Germany’s Only Female Soccer Boss Is Here to Win
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because men's sports leadership is a stubborn glass ceiling for women.
It took one game to convince Sandra Schwedler where she belonged.
Her first soccer match at FC St. Pauli’s Millerntor Stadium, in the city of Hamburg, Germany, left a profound impression on the then-14-year-old. “The whole experience fascinated me,” she remembers. That very evening, she asked her parents for a season ticket.
Sooner rather than later, Schwedler understood she wanted to go the extra mile for her club. Once, she wasn’t sure her parents would let her go to a game, so she said she was at a friend’s birthday party. When she got home and repeated the lie about her whereabouts, her mother replied, “Dad saw you on TV.”
But getting caught did little to dampen her passion. Now 39, Schwedler’s story combines unwavering support for St. Pauli, a second-division club known for its fans’ left-wing political affiliation, with a sense of activism. Twenty-four years after attending her first game, Schwedler is the only female supervisory board head in professional soccer in Germany.
Every time I attend a [German Football League] event, I worry that I’ll be asked to bring drinks to the table, as there’s just no women there.
It’s only fitting that what triggered Schwedler’s career was an act of protest. As St. Pauli’s amateur second team’s games were moved away from the main stadium to others around Hamburg, Schwedler and her friends fought back by blocking entry to the first team’s stadium. “That’s how I understood that if I want to change anything, I have to become active,” she says.
In 2020, German soccer is an industry where gender equality is as good as nonexistent. According to broadcaster Deutsche Welle, more than 95 percent of the people in leading positions in 2019 at professional clubs, the German Football League (DFL) and the German Football Association (DFB) were men. Male dominance extends far beyond the border. Women make up just 7 percent of English Premier League boardrooms, according to one recent study.
Antje Hagel, a member of F_In, a network of women in soccer across the German-speaking world, says the game’s structures were established by and for men, while women often “question themselves in regards to their qualifications.”
Schwedler’s story is no different. When a friend suggested that she should run for St. Pauli’s supervisory board, she thought it was a joke. “I immediately started laughing,” Schwedler recounts. Soon enough, Schwedler — who has a background in business consulting and coaching — started considering her options: “Do I want to run? Am I able to?” She ended up receiving the most votes from the club’s members at the annual general meeting in 2014, which led to her being offered the supervisory board head role.
And she’s stayed close to her fan roots. “Sandra is one of those helping at the bar when we take the fan-organized special train to our last away game of the season,” says Anna-Maria, who operates one of the club’s best-known St. Pauli fan blogs, Magischer FC, and did not want to reveal her last name (hardcore soccer fans often face discrimination in Germany). “People that take the train for the first time are always surprised to see the club’s supervisory board head walking around the train with beer crates in her hands.”
In regard to her management skills, Norbert, who also runs Magischer FC and also wished to have his last name withheld, says Schwedler is well respected among club figures and fans alike, which contributes to her ability to mediate in times of conflict. “She knows everyone personally, so people trust her,” he says, adding that the fact Schwedler’s appearances in the media, or the lack thereof, serve as a sign that things remain behind closed doors, and that when she did come forward, “it was for the right reasons.” She’s managed to navigate German soccer’s frequent tensions between a club and its fans, who hold some sway over its direction as shareholders.
Schwedler herself admits she was hardly keen on appearing in the media at first, but one moment changed her mind. After speaking at a public event, Schwedler spotted a woman in attendance saying, “If Sandra can do it, so could I.”
In recent months, the FC St. Pauli supervisory board boss has been speaking publicly about the role women have in the masculine-dominated German soccer world, as well as offering her support to women considering running for office or taking up a leading role. She has a long road ahead: No women have yet followed her into the boardroom.
“Every time I attend a DFL event, I worry that I’ll be asked to bring drinks to the table, as there’s just no women there,” she says. Due to her experience, Schwedler has been advocating for a women’s quota in German soccer’s boardrooms. Without a quota, she argues, “nothing would change.”
During FC St. Pauli’s last general meeting in November, the club’s members passed a resolution to develop a plan that would lead to a 50 percent share of women at the director level by 2025. To many, the five-year target is far too aggressive, given the lack of women in the leadership pipeline now.
But Schwedler is pressing forward, and she says St. Pauli isn’t going to stop there in pursuit of better representation. “If seven people attend a meeting and they all come from the same background, it limits their ability to solve problems,” she says. “Diversity makes everything better.”
OZY’s Five Questions With Sandra Schwedler
- What’s the last book you finished? Herkunft, by Sasa Stanisic.
- What do you worry about? The developments in society. That notion that we need more walls and more borders. Many people don’t stop and think about what makes people flee their homes.
- What’s your must-have travel object? Contact lenses, glasses, passport. All the rest I can handle without if I forget.
- Who’s your hero? My parents. They would do anything for their kids.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To see FC St. Pauli play in an official European competition.