For female fans at the Women's Rugby World Cup in Ireland this August, wearing their team shirt may not divide them from the fans of other nations’ teams but instead unite them, according to recent research.

In her book The Feminization of Sports Fandom, which is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Stacey Pope sheds new light on the ways in which women become sports fans and explores how they negotiate their place in this male domain.

Dr Pope, Associate Professor at Durham University, found that the wearing of a club shirt can not only help female sport supporters to establish and reinforce their identity as fans, but it can also help to generate a collective sense of belonging with other female (and male) supporters.

More than half (50/85) of the female football and rugby union fans she interviewed, suggested that sharing an interest in their sport gave people a common bond or connection with a person they had not met before.

She writes: "For many female fans, this shared sporting interest or connection could act as a social facilitator, thus easily breaking down geographic or cultural barriers and inviting more or less spontaneous social interaction of a type perhaps less favoured by men who wear club shirts."

One of her interviewees says: "When we were in New Zealand with the [British] Lions tour … people would be stopping and talking to you on the street and it was great …It is that whole thing of an international language … It does introduce you to a whole different class of people; definitely starts whole networks of conversations."             

While this community of like-minded female fans may enjoy the camaraderie outside the grounds, Dr Pope discovered that the experience of supporting their teams in the stadium might not be quite so pleasant.

In her book, Dr Pope questions female fans about “traditional” or older sports grounds. She found that many female fans expressed strong emotional attachments to their club’s home stadium and thus valued the tradition and heritage of their clubs. For example, one respondent described the home stadium as "one of my favourite places in the world…it just is magic when you get in" and terms such as "electric", "special" and "intense" were used to describe the match-day atmosphere.

However, "almost half (24/51) of football fans and nearly three-quarters (25/34) of rugby supporters across all age groups complained about numbers of women’s toilets at old sports grounds and/or the ‘abysmal’ state of those facilities that did exist".

More recently, many clubs have moved to new stadiums and/or redeveloped old grounds and Dr Pope explores these attempts to make stadiums more female or family friendly to try to encourage more women to attend matches. But some of the female fans felt that these newer or redeveloped stadiums still did not go far enough to improve the spaces or facilities for women. Some female fans bemoaned the basic facilities that were available and a small number remained disappointed with the continued lack of female toilets available.

Some older female fans felt that "men's spatial interests had been more widely prioritized in stadiums". For example, the concrete concourses at a new football stadium were seen as a conventionally 'masculine' space. One respondent says: "This area you wait in before you actually go up to sit in your seat, you can buy drinks and you can buy eats, but there’s actually nowhere to sit at all…So it's the image for the men, isn't it? They like to stand up and drink a pint."

Dr Pope writes that "such poor facilities may be tolerated or accepted by many female fans in the space of the sports stadium, but given the recent wider societal changes which have led to greater equality between the sexes in contemporary society, it seems unlikely that women would be as willing to accept these poor facilities on offer in other public spaces such as in the workplace or other leisure arenas".

Her findings show that while some women critiqued the poor facilities that were on offer for women, others defended these and suggested that more primitive facilities defined the live sports experience, and not necessarily in a negative way. She suggests that this acceptance of poor facilities in the sports stadium can be attributed in part to the need for women to "prove" themselves as sports fans.

Dr Pope said: "Whereas male fans are assumed to be 'authentic' or 'real' sports fans, women are typically assumed to be ‘inauthentic’ or ‘not real’ fans, with common stereotypes including that they lack sporting knowledge and/or are only interested in the sexual attractiveness of (male) star players. Therefore, women must always balance any gender issues with the need to present themselves as an 'authentic' fan. By recognising and accepting that all facilities at live sport are likely to be quite basic, women accept that suffering mildly at live sports events confirms them as an included and committed fan."

"When seeking to introduce policies to address issues of gender inequality, clubs and governing bodies need to be sensitive to how women experience their fandom in a male-dominated world and must constantly balance being a supporter with being a woman. For example, in my research, the vast majority of female fans were against the club introducing policies that were specifically aimed at women and did not want to be seen as female fans. There were concerns that policies that identified female fans could trigger a ‘backlash’ from male supporters or would actually have a detrimental effect on women. Clubs and governing bodies need to have an understanding of these issues when working with female fans to improve their match-day experiences and stadium facilities."

Dr Pope suggested one way that sports clubs and governing bodies could develop more female friendly and accessible stadiums would be to introduce match-day childcare facilities. Her research findings show that male and female fans may follow different fan careers across their lives, with many women compelled to take "fan breaks" after having children. Childcare facilities are fairly rare at sports stadia, but this could enhance the experiences of some female fans (and, indeed, the male fans who have childcare responsibilities). Dr Pope added that, in the longer term, this could also have financial incentives for clubs by helping to develop a connection with younger generations.