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Sport, Health & Wellbeing

Female umpires encountering a culture of abuse, misogyny

“I wouldn’t know any woman who’s been in umpiring who hasn’t experienced something negative,” says Carly*, a former AFL umpire.

She’s commenting on a recent study, conducted by former umpire Victoria Rawlings and former umpiring manager Damian Anderson, which examined the experience of female AFL umpires. Focus groups and interviews were conducted with community and state level female umpires, and they found that misogyny was rife within officiating environments.

The data overwhelmingly reflected a “culture of exclusion, discrimination, and hostility,” as a result of both intentional and unintentional behaviours and systems.

“The experiences of girls and women in this paper point towards the need to prioritise cultural change within umpiring groups,” the study concluded.

This is familiar to Carly, who umpired as a teenager into her 20s. Over the course of those years, she experienced many instances of misogyny from other officials, and was constantly reminded that she stood out.

“I think there’s aspects about the environment that are just hostile, just because of the system that you’re in, without any ill intention.”

Remembering when another umpire said they wished she would be more involved in the wider group, Carly described the frustration she felt, knowing the exclusivity she was up against. “You’re not a member of [the boys] club, but you’re still punished for not being a part of it. You have to try to be in it,” she says.

Carly consistently felt like she had to be “more competent than the majority” just to be seen as equally competent. “I think people’s models of what makes a good umpire is based on the ones they’ve seen. And so they expect you to look like the men,” she says.

Only 10.8 per cent of AFL umpires were female in 2019, the last time the Australian Football League released umpiring statistics. Since then, COVID-19, among other factors, appears to have lowered those numbers even further, although no official statistics have been confirmed.

These issues are not unique to AFL. I asked 25-year-old Meredith* about HER experience as a female football referee. “Experiencing misogyny as a referee takes many forms,” she told me.

“On some level you become ‘used’ to the comments.”

Meredith has experienced misogynistic remarks being made about her many times, including being asked “if I’m on my period” after making a decision on the field. She has found it exhausting.

“It builds up, and eventually you begin to question your place in sport,” she says.

“The comments at times that can come from the broader community of referees that is prevalent across all codes [AFL and beyond] is in my experience the most disheartening.”

There are times when Meredith, seeing the success of other female referees, has witnessed “other people finding subtle comments to devalue their accomplishments.”

Umpires such as Carly and Meredith often face misogyny from outside umpiring environments too.

Internationally accredited hockey umpire and researcher Stirling Sharpe from the University of Canberra has witnessed spectator abuse towards umpires many times.

“The unfortunate reality of being a match official is that you are likely to be abused. Most people accept that this is a (unacceptable) part of the job…where abuse becomes a more significant issue is when it stops being about decisions on field and starts becoming about the person – the way they look, their gender, etc,” he says.

In cases where the abuse is misogynistic, Stirling says, “Often, I think this is related to an unconscious – or even deliberate – thought that women don’t have the skills to … manage a game [particularly a men’s game].”

Participants in Rawlings’ and Anderson’s study experienced this behaviour – one was even told, “You can’t umpire because you’re a girl.”

Sexism and sexual harassment are also prevalent within umpiring environments.

“A pattern that kept coming up, which I think might be a general phenomenon, is basically unwanted sexual attention … you hear how the boys and men talk about women and objectify them,” Carly told me.

These experiences are not singular occurrences either, as Rawlings’ and Anderson’s study discussed.

Participants outlined experiences where other umpires, coaches, and spectators displayed inappropriate behaviours, including sending nude photos, making sexist comments, and the objectification of women’s bodies.

In some cases, harassment was a reason to leave. “That’s what made me quit that level of umpiring,” one participant said. Another stopped showing up to training because one of the coaches was acting inappropriately.

Meredith understands this all too well. “The often subtly pervasive nature of the misogyny is exhausting and quickly compiles … When you start to experience it from all sides, and don’t necessarily receive support from the broader community, it’s very easy to consider walking away.”

Catherine Ordway, Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Science at UC, is no stranger to misogyny and abuse within sporting environments. I asked her about how this abuse might reflect on Australia on a wider scale.

“I think it reflects the situation that women find themselves in, in sport, where sport is designed by and for men … there [is a] small percentage of the male population, and actually some of the female population, that believe that women have no place in sport.”

The popularity and visibility of AFL and football makes these sports important platforms for change (AFL’s grand final last year had 2.97 million viewers, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup is already breaking attendance records). When potential strategies to combat misogyny are raised, they often come down to the same things.

I asked Carly what she thought, and her response was, “… having better coaches, coaches who actually believe in diversity, that would be my biggest change.”

Stirling voiced the same concern. “Unsupportive people in high positions can have the ability to block progression, create inharmonious environments, and generally ruin the officiating experience,” he says.

Catherine elaborated on these ideas, saying, “We also need to see it normalised that women are part of sports, so that we see women in broadcasting, in journalism, commentating, women coaches, referees, officials – all the way through.”

This goal is already being vocalised and addressed in some sports. AFL’s 2022 Women and Girls Game Development Action Plan targets participation and engagement issues, and hockey’s #EquallyAmazing campaign has seen results across at least 19 European nations.

Whether umpiring will change remains to be seen.

“Shifting to a model whereby officials are treated equally, based on their ability to umpire or referee, is something all sports should be moving toward, if they are not there already,” Stirling told me.

It seems there’s still a long way to go. According to Catherine, however, “Once we see that it just becomes normal … nobody is concerned about gender in a negative way. They just celebrate the differences between men’s and women’s sport. And that’s exactly how it should be.”

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees for professional, safety and privacy reasons.

Words by Annalise Hardiman, a Global Studies and Psychology student at the University of Canberra. Her research interests include queer studies, gender and climate change. Annalise is currently interning with BroadAgenda.

This article was first published on BroadAgenda on 2 August 2023. Photos: stock and provided.

BroadAgenda is Australia’s leading research-based gender equality media platform.

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