German soccer's gender problem: Why women are missing from top jobs, and those fighting for change

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The recent Women's European Championship had millions of Germans and many millions more across Europe glued to their television screens. In Britain, the final between England and Germany, which was played in front of a record crowd of 87,192 inside Wembley Stadium, drew an average of 11 million television viewers and a 66% audience share. The tournament felt like a breakthrough moment for women's football in Europe, but will it lead to sustainable change and possibly true equality in football?

Germany already experienced a wave of excitement in 2011 when the country hosted the Women's World Cup, but the excitement died down as soon as the final whistle was blown. Attendance in Germany's first division typically remained in the three digits, with an average of 700 attending games before the pandemic. Even successful women's teams such as VfL Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich, who have done well in international competitions, continued to play in front of empty seats.

Simply put, after the home World Cup, men took over again and women continued to play second fiddle -- until now. German football is setting the standard among top European leagues as a home for progress. The Bundesliga, as opposed to other big leagues in Europe, has a "50+1" ownership rule that protects the clubs from volatility because takeovers by private investors are prohibited. The club and their members own the majority of the team, according to the rule, which is meant to prevent not only economic recklessness but also preserve fan culture -- the crown jewel for the Bundesliga.

Members have a say in setting ticket prices and membership fees and can, if needed, force club executives to limit any kind of business expansion plans. Comparatively low ticket prices, combined with a largely friendly atmosphere inside the stadiums, make the Bundesliga, one of the major leagues in Europe, accessible to many.

While these aspects are worthy of praise, German football is far from perfect. Although progress has been made in the past decade, the dominance of men within the sport's institutions -- sporting directors, heads of scouting, coaching roles and soccer's executive branch -- remains a notable barrier.

"You have to know that once you get into this business, your gender will play a role and you will be partly judged based on your gender," Katharina Kiel said. The 30-year-old former midfielder for Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim recently made headlines when she announced that she wants to be the first female sporting director in German professional football.

Kiel, who in her post-playing career launched the sports tech startup talentZONE that is looking for ways to analyse athletes' movements, is all too aware of how difficult it will be to achieve her goal. As progressive as Germany is as a country, football is behind the times when it comes to representation in boardrooms and corner offices. The tradition-rich steel giant Thyssenkrupp is headed by Martina Merz; Deutsche Bank has a female chief transformation officer in Rebecca Short; Siemens and BMW have female labour directors in Judith Wiese and Ilka Horstmeier -- to name a few.

More women are observably rising through the ranks across industries, but in football, none currently fill a major sporting-related role at any of the 18 clubs in the men's Bundesliga, although this lack of diversity is not an exception among the top European leagues. Kiel says one of her role models is Marina Granovskaia, the now-former director of Chelsea, who was arguably the most powerful woman in the Premier League until the sale of the club following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian-Canadian business executive received the Best Club Director in European Football award at the Golden Boy awards last November.

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"I admire her work and what she has accomplished in England. I certainly look up to her," Kiel said. But she knows that even Granovskaia, despite her achievements, was not always treated equally to her male colleagues. On top of that, Granovskaia can be seen as an outlier because of her close affiliation with Roman Abramovich, then-owner of Chelsea.

Other examples of powerful female executives in top-flight football are rare and those who have made it to the top often encounter prejudice or even sexism, as Karren Brady, the vice chairman of West Ham United once said about her early career at Birmingham City in the 1990s. She later recalled that the first time she stepped onto the team bus a player shouted, "I can see your t--- in that shirt." According to her account, this was only one of a number of such incidents.

Someone who never had such experiences is Christina Ruhl-Hamers, one of three board members at Bundesliga side Schalke 04.

"Neither when I played football nor as a management professional have I had negative experiences. I have been spared from that," Ruhl-Hamers said. Her career path might have something to do with it.

After her active time on the pitch ended in the 1990s, she opted for a second career in auditing and tax consulting. Through a consultancy assignment, she came in touch with Schalke and was asked to stay.

"There is a difference between sporting-related positions and positions in the administrations, meaning those who, at least on the surface, have not much to do with football itself," Ruhl-Hamers said. As part of a three-person board, Ruhl-Hamers is responsible for finances, personnel and legal affairs. Overseeing the financial activities of a club burdened with immense debt has drawn attention to her and the way she deals with cleaning up Schalke's finances.

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Why a female head of Bundesliga is not enough

There is a lingering prejudice that women simply don't understand as much about football, specifically men's football. While the situation remains dire in the Bundesliga when it comes to gender equality, at least one major post has now been occupied by a woman. Donata Hopfen took over as CEO of the German Football League (DFL), the umbrella organisation of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga II, at the beginning of the year, succeeding longtime league boss Christian Seifert.

Hopfen had no particular football background but has excelled in other avenues and industries. She started as a young reporter for tabloid Bild before becoming a consultant at Accenture. Later, Hopfen returned to newspapers, recruited by Bild's publisher Axel Springer, to work on the digital future of the media company. After she managed to transition Bild's traditional newspaper into a paywall business, she received Germany's Media Woman of the Year award in 2014.

Hopfen spent the past few years at the startup Verimi and BCG Digital Ventures, a subsidiary of Boston Consulting Group. Her CV makes it clear that the Hamburg native is an outlier who managed to strive in competitive environments while also building a track record of successful business transformations.

On the surface, it might be promising that the Bundesliga is now run by a woman, and the league could use it as a marketing vehicle to push for diversity.

"Because of the figurative effect it can have within the entire football industry, it is definitely helpful that a woman is at the top of the DFL," Ruhl-Hamers said. "But in the end, her job is to get the Bundesliga ready for the future and keep it competitive in a market that changes quite rapidly."

Ruhl-Hamers can understand that Hopfen does not intend to focus too strongly on gender diversity at this moment given the other issues German football is facing.

A 'closed system'

In any case, Hopfen's appointment could not hide the fact that the clubs remain almost fully male dominated. A first measure to counter that status quo was taken by the DFL a year ago, as the organisation awards two scholarships to women each year to attend a high-level management course that was introduced to teach potential or current sporting directors budget management, sports law, squad planning and leadership, among other things. One of the scholarship recipients was Katharina Kiel.

She notes that there has been an easy road for former male players to get into other positions for decades. Eight of the 15 sporting directors in the Bundesliga played first-tier football in Germany. The country has also seen those from the World Cup-winning squad of 1990 taking on business or tracksuits after the start of the millennium. Rudi Voller became head coach of the Germany national team and later served as sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen. His partner up front at the 1990 World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann, succeeded Voller at the national team without prior coaching experience. Stefan Reuter has been in charge of FC Augsburg since 2012; Frank Mill was allowed to try his hand in managing Fortuna Dusseldorf in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Lothar Matthaus, Thomas Berthold and Olaf Thon have made careers in television. Others such as Karl-Heinz Riedle received jobs as brand ambassadors. In recent years, Bundesliga players from the 2000s and 2010s such as Simon Rolfes, now sporting director of Leverkusen, and Sebastian Kehl, recently promoted to the same position at Borussia Dortmund, have made the leap from pitch to boardroom. It is expected that the generation of actively playing 30-something men will follow soon.

"The main reason [that women don't receive these opportunities] is that it is simply a closed system," Kiel said. "To get in there is incredibly difficult. You have to work on your network persistently and need the luck that someone thinks it is worth taking a chance on you."

Those who want to get jobs need an influential person to sponsor them, but usually, male footballers with recognisable names and well-formed relations with executives and managers at Bundesliga clubs are chosen.

The first audible dissent emerged last May when a group of women, including former national team goalkeeper Almuth Schult and referee Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb, published a paper with a list of demands aimed at achieving gender equality at the top of the German game. Their demands included female quotas on key committees, equal pay and strict punishment for sexism and discrimination.

"More than 90% of decision-making positions in German federations and clubs are still occupied by men. The diversity among players on the pitch and people who enjoy football is not reflected in the game's leadership structures," read a statement, which was accompanied by the hashtag #FussballKannMehr ("Football can do more").

Economic data indicates that diversity can increase revenue. Boston Consulting Group released a study about the top 100 publicly traded companies in Germany in 2020 in which researchers found that those with a diverse leadership group had a 9% higher profit margin and generated 20% more revenue than male-dominated competitors.

Football could profit from gender diversity in other ways as well. Ruhl-Hamers has noticed that the presence of women changes the atmosphere in crucial communication. "Sometimes talks with, for example, fan groups can feel a little bit different when both males and females represent the club instead of only male officials. My impression is that some men act differently when females are there. They are a bit more restrained and maybe less impulsive," she said.

Clubs, on average, still receive fewer applications from women for management positions. Ruhl-Hamers believes that football as a vocational field has to change to an extent, so that females are more attracted to it, even if they are not passionate football fans.

"It is like that because football is so male-dominated and women are skeptical about what role they would assume in such a vocation. That is why the football industry has to open itself to change in regards to working hours, more flexible job models, and so on. We do need a change of culture," she argued.

Invisible walls

Bianca Rech is familiar with a different Bundesliga: she is the sporting director of Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga. While that league naturally has many women working in management and sporting-related positions -- though only two of the 12 teams are coached by women -- the teams are economically undersized compared with their male counterparts or departments of established clubs such as Bayern, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt.

On average, teams in the Frauen-Bundesliga generate revenue of €1.1 million but also spend €2.1 million per year, according to financial reports provided by the league. In many cases, the deficit is covered by money coming from the men's team of the same club. The teams in the men's Bundesliga have generated €211 million on average during the first Covid year.

ESPN's Sophie Lawson recently argued that the Frauen-Bundesliga needs a better broadcast deal and more widespread television coverage, as it is currently broadcast by T-Mobile's subscription service Magenta Sport. However, the German Football Association (DFB) made a deal with Magenta Sport's owners to subsidise the broadcasts because otherwise the production costs would be higher than what Magenta is bringing in through new subscribers.

The FA, however, is quite limited in terms of its financial resources and cannot pump tens of millions into the league. The men's Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga are run by a different entity, the DFL, which is specialised in domestic and international marketing. Prominent voices inside the Frauen-Bundesliga have brought up the idea of divorcing the league from the FA and running it under the umbrella of a private company, but that company would have to raise money to fund the operation in the beginning with the hope it can make the women's league profitable.

Behind the times, but changing for the better

As long as the financial difference between both the two Bundesligas are so significant, and even though the offices of women's and men's teams may be in the same building or on the same real estate, there remains an invisible wall between the two worlds -- which affects the prospects of aspiring women coaches and managers greatly.

"There are positions at the directors or board level where it should not matter whether someone is male or female and instead it should be about the qualification of the person," Rech said. "But it has become normal that this is not the case. I find it very disappointing if I'm being honest. I still have hope that in light of societal changes there will be more diversity [in football]."

In August, a quota for companies traded on the German stock markets was introduced following a parliamentary decision last year. The new law states that these companies have to have at least one woman serving on the board. Companies have to adjust their selection process accordingly if they do not have a woman as a board member. It is highly unlikely that anything similar will be introduced in the football industry.

Hence, some women have decided to take matters into their own hands. The female team of Viktoria Berlin, a tradition-rich club from the capital, has recently been put into a separate company, part-owned by six women, including entrepreneurs and two-time world cup winner Ariane Hingst. The inspiration for their project came from Angel City FC, the Los Angeles-based team owned by a group of celebrities led by Natalie Portman.

Currently, Viktoria Berlin's women's team play in the third division, with the objective being to get to the Bundesliga within five years. For that, the current part-owners look for more investors but intend to keep the majority of investors female.

"I know that football has these old, traditional structures that needed to be forced open," Hingst said. "I am convinced it is a tremendous chance that we have six women and also female executives in charge to move things forward here."

Hingst highlights that they are not a female-only enterprise, as their sporting director is a man, indicating that the influx of women is not meant to turn the entire industry upside down.

"It is not about chasing away men, by god! It is about creating and establishing a new image," she said. "The population slowly wakes up and sees the necessity for change."

One of the most problematic effects of the gender gap in German football is that it lets the sport fall behind the times. While the Bundesliga can still count on a loyal audience, the lower leagues are already facing a considerable decrease in young fans and viewers, as studies show. But will anything prompt the decision-makers in Germany's football to make changes? Doubts are justified. But Kiel believes that over time things will change for the better.

"I'm staying optimistic that more and more women will get into football here in Germany and have a say," she said. "That is just my conviction."