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female referees football

Female football referee Abi Byrne tells Hinter what’s it like to work in this hyper-masculine environment— and how things are changing

By Sophie Dowdell

Every Saturday and Sunday knees are grazed, tears are shed, and stadiums shake with song in the name of football. Whether it be grassroots or top-flight, millions are obsessed with the beautiful game. But reaction to female officials can be ugly.

Just take the sexist remarks made by Sky Sports pundits Richard Keys and Andy Gray about assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis during her second Premier League match in 2011. The duo were sacked for expletive-filled remarks insisting she would not know the offside rule.

USA’s Lindsey Horan (second left) is given a red card by referee Hussein Riem. Courtesy of PA Images/Richard Sellers/EMPICS Sport

With the Women’s World Cup underway, Hinter heard from female referees about what it is like to officiate a male-dominated sport.

Abi Byrne is a FIFA-accredited international referee of women’s football. In May, she oversaw the Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, the most important domestic game of the season.

“When I started I never expected to achieve what I have done,” said Byrne. “As I progressed, my targets evolved, and I kept striving towards the next level.”

Funding and training was almost non-existent, she said. But eight years on, there are regular female-only referee courses and lots of female-specific training events put on by the FA. But of 1,600 London FA referees, only 100 are women.

“The biggest obstacle I’ve faced is the changing facilities,” Byrne said.

Most clubs don’t have separate officials’ changing rooms and Byrne admits this leaves her isolated.

She is hopeful, though. “Female referees have the opportunity to gain more credit than male referees doing the exact same job, maybe because people don’t expect it.”

Previously overshadowed by its bigger, more expensive brother, women’s football is growing. Barclays’ £10 million sponsorship deal with the Women’s Super League proved that times have changed.

One female referee with over 10 years’ experience, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid annoying a footballing body, credits changing perceptions of female referees with the “massive boom” in women’s football.

“We’ve managed to change a lot of the big things,” she said. “But now why can’t we be equal and have the same opportunities?” she asked, referring to “daft barriers”.

Women referees are required to wear men’s kits, which are often ill-fitting, and few have reached upper refereeing levels so they don’t qualify for free kit.

“We’re only getting paid £40 a game and we have to go out and buy three sets of kits, when the guys are getting £900 and all their kit for free,” the source told Hinter.

referee shirt female LFA
Close-up of London Football Association referee shirt

“Because I’m a FIFA referee, I do have female kit,” she said. “However, to get it in your local country seems to be beyond impossible.”

Lack of kit, changing facilities and sanitary bins are key grievances.

“A few years ago, I was getting changed in broom cupboards,” Byrne said, adding infrastructure cannot change overnight.

“I’ve had times where we’ve been jumping in and out of the changing room and I’ve let them [male officials] get changed first and came out and the guys have disappeared,” she said. “We’re meant to be a team and things like that really do isolate you.”

Sexist remarks can be an issue: “I’ve been running the line and I’ve heard the dugout, the players behind me, discussing what underwear I’ve got on.”

Kristin Errington has been refereeing for two years and has never experienced sexism. “The fact I am a woman has aided me significantly in refereeing,” she said. “I am always congratulated on my performance and parents, especially from girls’ matches, comment that it is so nice to see female referees as they provide role models for their daughters who play football.”