Cracks in the glass ceiling: women referees in men’s football

There are almost 200 women who have been appointed to the top division in men’s football within the last few years. But how many names do we know? In Europe, perhaps Nicole Petignat or Nelly Viennot are known – or even Gertrud Gebhard (née Regus), who assisted in the 1st Bundesliga in 2005 and 2006.

Women referees in men’s football make the otherwise stringent division crumble. But there is nothing wrong with having women in men’s football. Why shouldn’t there be? Football, the last bastion of pure masculinity – has long since crumbled.

A dam that already has countless cracks through which the water runs. Football is turning from a place of masculinity into a motor for gender equality. Because the same rules apply, the same values, it’s the same fields and changing rooms. Football is football – it has an influence on society and vice versa.

Stéphanie Frappart makes history

Stéphanie Frappart is not only on everyone’s lips these days, but also in many reports. She has made history, as she has done so often in the last two years.
Born in 1983, the Frenchwoman is a head shorter than most players on the field, but she is quickly gaining respect. After her Ligue 1 debut two years ago, US Orléans midfielder Pierre Bouby found: “She has a soft voice, but she has charisma and personality.” And “she uses the right words, she explains, she is diplomatic and we can talk to her. She doesn’t try to put herself in the limelight.”

In her youth, Stéphanie Frappart played football – even when she was training to be a referee in 1997. In 2003, she decided to focus on her career as a match official. When she became a FIFA referee in 2009, she was already officiating men’s matches at amateur level.

Promotion to Ligue 2 followed as early as 2014, and 2019 was her big year: she made her debut in Ligue 1 on 28 April 2019, refereed the Women’s World Cup Final on 7 July 2019, and became the first female referee to officiate the UEFA Super Cup on 24 August 2019 – with the all female team officiating the World Cup Final. This was followed by stints in the Nations League, Europa League and Champions League in 2020 and becoming the first female referee at a World Cup qualifier worldwide in 2021 – and soon to become the 4th official at a European Championship match.

Female referees in men’s football: like to wear a bigger jersey

Refereeing men’s football is a tough job. Another European pioneer, Kateryna Monzul, said a few weeks ago in an interview with Reuters that despite sufficient physical as well as mental training, she was particularly excited during the first matches in top men’s football. In other words, not unlike her male colleagues. Resilience is very important for referees, because of course they make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. If players didn’t make mistakes, every game would end 0:0.

Bibiana Steinhaus encourages young referees to wear a bigger shirt – you’ll grow into it. Stéphanie Frappart is now slipping into her new jersey. Namely, that of a men’s World Cup. Refereeing there, she thinks, would be a bonus in her refereeing career.

And in Germany?

In 2002, the DFB rejoiced in a report published on FIFA.com: “In the 2001/02 season, 22-year-old Bibiana Steinhaus ensured that women were once again represented in the Regionalliga. Steinhaus is still a long way from making the FIFA referee list due to her tender age, but she is patiently training with her national association and working towards her goal of becoming a referee or assistant in the first or second division.”

And now? 2021?

There are three female match officials in men’s professional football in Germany, Christina Biehl, Riem Hussein and Katrin Rafalski, all in the 3rd division. Will they follow Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb into the Bundesliga? It is possible, but not too likely, because they are already between 35 and 40 years old, while Steinhaus-Webb moved up to the 2nd Bundesliga at 28 and to the Bundesliga at 38. Probably only Christina Biehl, the youngest, still has a real chance of assisting in the side in the Bundesliga as well.

What’s the reason?

In 1978, only 0.8% of referees were women, in 2002 it was 2% and in 2020 it was 3%. The DFB requires the district associations of referees to have a certain percentage of female referees, but many do not reach this percentage. Although there are regularly new trained female referees, only a fraction remain with this passion.
In addition to time and family reasons, violence – both physical and psychological – is also repeatedly mentioned. But while violence against referees has recently become visible in the media, sexism against female referees remains invisible. Also because it is not so blatantly visible. Sexism is rarely expressed when a player angrily runs to the referee, but rather when she turns around and makes a derogatory hand gesture. But that does not make it more harmless.

Protected spaces

But just making it visible is not enough. For the people for whom insults and aggression (readily referred to as emotions in order to trivialise them) are part of good footballing tone, they are not put off by it. “It’s really important that we create an atmosphere where they feel safe, an environment where they feel safe,” said Sian Massey-Ellis in an interview for premierleague.com.

Protected spaces are recommended for female referees only, beyond a support group and not facilitated by association officials. Such spaces are not intended to drive the segregation of men and women in football, but to be a complementary, optional offering.

The spaces offer support, encouragement and thus better mental health. It does not matter whether they are formally established by associations or informally by referees; what is important, however, is that the women can be among themselves. Because a space that is managed by a man only repeats the previous mistakes of the federations. A change in thinking on the part of the federations is now necessary. More diverse structures in the associations are helpful – not only gender diversity.

After all, a seed must first be sown and then regularly fertilised before it can blossom and be harvested. It is not enough to establish protected spaces tomorrow so that you reach your prescribed proportion of women referees. It is not a means to an end, but a complement that needs to be understood and lived.

N.B. – This article first appeared on WebDE in German as a FRÜF column on 4 May 2021.