To fully realise gender equality, the AFL, local footy leagues and fans must reflect on their contributions to the unsafe culture experienced by report participants.
Content warning: sexism, misogyny in graphic detail.
A leaked AFL-commissioned study by the University of Sydney—Girls and women in Australian football umpiring: understanding registration, participation and retention—has unravelled the unsurprising sexism and misogyny experienced by women and non-binary umpires.
The report was provided to the AFL in August 2021; however, the AFL chose not to publish the report itself at that time, conceding that it preferred to internally resolve the outlined issues.
The report maps the hypermasculine world of community and state umpiring that requires girls, women, and non-binary individuals to “fit in” if they want to succeed.
According to the report, many were expected to stomach verbal abuse and sexual harassment from spectators, male umpires and their coaches.
Some abusive comments “suggested that their ability as umpires was essentially and consistently lower than that of men’s”. Participants admitted that they began to internalise the misogyny levelled against them, questioning whether they deserved their position or if it was handed to them tokenistically.
Participants further shared that they often received unsolicited images and unwelcomed approaches from other umpires and umpiring coaches. Male umpires also joined spectators in making gendered slurs and comments. Many felt uncomfortable in seeking help from these individuals as they were often the perpetrators.
Change rooms were also a cause of concern as both sites of discomfort and collaboration. A Victorian focus group participant said that “old guys or old umpires just strip and they don’t give a shit”.
For many, the lack of clear change room protocols incited feelings of awkwardness and risk.
However, change rooms also operated as important places of teamwork, meaning gendered separation denied participants the opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues before and after matches.
Interview responses from state umpire managers engaged with participant’s cultural concerns to varying degrees, highlighting a lack of consensus on how to address these issues throughout the different levels.
This report comes at a time when national umpiring numbers are at a crisis point, with the AFL reporting a shortage of approximately 6000 umpires at the community level earlier this year. The AFL has cited abuse towards umpires from players, officials and spectators as the predominant reason for low umpiring numbers, as well as extreme growth in local league players, seeing new competitions be developed to accommodate the rise of women's footy.
However, whilst more and more girls and women are undertaking footy as their sport of choice, rates of women umpires have remained stagnant. This is unsurprising when considering the report’s findings, which depict numerous examples of sexist abuse. As detailed in the report, after being told by a spectator to “open your eyes instead of your legs”, one female umpire chose to quit.
To address the discriminatory environment that has led to the decreasing presence and retention of women and non-binary umpires, some key recommendations from the report include:
- Enforcing education initiatives for stakeholders regarding gender equity and sexism;
- Greater research into developing a centralised reporting method for women and non-binary umpires;
- And the establishment of an independent consultancy board to monitor recommendation progress.
Respondents also called for female coaches and mentors to be more prevalent at coaching sessions and ensure change room policies are updated to help combat the male-dominated environment described by respondents.
Since the report’s release many local leagues and Umpire Associations have mirrored the AFL’s support of the report’s recommendations and have pledged to do more to promote the wellbeing of female umpires. It is hoped that the implementation of these recommendations will enable female umpiring growth to mirror the increasing rate of female footballers.
This report however, remains a painful yet necessary reminder of the systemic barriers which women continue to face in breaking into traditionally male-dominated workplaces and industries.
Structural change is a start in ensuring umpiring is more accessible to young female and gender diverse individuals. To fully realise gender equality, the AFL, local footy leagues, and fans must reflect on their contributions to the unsafe culture experienced by report participants.
An inability to do this will see the AFL continue to fail at its core mission: to be “a game for everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from”.
This piece was submitted to Farrago as an opinion piece.
Image from ABC.