Sexism in football: Life as a female referee

Life as a women in football is hard enough, so what's it like being a female referee in todays game?

Women’s football is as popular as it’s ever been, yet some people still question a women’s place in the game. Whether this be professional footballers, board directors or match officials. 

As the women’s game progresses in financial terms and participation numbers, attitudes towards it have stayed the same.

A report published by Women in Football found that just under two thirds of women had experienced ‘sexist banter or jokes’, 24% had been bullied for their gender in football and 15% of women who participated in the survey had been sexually harassed.

One of the slowest progressions in football is the use of female officials in the professional game. Recently, Bibiana Steinhaus became the first female referee to officiated in the German Bundesliga.

However, it has not always been positive news for female officials in football.

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Assistant referee Sian Massey officiating. (Image: WikiCommons)

In 2011, Richard Keys and Andy Gray were sacked by Sky Sports after making sexist comments about female linesman Sian Massey-Ellis.

Before a game between Wolves and Liverpool, Keys noticed Massey-Ellis was running the line and said: “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.”

“Can you believe that?” Gray replied, before adding: “A female linesman. That’s exactly why I was saying, women don’t know the offside rule.”

Keys replied: “Of course they don’t. The game’s gone made.”

I spoke to some FA accredited female referees about their experiences within the game.

So, what is it like being a female referee in football?

Nicola Quayle, 22

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Nicola, a Kent FA referee says she’s had more positive experience than negative. (Image: Twitter)

Nicola began refereeing for her clubs under 10’s team, before progressing her refereeing career to an FA qualified standard.

She had never been put off refereeing because of sexism, instead seeing it as a challenge.

Nicola has been on the receiving end of sexism in football.

She said: “There was an incident when I had been refereeing for a couple of months whereby a club linesman was making comments about me due to the fact I am a woman.

“I didn’t hear these comments myself but the manager of the opposing team did and complained to the Kent FA about it.”

She continued: “I have become aware of parents being a bit sceptical when I arrive at games. I am one of only two female officials in the league so it’s not a common occurrence for them to have female officials.

“However, the majority of my experiences have been positive with some managers commenting that they find their boys to be more respectful and a lot quieter with me than they they usually are with male referees.”

Kirsty Dowle, 26

Kirsty Dowle.png
Kirsty, 26, is a Kent FA referee that has experienced sexism in the game.

A late bloomer in terms of refereeing, Kirsty decided to venture into a referee career after studying for a masters degree. As part of her dissertation she interviewed eight referees that eventually persuaded her to give it a go.

Due to her late start Kirsty was never really put off by the thought of sexism in football.

She said: “I’d never really paid that much attention to referee’s prior to my dissertation. It’s safe to say I didn’t understand what I was letting myself in for.”

Kirsty admitted that most of the sexism she has faced since becoming a referee has been from fans watching the game. She recalls a game where she didn’t give a penalty after a a player went down in the box. Soon after a fan began to abuse her.

She said: “A supporter shouted, quite loudly, a couple of times: ‘get back in the kitchen where you belong’.”

After reporting the incident the individual in the crowd found and apologised to Kirsty.

Kirsty also feels women’s football is progressing, but women shouldn’t be given more opportunities than men.

Kara Tanega, 31

After helping out briefly with her sons under 6 team, Kara helped through the years as a linesman and eventually took a Kent course and gained her qualifications for 11-aside.

Kara admitted she had never been put off the thought of refereeing by sexism.

She said: “I am an optimist and no one has ever held me back.”

The FA qualified referee is one of the lucky women in football to not have endured sexism, and she says it’s down to her zero tolerance approach.

“They need to remember we are human.”

Kara added: “I have zero tolerance to this kind of thing and I have only received respect.

“I have the advantage of being fully mature when I qualified but I also use my additional skills as a Doctor and Psychologist to manage people when issues arise.”

There are three things Ms. Tanega feels footballing authorities need to apply when trying to stamp out sexism.

She added: “They need to remember ‘we are human’, as well as judging by a referee’s contribution and not their sex, and finally Kara want’s to see a benchmark for judgement that is gender neutral.

What are the Kent FA doing?


What’s the line between banter and discrimination?

A lot of arguments against discrimination in football is that it is ‘just banter’.

So, what is the line between banter and discrimination?

Danny Lynch, Senior Communications Manager of the FA said: “What we’re trying to do is sperate banter to when it becomes unacceptable.”

Listen to the full clip below:

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