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Time to blow the whistle: systemic sexism in the world of football refereeing

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

By Anastasia Karamzina

Each year we have seen the proportion of female referees in the most popular sports such as football, rugby and basketball grow exponentially. With increasing numbers of women joining the ranks of professional referees every year, it appears as if the industry is on the right path; in April 2021, Rebecca Welch, who has been officiating since 2010, made headlines as the first female appointed to referee an English Football League match. However, the media storm that accompanied Welch’s success also underlines the perception of professional female referees of mainstream sporting as exceptional. While the achievements of these women should be celebrated, we need to challenge the exceptionality of the female referees’ presence on the pitch, and to consider the barriers to entry faced by women who wish to pursue this male-dominated career path.

Rebecca Welch Photo credits: telegraph.co.uk

Although women have refereed football for almost a century, with some historians claiming Edith Klinger as the first female referee at a football match back in 1935, it was not until 2018 that FIFA officially recognised its first female referee - Drahşan Arda. Despite only 10 female referees participating in major football leagues in Europe in the last 30 years, numbers are rising. According to the BBC, there were at least 2,146 female referees in all levels of English football in 2020, with an increase of 72% since 2016.

Rebecca Welch is not the only example of successful female referees in the UK. Sian-Louise Massey-Ellis, assistant referee at the English Premiere League, was awarded an MBE for services to football in 2016. Similar successes can be spotted in other corners of the world, with Fernanda Colombo Uliana from Brazil officiating matches of Copa do Brazil and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Katie Patterson becoming the first female to referee an A-league team competitive match in Australia in 2015.

However, a simple google search of “top female referees” underscores the misogyny faced by even the most successful of these women, unlike their male counterparts: the first few results rank these professionals on the basis of “hottest and most sexy”. The skills and achievements of these women as professionals in their field appear secondary to the descriptions of their physical appearance – for example, Colombo Uliana became “an internet sensation for her model-like looks and her strength in male-dominated industry”,[1] possessing “the looks, curves, and fortitude” that she supposedly “needs” to work in the sport.[2] There are hundreds of these articles, each hypersexualising the women who are simply doing their job. As we move down the page, the only break we see from this incessant sexualisation are videos presenting the supposed humiliation of female referees – these women are expected to be attractive for the male audience while those very same men root for them to fail at every single opportunity.

Sadly, the contrast in treatment of female referees goes far beyond the language of the media. Following her international success, Colombo Uliana faced sexist abuse and received an offer become an escort. The examples are endless. In 2011 Massey-Ellis was humiliated by Sky Sports commentators, who were recorded saying that she did not know the off-side rule and that whoever chose to appoint a female assistant referee to the game “f****d up big time” and in 2015, Dusseldorf’s midfielder Kerem Demirbay was banned for five games for saying “women have no place in men’s football” in response to a red card from Bibiana Steinhaus (the first female referee in German professional football). The discrimination of female referees does not stop at verbal abuse – Stainhaus was also groped without consent by coaches and players in the Bundesliga on multiple occasions.

So why is the image of the female referees in the media so different from that of their male counterparts? While women remain a minority in the world of sports, among both athletes and officials, harmful stereotypes continue that claim womanhood to be incompatible with top-level sports performance. Furthermore, women are not equally represented in the domain of sports journalism. The Associated Press Editors Racial and Gender Report Card released in 2018 showed that in the United States and Canada 90% of sports editors in top newspapers and websites were male. A few years earlier, in 2011, the International Sports Press Survey revealed that male journalists were writing 90% of all sports articles, and that 85% of these articles were about male athletes. Although in recent years more and more media outlets have been held accountable for the use of sexist language towards women in sports, this does not stop journalists from finding ways to undermine female athletes and officials. A particular trend has been discovered by Michela Musto, Cheryl Cooky and Michael A. Messner from Purdue University: in a large-scale study, they analysed sports broadcasts and commentary in the US every five years for 25 years starting in 1989. They found that throughout the study sports commentators gradually shifted from sexualising female athletes and officials to a new strategy, which the authors named “gender-bland sexism”. This strategy consists of describing the achievements of women in an uninspired manner, making the topic of description seem unimportant while commenting on more minor feats of male athletes with much more enthusiasm. The authors explain the impact of this phenomenon:

“…the salience of gender within the largely sex-segregated setting of sport

encourages sports commentators and anchors to render women athletes

visible in ways that makes women’s athletic accomplishments appear

lackluster compared to men’s. This “bland” language normalizes a hierarchy

between men’s and women’s sports while simultaneously avoiding charges

of overt sexism; sexism in sport is now codified as an assessment of each

individual athlete’s merit and talent. Consequently, gender-bland sexism

reinforces gender boundaries and hierarchies, presenting a fictitious view

of inherent male superiority in a way that is subtler and more difficult

to detect than before.”

Musto M, Cooky C, Messner MA. “From Fizzle to Sizzle!” Televised Sports News and the Production of Gender-Bland Sexism. Gender & Society. 2017;31(5)

As we can see, such “subtler” devaluing of women in sports inevitably affects the perception of their successes by an average sports fan and makes it even harder to celebrate female excellence not only in football, but in any sport at any level. It is not enough to just fight for better representation of women in refereeing – sports journalism also needs to become more gender-balanced before we can see any serious improvements in the industry.

Sapir Berman

Photo credits: thetimes.co.uk

Lucy Clark Photo credits: mirror.co.uk

Another extremely important issue for gender balance is the inclusion of transgender referees into the industry. There are some inspiring recent examples of transgender men and women officiating football matches, with Lucy Clark becoming the first transgender female referee in English football in 2018, and Sapir Berman making history this year as the first transgender man to officiate a football match in Israel. As recent as August 2014, Lucy Clark was verbally abused by a coach and a team supporter while she was officiating, an experience that left her extremely distressed - the struggle continues for referees that do not conform to the traditional patriarchal nature of football.

The discrimination of women and transgender individuals in sports remains a serious obstacle as we strive to bring equality to the industry, and even though more and more brilliant women continue to climb to the pinnacle of refereeing success, a lot more remains to be done. No doubt, the example of Rebecca Welch, Sian-Louise Massey-Ellis and others will continue to inspire young people of all genders from all around the world to choose refereeing as their dream career, but it is our job as a society to make sure their dreams can one day become a reality. Women should not just be present on the field, they need to be included in sports journalism, changing the image of female refereeing in the public eye - only then will the discourse surrounding the achievements of women in sport become a true reflection of these incredible professionals.

[1] https://www.modernghana.com/sports/1052511/meet-the-10-hottest-female-football-referees-in.html [2] https://www.thesportster.com/entertainment/top-12-hottest-female-referees/

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