach John Herdman is supportive. “It really helps that there’s an understanding with your coach. Even if he’s addressing the group, he’ll refer to ‘spending our time off with girlfriends or boyfriends’ instead of just assuming we all have boyfriends. It’s a safe zone,” she says.
McLeod says she understands that not all athletes feel as comfortable as she does being open, but she hopes enough athletes will continue to share their stories and lead by example.
“I’m not necessarily screaming from the top of buildings that I’m gay and this and that [but] with everything I do I try to be a role model for young girls in my sport,” she says. “Part of my problem growing up I didn’t know anyone who was gay, or any gay athletes.”
With Canada’s FIFA Women’s World Cup just a year away, Serwetnyk is determined to shine a spotlight both on the women who so ably play the game, and on the more equitable treatment she believes they deserve.
“We can use the World Cup to create legacy changes,” she says. “They’re expecting 1.5 million people to buy tickets. Let’s make it more than just a soccer tournament. It can be bigger than that!”