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Female referees: blowing the whistle on discrimination

Women’s international friendly – England vs Australia, Craven Cottage am 09.10.2018.  
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

A Women in Football survey recently reported that two-thirds of women working in football have been subject to gender discrimination, with only 12 percent of these cases being reported.

In a 2014 study, titled ‘The Experience of Former Women Officials and the Impact on the Sporting Community’, researchers from Trinity University aimed to “explore the shortage of female referees”. The authors of the paper asked eight former officials from five US states, to describe their workplace experiences. The results indicated the reasoning behind their withdrawal from the role, with the conclusive data culminating to four specific factors:

  • A lack of mutual respect from male counterparts
  • Perceived inequity of policies
  • A lack of role modelling and mentoring for female officials
  • Gendered abuse

The in-depth study details the former officials’ encounters in the dominant masculine setting of sport, and highlights the threat that female officials may pose in disrupting the inherent “manliness” of the field. This threat, the study records, is dealt with in sport by two possible solutions: either a female official is granted less respect than a male official, or she is expected to adopt manly characteristics in order to “gain acceptance”.

Macie, a participant in the study, revealed her experience of working alongside male referees, stating “It was intimidating to go out there … with them”, further commenting on how other officials dismissed her hard work upon promotion, saying, “you’re moving up because you’re a woman and they don’t have enough female officials”.

Five years have now passed since the study was conducted, and gender discrimination still remains a central issue at the forefront of sport.

Katie Layley, a former student at the University of York, has been a referee for almost four years, and participated in the first ever all female refereeing team for a rugby fixture at the annual Roses tournament for the Women’s Rugby first team game.

In an exclusive interview for Yorkshire Bylines, Layley commented, “I have experienced a range of responses to being a female rugby referee”, further stating “most people are surprised, in positive and negative ways”.

“It is disheartening to see disappointed faces on the players when they see me and hearing comments such as ‘does she even know the rules?’ before a match has started”.

Layley reinforces the necessity to “break the [gendered] stigma”, adding “Although I have faced nasty remarks, I am proud to be a female referee”.

In a statement issued to The Guardian earlier this month, Janie Frampton, a former football referee, commented:

“Myself and Wendy Toms were the first two women [referees] that came through the men’s professional game in the 90s.

“Both of us have said so many times since that we probably had too high a tolerance level at the time because we just wanted to fit in. Now, we’ve come on 30 years and we are still experiencing the same issues … Wendy and I were treated as a circus – I don’t want that to still be the case now”.

While discrimination still exists, for some it acts as a driving force, rather than a deterrent. Jawahir Roble is set to become the UK’s first female Muslim referee, aiming to reach the highest level of officiating, and is encouraging other women to do the same.

Having fled the civil war in Somalia, Roble took refuge in London when she was just ten years old. In an interview conducted in August this year with the BBC, Roble reveals what ignited her passion for football, stating “I didn’t speak English but football was there from day one. I would bring my own ball and whoever has the ball at primary school is at the top. All the boys and girls would play with me and it was the best feeling”.

Roble further added that the shock she observes on faces when they realise she is the referee for the match, does not offend her, revealing how “At the beginning, I was wondering why they would be surprised, but now I can’t wait to say it and you get used to it. I like the shock”.


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Although discrimination is still an issue that needs tackling, the future of female officiating remains promising. In June 2020, the Football Association (FA) reported a 72 percent increase in female referees since 2016, with 2,146 women refereeing English football.

Joanna Stimpson, the FA Women’s professional game refereeing manager, states “On average, match officials make over 340 decisions per game, and 98.3 percent of all decisions in the league so far this season have been correct”. This compares with a similar 98 percent accuracy rate achieved by male referees.

In the 2019 Gameplan for Growth update, Stimpson further reported a “20.6 percent increase in female referees from February 2019 to February 2020”.

The figures reveal that workplace equality for female referees is on the rise. The Barclays Women’s Super League now sees the same match evaluation system used by the Premier League, with video analysis of official decisions to be implemented in elite women’s football for the first time.

In addition, the FIFA 2020 list of international match officials in England provides an insight into the rising female presence in the field, with four female referees, and five assistant referees pursuing the avenue professionally. The female cohort now amounts to one-third of the FIFA officials.

Such figures are encouraging, and for female referees and female athletes alike, they remain another step towards gender equality in sport.

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