Interview: Kayleigh Grieve on making football cool for teenage girls

Kayleigh Grieve, Uefa's marketing manager for women's football, watches Scotland take on Belarus at Falkirk Stadium. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Kayleigh Grieve, Uefa's marketing manager for women's football, watches Scotland take on Belarus at Falkirk Stadium. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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The daughter of Scottish Cup winner Ian Cameron, Kayleigh Grieve grew up watching men’s football, but now she is one of the leading figures in the worldwide drive to grow the female game.

Grieve is the women’s football marketing manager for Uefa and says the trick is going to be convincing girls – and their dads – that it is not just credible but actually cool for females to dream of pulling on the dark blue of Scotland, just as it is for young lads.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is that when a little boy is born, from the moment they are walking or even crawling many dads are putting a ball at their feet and, whether the kid knows if they like football or not by that point, they are on that path,” said Grieve.

“Girls, though, tend not to get their first taste of football until they are six, seven or eight and it is usually at school. So girls think ‘I’m rubbish at football, it’s the boys who are good’. They don’t understand that the boys have been playing with a ball for years. They are not genetically rubbish, they just aren’t getting the same exposure to it at a young age or the same opportunities.

“We do need to encourage dads, in particular, who at the moment still tend to be more football focused, to give their daughters the same opportunities. They may not have the same ambitions to play professionally, although there is more scope for that now, but they need to understand it is a good thing to get their daughters out kicking a ball and 
recognise all the benefits.”

Research of players shows that the vast majority of females who play the game have a brother. “Which suggests that it probably wasn’t actually the girl who was encouraged to play football, they had just been along to football so much with their brothers that it became a normal part of their life,” added Grieve.

Growing up with a brother herself, she is not the exception that proves the rule but the former Celtic and Glasgow City player, who also played and coached at Partick Thistle, is hopeful there will be countless examples in coming generations who buck the trend. With two daughters of her own, she is doing her bit.

“I took my two girls out to the Euros last year” – where Scotland contested a major finals for the first time – “and there were a couple of times when I got quite emotional watching them engaging with it all. Imagine being that age and seeing girls playing at that level, seeing Scotland players playing at that level.

“My girls got to go in to watch Scotland training and meet the squad and get photos and autographs. That day was one of the best days of their lives and there is no doubt that in the months since, my two have got even more massively into playing football and they talk about it all the time.”

Based in Geneva, where she works closely with the 55 national associations across Europe on the primary objection of bolstering participation, Grieve is back in Scotland this week, taking in Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against Belarus, at Falkirk Stadium last night, and today she will speak at the annual Scottish Women in Sport conference, at the RBS headquarters in Gogarburn, Edinburgh. A trustee since the SWIS’s inception five years ago, the group’s vision is of a country where females of all ages, abilities, ethnicities and walks of life are participating in sport or physical activity within a positive, equitable culture where their achievements are promoted and celebrated.

Given her personal history and her chosen career, it is unsurprising that Grieve’s priority is football. Taking a multifaceted approach, looking at the marketing of role models, kit, league structures, player pathways, support networks and media; and tackling cultural nuances, gender stereotypes and the positive attributes of sport, she says it is vital that they find the best way to engage with girls. Social media plays a major role in here work.

With high profile campaigns, such as her own Together#WePlayStrong drive and the equally successful National Lottery-funded #ThisGirlCan, they are intent in getting a positive message across.

“We have to make football more culturally relevant to girls. The biggest part of our marketing just now is participation and getting more girls to play football but the challenge we face is that 12-13 year-old girls drop out in huge numbers. We have had to look at why that is. Girls’ confidence generally takes a big hit at that age, they hit puberty, and they tend to look to be part of the cool group. They want to be regarded as part of the in-crowd. They see their identity defined by that and the way things are just now, girls aren’t celebrated for playing football. If a boy is the best footballer in the class, he tends to be seen as the coolest kid in the class but for girls, things aren’t seen the same way so it is hard for them to keep going when they start to lose confidence. They tend to give up and go and do something else.

“Essentially the Together #WeAreStrong campaign is about trying to get the message across that playing football is a cool thing to do.” And current international stars are on-board with promoting that reality. “The majority of the campaign plays out on [social media platforms] YouTube, Instagram, Musical.ly because that’s where girls are.

“We do Press Play vlogs with the professional players including [Scotland and Arsenal star] Lisa Evans who is very sporty. Kids spend all day watching various vlogs about make-up and fashion but these vlogs show Lisa having a lot of fun through football and sport and in every day life. We want to put some really good role models out there and show girls that it is cool to play football and work hard at it but that the top players still watch Netflix and hang out with their friends. This is great way to do that and prove that it is cool.”