Iulia Niculae-Cuciurean: Inspiring women in all walks of life

Miruna Macsim 29/05/2024 | 14:17

Even as the Women’s National Football Team celebrates its 34th anniversary this year, and with over 100,000 girls and women enrolled in mixed and women’s football clubs throughout the country—compared to only about 330 participants at the beginning of the 90s—, our players are still often subjected to gender stereotypes and misogyny. Through the Women Role Models campaign, launched by the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) and Next Advertising, the Women’s National Football Team became a vector for normalising women’s roles not only in football, but across society. BR sat down with Iulia Niculae-Cuciurean, Head of Marketing at the Romanian Football Federation, to learn more about this great campaign and its goals.

By Romanita Oprea

 

Where did the Big Idea come from? 

This campaign became a necessity considering the evolution of women’s football in Romania and the brand potential of the Women’s National Team. The numbers show a huge increase in the number of women playing football in Romania, from 300 people in 2014 to around 100,000 this year.

So, the big idea stemmed from our need to find an angle beyond the sports perspective to combat misogynistic discourse and misperceptions related to women’s football. We needed to find a way to create as much visibility as possible for the Romanian Women’s National Football Team to make the players known and beloved by the Romanian public both as a team and individually. The idea for the Modele de Femeie campaign came from Next Advertising, based on these objectives of ours, and we immediately resonated with the creative concept they proposed.

From our perspective, we felt it was the right time to get involved in this fight against gender stereotypes in women’s professional sports. We wanted to take a stand against traditional stereotypes about gender such as “women belong in the kitchen” and “the sole purpose of a woman is to be a mother.” But at the same time, we also felt the need to leave something positive behind. We wanted to show how our players, throughout their outstanding careers, have challenged these outdated views. They’re role models for the next generation.

A majority of the Romanian public believes that only men play football; so, in 2023, we set out to normalise women’s presence on the football field (or in any other field that is still unusual from a traditionalist perspective); to deconstruct prejudices by confronting them with the reality of 2023, in which women also play high-level football, just as they race cars or fly planes. At the same time, they may have families, children, attend university, get master’s degrees, have other jobs (or not). This is how the package of 26 postcards was born, each representing a national team player, deconstructing traditional gender roles and stereotypes, presenting the real stories of the players, with their achievements both on and off the field.

What were the biggest challenges in the beginning?

Women’s football usually receives less media attention and coverage. This lack of exposure can limit the visibility and popularity of the sport, impacting sponsorship deals, fan engagement, and revenue generation. Also, deep-rooted gender stereotypes and societal norms can discourage girls and women from participating in football. Cultural attitudes that prioritise men’s sports over women’s sports can create barriers and perpetuate inequalities.

On the other hand, being very aggressive with a subject like this and portraying men as “enemies” would be very risky and wouldn’t serve our cause. We knew that we could not normalise the public speech regarding women if we excluded the male audience. Our actions and tone of voice were and always will be inclusive, giving examples of fathers, coaches, sons and their relationships with the women in their lives. For instance, we presented stories of fathers who wished for their daughters to be raised in a society where they knew that their girls would be evaluated and judged by competence and not looks, as well as stories of coaches who train the girls, and so on.

What are the ones you encountered so far?

Female football players are subjected to commentary that focuses on their appearance, attire, or personal life rather than their skills and accomplishments on the field. For example, a local newspaper from the 2000s wrote an article about Florentina Olar, Captain of the National Football Team, titled “When football has breasts.” There are also more recent examples, such as when the best woman player in the country would be presented as “the most beautiful player.”

The sexualisation of female football players in the media is a significant issue that contributes to the objectification and devaluation of women in football and in sports in general. When female athletes are portrayed primarily for their physical appearance rather than their athletic abilities and achievements, it undermines their professionalism and reinforces harmful stereotypes. This problem is often perpetuated by media outlets that prioritise sensationalism and exploit stereotypes of femininity to attract viewership.

Why does Romania need now more than ever this type of campaign?

Romania ranks last in the 2023 Gender Equality Index. This underlines the need for intervention in reducing gender gaps, no matter the field. We want to position the Women’s National Team as a vector who will cover sensitive subjects as we believe that we can contribute to advancing gender equality by challenging stereotypes and providing opportunities for girls and women. We believe that the Modele de Femeie campaign will empower women and girls by building confidence, leadership skills, and a sense of belonging. It can also encourage them to challenge traditional gender roles and pursue their aspirations both on and off the field.

How are you choosing the influencers and the people you’re associating with the campaign?

We selected individuals with common values that were aligned with our campaign, who resonated with the message. We didn’t solely rely on quantitative criteria. We engaged individuals from all fields: social, lifestyle, celebrities or athletes. To our delight, we received substantial support from them in both 2023 and 2024. We hope that more influential figures will join our cause to promote this initiative that goes beyond women’s football in Romania.

What are your hopes and wishes for the campaign?

We wish to encourage more girls and women to participate in football at all levels, from grassroots to professional leagues, for the players of the Women’s National Team to hear the chants of thousands of supporters in the stands, and we want to inspire and encourage women and girls to follow their dreams.

This year, the focus of the campaign shifted a bit from the individual stories of the players to the people who supported them, helping them overcome the many challenges they faced. Despite everything, we still struggle to convince fans to come to the games, so we want to show everyone that no matter how successful a player is, they still need support if we are to grow women’s football. Their effort needs to be recognised, valued, and respected, so we found examples from their families, showcasing the mothers who believed in their daughters’ talent, the coaches who recognised their potential, the teammates who respected them and helped them grow.

You said that the Women Role Models campaign aims to encourage every woman to tell her story; to show the world how she overcame the prejudices that stood in her way. Please tell us more about that. 

Football is not the only domain where women encounter barriers and gender stereotypes. For too long, society has perpetuated the notion that certain professions are reserved exclusively for men. We encounter the outdated discourse that promotes traditional gender roles in almost all fields that have been mostly populated by men. Indeed, football and male-dominated sports are even more affected. The idea of the campaign doesn’t stop at football alone, even though hit’s the main focal point. Through our campaign we aim to inspire women in all fields: IT, technology, politics, automotive, construction, science, etc.

What are the results you’ve seen so far?

We’ve signed two new sponsors for the National Team since the campaign started, we have enlarged the community of loyal supporters—there was a 10 percent increase in the number of supporters in the stands with each match—, and have put the subject on the public agenda. We were very happy to see many influencers and journalists getting involved in our cause pro bono and helping us convey the message of our campaign to the target audience.

Nevertheless, our objectives are very ambitions: filling up the stands at each match played by the Women’s National Team and changing the public discourse. It’s a long road, but we are willing to take it as we have seen the results of all the Federation’s initiatives since 2014, which have led to this point where 100,000 girls and women are enjoying this sport in much better conditions than in the past.

Do you see this campaign as having a follow-up, even after the qualifications are over?

Without a doubt, the campaign will continue in the years to come. The first phase of the Modele de Femeie campaign was in 2023. Now, in 2024, we have launched the second phase. Promoting women’s football in Romania is a priority for us. We will not stop until football becomes as desirable for girls as it is for boys; until we see full stadiums at girls’ matches and until Romania ranks among the top teams in Europe and the world.

When do you think mentalities will change in Romania?

Mindsets are hard to change. But this normalisation that we have set out to achieve is a gentle and friendly process, making baby steps, with a long-term outlook. It also depends on the team’s ability to gain new supporters, and it’s up to us to bring journalists and influencers over to our side, as well as future footballers. Inclusivity and equal rights are still relatively new concepts in Romania, but we are hopeful that they will become more ingrained in the habits and mindsets of all Romanians.

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