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AFL’s first female grand final ump reveals sexist treatment as report exposes harassment and abuse

A damning report into the treatment of girls and women in Aussie Rules footy ranks from grassroots to AFL level has highlighted a culture of sexual harassment, exclusion and racism.

The ‘Girls and women in Australian football umpiring: Understanding registration, participation and retention’ report, commissioned by the AFL and carried out by the University of Sydney, was never meant to be made public. It was released on August 21 and buried by the AFL, but has now been released in full.  

The 62-page document contains accounts from 26 female umpire and one non-binary umpire across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and ACT. 

As of 2019, female umpires accounted for 2.9 percent of AFL umpires and 10.8 percent on a national level.

 Scenarios that related to my gender ranged from those I regarded as innocuous, waved away as signs of ignorance rather than ill-intent, through to those that made my blood boil

 Chelsea Roffey, the first female umpire in an AFL grand final

Chelsea Roffey in action during the round nine AFL match between the Brisbane Lions and the Richmond Tigers at the Gabba on May 21, 2005

The report found that girls and women in umpiring experienced:

  • Social and cultural negativity around umpiring selections, especially when being selected to umpire in higher grades.
  • Exclusion due to the material environments of change rooms
  • Exclusion due to language use from key personnel, in administrative forms and in policy or other documents. This included language that made them feel excluded them through referring to umpires as (only) men.
  • Sexual harassment from spectators, umpire coaches and fellow umpires

Chelsea Roffey was the first female to officiate an AFL grand final and admitted to experiencing many of the incidents outlined in the report throughout her journey to the top of the AFL umpires list.

‘Looking back, scenarios that related to my gender ranged from those I regarded as innocuous, waved away as signs of ignorance rather than ill-intent, through to those that made my blood boil,’ she said.

‘My response at each stage was carefully considered, a matter of playing the game and choosing battles wisely. This research legitimises and reflects many of the thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced.’ 

Groundbreaking umpire Eleni Glouftsis said the report's findings about sexist treatment - and far worse - are spot on

Groundbreaking umpire Eleni Glouftsis said the report’s findings about sexist treatment – and far worse – are spot on

FEMALE UMPIRE PARTICIPATION 

As of 2019, female umpires accounted for 2.9 percent of AFL umpires and 10.8 percent on a national level. 

Eleni Glouftsis was the first female to crack the ranks of the AFL as a field umpire and she said the findings were an accurate reflection of what it was like coming through the grades.

‘Umpires face many challenges and these challenges are even more complex and compounded for girls and women in umpiring,’ she said.

‘This research shows clearly what we know through experience- that the umpiring club environment is critical for recruitment and retention of umpires, and more importantly, for their mental health and wellbeing.’

Community umpires shared their experiences of being selected for photoshoots by their clubs for promotional purposes, but missing out on selection for representative and other high level matches. 

 ‘Someone from the crowd, a supporter yelled out, ‘Why don’t you open your eyes instead of your legs, you stupid s***!

And when women did get selected for the high level games, there was a perception they only got the job to meet quotas.

‘It’s perceived that only the opposite sex is good enough to do the job, therefore it’s the perception of you need to work twice as hard and be twice as good to prove that you deserve a seat at the table,’ one female community umpire said.

‘People saying, ‘Oh, you only get this because you’re this.’ I’ve definitely heard that hundreds of times, ‘You only get this because you’re a girl,’ or ‘Because you’re black’, added another

 I don’t want you to umpire, you’re a female, you can’t umpire. I want these boys to be umpired by a proper umpire

 An under-11s coach said when asking for a female umpire to be removed from a game

But the report goes way deeper than just misogyny when it comes to appointments, detailing incidents of inappropriate behaviour in the changerooms and flat out sexual harassment.

‘The worst part is with people who don’t wait for you to leave or sort yourself out [in the changerooms]. Old guys or old umpires just strip and they don’t give a s***,’ one female umpire shared.

 Old guys or old umpires just strip and they don’t give a s***

Many young female and non-binary umpires are not seeking support and are walking away from the game because of their shattering experiences

Many young female and non-binary umpires are not seeking support and are walking away from the game because of their shattering experiences

‘We understand that we’re trying to have diversity men and women and everywhere, but at the end of the day people still want their privacy to get changed, it’s pretty ridiculous that you have everyone in the same room … absolutely everyone. Just to strip,’ said another.

One umpire shared their experience of registration, where every other gender option had been removed except for a box labelled ‘men’ – ‘Thereby asserting that the only umpires that could register as umpires in that group were men’, they said.

 I openly overheard a group of guys talking about my boobs at training one night

This is not only happening at senior level. One umpire recalled the time an under-11s coach demanded they remove themselves from the match because they were female.

‘I don’t want you to umpire, you’re a female, you can’t umpire. I want these boys to be umpired by a proper umpire,’ they allegedly said.

Examples of blatant sexual harassment are rife in the report, with examples including:

  • ‘Someone from the crowd, a supporter yelled out, ‘Why don’t you open your eyes instead of your legs, you stupid s***!’
  • ‘I openly overheard a group of guys talking about my boobs at training one night’
  • ‘There was one of the coaches that would always try to talk to me and meet up with me outside of training and stuff and it was clearly really uncomfortable for me’
  • ‘I used to receive messages of nudes that other umpires would send to me. And umpires during games would inappropriately touch me’
  • ‘I’ve also had some people say some really inappropriate stuff like something about riding me or something’

There were numerous counts of racist remarks as well, including: ‘When I used to run and I was a boundary umpire, a lot of people used to be like, ‘Run n****r [redacted] run!’

Girls and women in Australian football umpiring:  Understanding registration, participation and retention report 2021
Recommendations: 
1. Education initiatives to a range of different stakeholders that focus on gender equity and preventing gendered harassment, violence and sexism.
2. Research into the implementation of a centralised procedure (reporting tool) so that umpires can report problematic incidents of discrimination or other cultural forms of exclusion 
3. The adoption of inclusive change room policies at State League and Community levels 
4. The use of gender-neutral language in all correspondence and coaching, as well as the use of diverse examples of gender and race in coaching imagery and examples. 
5. At State League level: Employment of all support staff including physical conditioning sta! with appropriate training/experience with female athletes or mixed gender groups. 
6. Investigate the feasibility of a parallel umpiring talent pathway for girls and women across State League & Talent Pathway competitions and the AFLW competition. 
7. Investigate the feasibility of a parallel umpiring participation pathway for girls and women across community football. 
8. Consistently performing exit interviews and/or anonymous feedback forms with umpires who are discontinuing. 
9. Investigation and implementation of active efforts to recruit more female umpiring coaches. 
10. Implement a committee as an independent consultancy board to have regular, timely discussions to monitor the progress of these and other umpiring inclusion recommendations. 
11. Investment of time and other resources into further research about the social and cultural environments in umpiring and initiatives and strategies to support social cohesion and equity in these environments 

As a result of the information gathered in the report, the University of Sydney made 11 key recommendations on how Aussies Rules can improve conditions for people of all genders and ethnicities. 

In response to NewsCorp’s report, the AFL said in a statement: ‘The report has been a valuable resource for our team in prioritising the key initiatives to accelerate the growth in women and girls taking on umpiring roles’.

However, it did not explain why it allegedly did not want the report to see the light of day.

AFL response to the report 
AFL STATEMENT IN FULL 
We are committed to ensuring that women and girls of all ages can take part in our game in a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment, and while we have seen a doubling of the number of girls and women playing football since AFLW was introduced, we have not experienced a similar growth in the umpiring ranks.

To better understand this trend, we commissioned a report to look at all the elements that lead to girls and women continuing to be under-represented in umpiring at all levels. As part of that ‘Girls and Women in Australian Football Umpiring study’, current and former umpires were interviewed and provided valuable feedback on all the physical, cultural and environmental barriers that impacted the pathway for girls and women umpiring at community and the elite level.

The important findings and recommendations of the report have formed the basis for a number of initiatives that have been included in the ‘Women and Girls Game Development Action Plan’ which is in its final stages of completion.

The initiatives in the plan are designed to increase representation of women and girls in all parts or our game from players to umpires to coaches and administrators and are aimed at ensuring a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for women and girls, including to lift the number of women umpires to 40 per cent.

In order to achieve that growth, we will introduce a number of policy directives including developing and publishing the ‘Community football guiding principles for equity’, which will comprise initiatives such as umpiring appointments, access to multi-gender or shared space facilities, establishing female mentoring programs to accelerate the pathway for women and girls and helping to achieve more gender-balanced leadership in all community football leagues and clubs.

The report has been a valuable resource for our team in prioritising the key initiatives to accelerate the growth in women and girls taking on umpiring roles across the country and ensuring we have a safe and welcoming pathway that allows women and girls to progress from community to AFL and AFLW level.

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