Women Working in Football - Scottish FA Diversity Manager Hala Ousta (Part One)
Whilst coverage of women’s football has increased in recent years, what often goes unnoticed are the hundreds of women who play a vital role in the day-to-day functions of professional clubs and organisations.
In a brand new feature series, Kick It Out will be speaking to women who work within football – in a number of roles including coaching, club executives, photographers, administrators, matchday staff and more – to celebrate and gain an insight into their contributions to the professional game.
The feature will discuss their experiences of the game, how they reached where they are today and any challenges they may have faced along the way.
Last time, Kick It Out spoke to Victoria Haydn, Senior Club Photographer at Manchester City – next up is a two part-interview with Hala Ousta, Diversity Manager at the Scottish FA, Board Member for Women in Football and Founder and Chair of Inspiring Women Scotland.
Not everyone employed in the equality or football industry has a passion for their work, but for Hala, there was an element of destiny about her career pursuit.
“I went to such a multicultural school that I was always surrounded by different cultures and religions,” she said. “For me, being a young ethnic minority growing up in Scotland where I was born, I never felt any different to anyone else.
“I’ve always been interested in human rights, especially coming from a Middle Eastern cultural heritage, as well as society and culture, which led me to my involvement as a Scotland Advisory Committee Member at the British Council. I’ve always had a fascination with different cultures, religions and what brings people together – there’s not only one way of living.”
Hala continued: “So I was quite passionate about equality from that aspect – particularly as I find myself encompassing a few of the protected characteristics in the 2010 Equality Act!”
As a Scottish-Muslim woman with Syrian-Palestinian heritage, Hala may not fit the increasingly inaccurate stereotype of the classic football enthusiast; but the game has always played a central part in her life.
She recalled: “When I was younger I played at school and with the boys in the backyard, but ethnic minorities like my parents coming to the country weren’t aware of the different grassroots initiatives or structures, or that you’d have to join a club to actually progress. So it was always done recreationally – not that I had much skill to be honest!”
Yet despite her passion for football, the formative years of Hala’s professional career were largely spent away from sport, in policy development – first in a position at the Govanhill Housing Association before moving into Equality Information, Policy and Advice at the Scottish Government.
When the Diversity and Inclusion Officer role became available at the Scottish Football Association, Hala, who by then had obtained a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and a Postgraduate Diploma in Equality and Diversity, knew she’d found the perfect role to pursue.
“I had studied equality theoretically but I had also seen how it was implemented on the ground as well – and then this project with the Scottish FA came up and it was amazing,” she said. “It was like a dream come true to have both of my passions merge together, so I didn’t think twice about applying – I just went for it.”
Whilst Hala was more than prepared to take on the role, she quickly found that not everyone she encountered was in agreement.
“It wasn’t easy at all because although my family had been really supportive of what I wanted to do, there were some ethnic minority men in the community that would look at me amused, being a female and interested in football, and say ‘what do you know about football?’ or ‘how are you going to get married?’ – stupid questions like that. So it was just a matter of how to change their perceptions about it.”
And change those perceptions is exactly what Hala did.
“We would start off a session and it would be hard because there would be only three girls,” she explained. “But we persisted and got six, then nine and all of a sudden it would be 20 girls from multicultural backgrounds.
“That was something I wanted to emphasise – that it wasn’t just for Muslims, Asians and Arabs, it was all different girls that could understand each other’s cultures and religions. The whole point of it is integrating them within society, as opposed to saying ‘oh you’re ethnic minorities, go play by yourself in a corner’ – that’s something I was against.”
Hala added: “Going back into those communities soon after, those same guys who were sniggering or didn’t take it seriously, saw that these girls weren’t losing or compromising their identity and religion, so they started wanting to send along their own daughters!”
In April of this year, Hala was promoted to Diversity and Inclusion Manager, and she believes the introduction of the new position at the Scottish FA is indicative of how far the organisation has come in its commitment to promoting equality.
“If you compare it to five years ago, there has been a drastic change,” she said. “Especially at the grassroots level where we’ve got the Diversity and Inclusion project in partnership with BEMIS Scotland, and funded by the Scottish Government’s Cashback for Communities, which covers race and religion, creating opportunities and increasing participation amongst ethnic minorities.
“We’ve also now got the Disability Development Officer, and Girls and Women’s Development Officers, who support the clubs to grow their football. But for the Scottish FA to create this new post and give me free reign to work inwardly at the organisation and do what I want to do, trying to raise awareness within the structures and staff around different equality matters – it’s another big jump.”
Hala believes the Scottish FA have made similarly impressive strides in advancing the equality agenda for the LGBT community.
She said: “We are a leading partner in the National LGBT sports coordinating group, so you’ve got for example Stonewall, Equality Network, Youth LGBT, Leap Sports and the Government all involved. We’ve established and developed an action plan, including for example on the first day of the SPFL season, in partnership with the Equality Network and supported by Ladbrokes, we had a message of support for LGBT supporters within matchday programmes.
“There wouldn’t have been anyone to implement or think about something like that before – that focused approach towards diversity and inclusion.”
In Part Two, Hala discusses Kick It Out’s role in promoting equality in the game, her concerns about the ‘Rooney Rule’ and empowering the next generation of women to work in football and beyond.