In its very elementary form, sport is nothing but an alternative reality with own set of rules and regulations. It is a restricted, protected and closed universe. Here the most powerless are the audience who have no control over the proceedings; above them lie the athletes — the doers who create the action but are tightly controlled so that they may not digress from the laid-down guidelines for fair play. Sitting right on top of this power structure are those who enforce these guidelines — the match referees/umpires.
That is why women officiating in sport and in particular, men’s disciplines at the elite level, is very interesting. It turns on its head the power structure of our daily existence where men typically occupy positions of authority. Our largely patriarchal societies have rules and mores to ensure that men enjoy power and make decisions. Change is trickling in, but it still remains a man’s world.
Thus, when a man plays and a woman ensures that he abides by the rules while doing so, for that brief moment the power dynamics change.
In the past few years, stories have emerged across the globe of female officials and referees who have shattered the glass ceiling and have been handed over the reins to control men’s sports.
In 2007, France’s Sandra de Jenken became the first woman to chair a Grand Slam men’s final – she officiated in both the Australian Open and French Open men’s singles finals.
It is a separate and unfortunate story that it took close to eight years for another woman to get into that chair. Eva Asderaki-Moore ended that drought in 2015 by becoming the first woman to chair the US Open men’s final.
The year 2010 saw English Premier League get its first woman official when Sian Massey-Ellis became the first woman assistant referee to officiate in the league. On 28 December 2010, she served on the touchline during the Blackpool vs Sunderland game.
In 2015, Sarah Thomas was hired as the first full-time female official in NFL history. She was hired as a line judge and made her regular season debut in September in a game between the Chiefs and the Texans.
Even though these stories emerge sporadically, yet these moments and these ladies must be celebrated. By breaking gender norms in sports these women are creating an appetite for dialogue about women in leadership positions. They ensure that the next generations of girls who follow do not get stuck in traditionally “female roles” in the sports industry.
Closer home, Maria Rebello created history in Indian football when she became the first woman referee to officiate in an I-League match on 8 March, 2014. However, our leagues must encourage more women to be in the heart of the action instead of just staying on the sidelines as cheerleaders and presenters.
The International Cricket Council has taken a positive step in this direction through its decision to include two female umpires in the 31-member match officials’ team for the ICC World Twenty20.
New Zealand's Kathy Cross will rewrite history books on March 16 when she becomes the first female umpire to officiate in the women's match featuring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Two days later, on 18 March, Claire Polosak of Australia will perform her on-field duties in the New Zealand-Ireland match in the women's meet.
For social equity to be achieved in the sporting community it is vital for positions of authority to be opened up to women. It is unfortunate that even in 2015 sport is acknowledged “as a powerful cultural institution linked to the construction and reinforcement of gender inequities” (Messner 1988).
As Victoria Chiesa, a former USTA sectional certified official mentioned “There is no reason for there to be any gender divide. The people who can communicate best, who know the rules best, who can work well under pressure, should get the job. Gender shouldn’t be a quantifying factor.”
Hopefully by the time the next leap year comes, women officiating in sport will not be such a rarity.