Tarik Bayrakli: Smart plays, Club Respect’s new podcast, is where we bring the biggest problems facing Australian sport out of the darkness and shine a light on the hot topics that nobody wants to talk about. We’re on a journey to bring sport into the modern world of respect and to rebuild the respect for each other that we need to have if sport is going to thrive.
I’m Tarik Bayrakli and on this episode, we’re chatting to Vic Rawlings and Damian Anderson about the challenges for female footy umpires and umpire culture. They’re on the front line, trying to improve what has become a dismal situation, the improvement and conditions and respect for female umpires in Aussie rules football.
Victoria rulings is a former AFLW and AFL NSW/ACT umpire lecturer at Sydney University and the co-author of the report, Girls and women in Australian football umpiring: Understanding registration, participation and retention. And joining Victoria is Damian Anderson, former AFL National Community Umpire and Development Manager and Co-author of the report.
So I’ll start with you, Vic, the breakthrough report, ‘Girls and women in Australian football umpiring.’ has rattled a few cages. What is it about this issue that spurred you into action?
Victoria Rawlings: Well, I’ll probably try and answer for both of us because we were really a team. This was really a team approach. Damian and I originally knew each other, he was my coach when I was umpiring and really played a strong role in me getting as far as I did in umpiring. And throughout that period, we were talking a lot about the conditions for girls and women in umpiring. Originally, he was the community umpiring manager for NSW/ACT and then moved on to the AFL and we continued those conversations.
And as he shifted between those roles, he was across not just anecdotal evidence, I guess, of the situations and the experiences that surrounded girls and women in umpire. But he was across broader statistics and knowledge about what the whole system of state and national umpiring looked like for girls and women.
And when he was across those things, he was noticing that there were real issues with retention, recruitment, and participation of girls and women in umpiring. To sustain umpiring to sustain a sport, you must have good retention and participation and recruitment of umpires and in the AFL, especially, which was expanding really rapidly, with the growth of AFLW you know, massive growth of it, there was just not enough officials.
So part of Damian’s role was really about how do we ensure the sustainability of umpiring numbers. And part of his strategy was around, how can we understand why we are falling short of these recruitment numbers for girls and women and by improving that we can improve on paring more broadly.
Damian Anderson: Only about 10% of all umpires, at least in the community football setting are female and as we mentioned there’s been huge growth in female player participation, predominantly due to the AFLW competition starting up back in 2017. And certainly, we expected there to be greater uptake of females in umpiring. That hasn’t played out, so we wanted to take a deep dive into, why that wasn’t necessarily happening. We put our heads together and we were fortunate enough to get some funding from the AFL’s research board, they obviously saw this as an important area as well. So we put a proposal and got approval for the funding. And that’s how we ended up with the report.
Tarik: The report hit the news recently after it was leaked by the media, it forced the Australian football league, the AFL, to apologize how important in the process was the AFL’s apology?
Victoria: I think if you read the report, there’s some really quite shocking accounts of treatment and experiences from four different regions. The report covered NSW, ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. And across that vast area of Australia, there are common themes between them. In fact, there’s not actually a lot of difference between those regions. What we did find were really telling experiences of exclusion, of harassment, poor match day and training experiences.
And really giving light to why women are leaving umpiring. Is an apology important? Absolutely. It’s really important that the AFL recognized that there hadn’t been enough investment and strategy in this area and these were investments and strategies that Damian and his role had really been trying to push and had, had not been successful with pushing that.
So it’s not as if they were not aware that there should be something done. And then the important bit for us is what’s next. You know, what can we actually deliver to start repairing that problem and start improving these conditions?
Tarik: What was the key finding or trend in the report that shines the most light on this issue?
Victoria: We had several key findings. It’s actually really hard to focus on one, they feed into each other. If we’re thinking about someone’s experiences as an umpire, we can think about, OK they go to training twice a week, they have a game on a Saturday or a Sunday, as a regular kind of experience. Some people go to more and some people go to less, but it’s an environment where they have teammates or peers around them. They have coaches around them. They have access to coaching resources, they have access to change rooms. There’s like this kind of common experience. But our findings really show that there’s a difference between the experiences of one group versus another group. And when I’m talking about that, I’m talking about gender. There’s a real difference in the encounters that girls and women have with those very common experiences and those common resources, you have to understand that every aspect of an umpire’s experiences are coloured at the moment by gender, by their gender.
It’s easy to imagine that abuse from a crowd, for example, could be gendered, but actually, that was a really, really small part of our study. It was definitely in there, but really the kind of culture is what we’re interested in. How are women being talked to and about by their peers at training, before training, after training, during training, what do they overhear sometimes that makes them feel different or excluded or insecure about their position in the group? How do coaches treat them? How do coaches understand their lives or do they even try to? All of these questions were really relevant in our study and they were really relevant to our participants.
Damian: One of the things that people grab onto is really the change room piece. It’s a bit of an easy fix. It’s easy to talk about. It’s not, it’s not about cultural change. It’s about, we need different infrastructure to have separate change cubicles for female, so it’s gonna create a safer environment, very, very tangible, very easy to discuss. And I think what the report shows and Vic mentioned, there is abuse to umpires on match day, and it can be gendered-specific abuse.
But I think that the biggest piece for me was around that internally, the cultural piece, there’s this match day environment that can be hostile, but at the end of the day if you’ve got protective factors, within your peer network, you’re going back to training, you’re able to debrief and decant some issues, or get the support from the league that you need.
That goes a long way to you staying in umpiring and getting through those challenging times. I guess when you don’t have that back at training and that’s where these cultural issues are, you’ve got peers maybe saying something about you. I think that’s a really challenging, really challenging issue.
Like, you know, 90% of umpires are male, so it is a male-dominated sport. The big ticket item for me was really the internal cultural piece.
Victoria: The thing is that it’s such an easy fix, like even for, let’s say regional grounds. Just to make it clear at most football grounds, there’s a home team change room. There’s an away team change room. And then there’s an officials change room. And sometimes that official change room is like an equipment storage locker or something like that. It can be really rudimentary, but often they’ve kind of got a toilet in them. They’ve got a kind of sitting space or something like that.
But they’re these really important spaces for umpires to be together before a game and after a game and often they’re really important places where umpires talk about their aims for the game and you know, what’s happening with the teams and things to watch out for on the ground or even just have a social catch up before the game or after the game.
What we’ve found in this study was that girls and women are either, kind of, forced out of those spaces at particular times, which makes them feel really awkward and weird and different or there’s changing that happens in front of each other and that also makes various people feel awkward.
Now the easy fixes are obvious, right? That you have just cultural protocols around anyone getting changed. If you’re getting changed, you go into the cubicle. But as long as you have a cultural protocol around those things, you can make it work. And I think that’s why we are reluctant to spend so much time on that one finding. The bigger question is about how do we actually change the culture and people’s attitudes and people’s behaviors, which obviously ties into it, but it’s not the whole story.
Tarik: Well, you said a really interesting thing, around umpires coming together and actually just chatting, talking about their intention and ambitions for the match. I think that’s all part of this idea of giving umpires an identity or humanizing umpires and part of Aussie rules footy culture, there’s been a dehumanization of umpires, including calling them “white maggots” and that’s been quite prevalent. What have you seen work that helps humanize umpires and increase respect?
Damian: So clubs that are generally a bit more holistic, that they really have a buy around officiating. So they understand the bigger ecosystem of football. They understand that participation, playing coaching, volunteering, and umpiring are really important parts of sport. And to keep it sustainable that they need to support all those areas. So those clubs that have buy-in around officiating generally you get far better outcomes towards officials. And there’s actually some quite formal programs in place in some regions, in some codes to do that.
You know where that clubs are actively recruiting umpires or saying to their players, “Hey, have you thought about umpire? There’s, you know, you can learn great skills get paid”. It’s great for officials as well, because we know that those clubs who are engaged with officiating have far better outcomes on match day. And that’s because generally their own players or people from the club, so it might be a player, it might be a sibling of a player, they’re officiating, and if that club knows who that person is, that’s where you get that humanizing piece.
There’s a lot of evidence to show there’s less reports of umpire abuse, there’s less cards. And when you survey officials themselves that they have a high match day rating from those clubs that are engaged with officiating.
I’ll give you a live working example. This is actually from the West Australian footy commission in Perth. There were two parents standing next to each other. This is in a junior game from the same club, so they were wearing the same colours. One parent was having a go at the umpire and that parent turned around, saw them and said, “oh look, do you mind, can you stop criticizing the umpire? That umpire is my child, they’re learning and they’re doing their best”. So you can imagine how that parent would’ve felt. This is probably a teammate of their own son or daughter. So for clubs to regulate their own environment like that is fantastic. So it goes back to humanizing it and I think that’s utopia getting clubs to regulate their own match day environment.
Tarik: And Vic, I’m sure you felt respected at times as an umpire. What were the ingredients of that respect?
Victoria: You know it’s amazing. For me, the times when I felt most respected and most included were when I just felt completely accepted as an umpire. I remember this time I was umpiring and this is towards the end of my career. And I was umpiring at quite a good level. We had run the first quarter and there were three field umpires and we were kind of catching up a quarter time and talking about how the game was going and he said to me, “I wish we could umpire together every week, this is just such a great feeling”. And I remember thinking like that really stayed with me, he valued umpiring with me and he found it a really good experience, also that he said it. It didn’t matter about my gender or anything like that. He just expressed that great compliment and that great respect of my own umpiring and that was amazing.
Tarik: Yeah. Fantastic. He noticed your worth.
Tarik: He valued what you had.
Victoria: Yeah. And I think a lot of the time, I think I spent a lot of years not feeling like that. So to have someone that you like and respect and that you like running with to say that to you, especially someone who’s senior those are the best times, you know, that, that you, you are getting kind of accepted and included and you feel belonging.
Tarik: You’ve mentioned that it’s hard for women and girls to articulate the type of abuse they receive as umpires. What are these communication barriers?
Victoria: So that really came through in our study, massively. I don’t know if we would call… I mean, I think disrespect is one word for it, but exclusion is actually the sum of so many small interactions. And I guess this is the same thing about respect, right? It’s the sum of so many interactions and you start to understand it as that. Oh, that’s what respect feels like. If that’s what belonging feels like. And I guess we could say on the other side of that coin, the sum of negative interactions can make people feel like this environment is not for me. So rather than being part of the fabric of football, you’re the stain or something! I don’t know how to work with that metaphor. But I think for girls and women in our study, it was sometimes hard for them to articulate. So they would, they would draw on those small, tangible examples, like ‘I was sent nudes without consent’, ‘I was harassed by my peers and they wouldn’t stop asking me out on a date’, ‘I overheard some of my friends or other people in my training group talking about my body in really disrespectful ways’. And these are women who continued umpiring, they just pushed through it so incredibly resilient.
They also didn’t feel like they could talk to their coaches about it. Why don’t they feel that? It’s probably because the sum of all these different interactions adds up to make them feel like ‘there’s no one who I can talk to about this who will really take it seriously and listen to me and perhaps get an outcome that I want’, or ‘I just have learned over so many tiny social lessons and interactions that actually umpiring is a hostile place for me and so there’s, there’s no possibility of improvement or getting that belonging… so perhaps I need to not think about it and not talk about it if I wanna continue with this cuz I really love football and I really love umpiring’. I think that’s the sum of what it looked like.
Tarik: Yeah and not being able to speak up. It’s a huge issue around sports clubs for players and umpires. And I wonder if there’s a formal way that umpires can identify instances of abuse.
Damian: Probably the person that they would go to is their umpire coach in the first instance. But as we found out from some experiences in this study that the umpire coach either wasn’t that approachable or potentially was even worse or part of the problem. That kind of reporting mechanism may not necessarily hit the mark all the time.
I know the AFL do have in place reporting procedures, but they tend to be more at the higher end. That was one of the recommendations from our report that there be reporting platform, at least certainly there was suitable for female empires to report this type of behavior because some of it yeah, there’s extreme cases, which are absolutely horrific, as Vic said, it can be the sum small thing. So, if there’s an ability to report that, whether that be anonymously or whether they would like it followed up, I think that would help capture a lot of these instances and exactly where it happens and what level, and then hopefully, take some remedial action around that particular environment.
Tarik: Have you seen an alternative way or a better way with other sports codes to be able to identify instances of abuse?
Damian: I think, and it’s probably across the board, on match day there are mechanisms. So whether it’s some type of verbal abuse or whether it’s gendered or otherwise, there’s often space on a match report for umpires to write those kinds of experiences down. But I think once you get outside of match day, that’s when you probably do need some type of way for women and girls to feel comfortable to be able to raise these issues and report them in an appropriate manner.
Tarik: Across a few sports, including Aussie rules, umpires drop off after a year or two because of abuse or perceived lack of support. We’ve seen the rise of the umpire coach. How important is their role in supporting new female umpires if they’ve been verbally abused?
Damian: We did find that good coaching was critical and again, this is non-gendered, but certainly if you have a good coach, and there are different attributes and qualities to a good coach, if you have a good coach, then the environment’s gonna be better. People are more likely to discuss these issues as they come up in a meaningful way.
Victoria: What is a good coach and what is a good umpire’s coach is a really important question and some of our participants reflected on that. I think to summarize, the best coaches in our study were coaches that genuinely took an interest in each umpire and often that’s difficult because they’re low-resourced, but if you can make an umpire feel like they can talk to you. That’s the number one priority. And a lot of the participants in our study did not feel that they could talk to their umpire’s coach about what was happening to them or how they felt, how you feel at training. Right? Like, ‘I don’t feel great at training’. Sometimes it would be hard to articulate that, but you definitely can’t articulate it to a coach that you don’t feel like you have an affinity or a rapport with. Part of that is an education strategy around umpires coaches which can be difficult again, becuase a lot of them are volunteers or have very low levels of pay and, and commitment to the AFL, but so if you are always using language on the training track, like ‘let’s go boys’, or ‘let’s go fellas’, which, happens, you know, it seems so basic, but it can create an environment where girls and women don’t feel accounted for or even seen, so those small things can make a really big difference.
Tarik: Although spectator abuse is an issue in your report, it’s not the biggest issue causing the female umpire crisis. What is the biggest issue?
Victoria: I think in our findings if we were to just name one issue, it would be the umpiring club culture. So when I talk about umpiring clubs, I mean the groups of umpires, including umpire coaches and umpires that train together in weekly scenarios and the kind of culture that is established in those groups.
So when Damian talks about protective factors, if we imagine that an umpire goes to a game and they are abused over the fence by let’s say a supporter of one of the teams, that can be like water of a ducks back, if that person feels that they have the support and care that is offered by their peers and their coach back at training.
And it is like that because even if someone says something incredibly racist or sexist or homophobic to them, they can tell their group about it, their group can support them by saying how unacceptable that kind of behavior is and they can also talk about levers of action if there are any, or what can we do next?
If that person doesn’t have those avenues to kind of share those things, then umpire abuse becomes an issue. That’s really the end of the story. So in our study, that’s what we found horrible things happened from spectator abuse and when the umpires had a supportive coach that they could really express themselves to, ‘this is how that made me feel’ and the coach sometimes took that further. So they would say let’s talk to the league about it’, ‘let’s talk to the club about it’, ‘let’s sort something out’, but sometimes they didn’t have that support. And that’s when it becomes something that kind of festers into as, of course, as it would into something that they feel really deeply about. So it’s about the club culture, how are we making sure that everyone feels like they belong, that they’re valued and that they’re cared for in those environments?
Tarik: That’s a really fascinating perspective. I feel as though the go-to response is always around the verbal abuse and the spectator abuse that’s quite obvious and often very direct and that’s often seen as the biggest issue. So I was really fascinated to hear that from a cultural perspective, that the challenges are potentially internal?
Damian: Yeah, this is from the AFL’s own data, about 2000 umpires were surveyed and asked why are they not returning for the following year. About 7% said because of abuse.
Tarik: Oh, wow.
Damian: Mainly other factors, work commitments, study commitments on back playing coaching factors that you really can’t control. Look abuse, it’s unacceptable at any level in any environment. I won’t say workplace cause that’s a story for another day around sport and versus workplace, et cetera, but it’s grabbed by the media umpire abuse and it is terror when absolutely deplorable incidents happen and they should never happen, but it’s not as frequent as you think but it’s quite an easy narrative. Cause that’s just what everyone thinks. When you do a deep dive and I think you find this with some other sports as well, I’ve done some work with soccer and NRL and they have very similar statistics, we surveyed only 7% left because of abuse.
Tarik: How would you explain to a club president, how gender-based insults and comments, like one that I found in your report, ‘I don’t want you to umpire, you’re a female, you can’t umpire’ have a heavy impact on female umpires?
Victoria: So I’m an academic. So I tend to use a thousand words rather than 10, unfortunately. Probably to explain it to a club president, there’s so many different ways you could talk about it. You could talk about don’t you want to have professional umpires for your game because all of these umpires are qualified umpires. They do it every weekend, but of course, the issue is really how do you explain to someone, who has that perspective, what it looks like to have an umpire that’s constantly told, in lots of small interactions, you don’t belong here and that’s a really big punch down by someone who says something like that.
Really difficult to change someone’s mind if that’s what they think. Football probably isn’t at the moment, but it should be a place for everyone and I think umpiring should be for everyone. And at the moment it’s not quite there and we need greater initiatives to promote that outcome.
Tarik: Now, your report suggests to me that we’ve reached a crisis point. If the government and partners got behind you and money, wasn’t an issue, what are 3 things that you think would move the needle?
Damian: That’s a great question. I think officiating is at a crisis point across most sports for a plethora of reasons. I think abuse is one of those, lack of recruitment, there’s a lot of issues and based on most of the statistics, female umpire numbers are certainly lower as well. So you can throw lots of money at lots of different things but where are you going to get best bang for your buck? I honestly don’t know.
Victoria: We had 11 recommendations from our report and some of them are easier to do than others. For example, the change room thing is really easy, but something that’s harder is for example, coach education initiatives. So if we were to think about the most important person to an umpire and to change the culture of a group is the coach.
You know, that seems like a real place to invest money and resources into. So can we create an education program and strategy for coaches? is that gonna be a good use of our time and even pay coaches to attend those things? If we have unlimited money and there are some initiatives like that, but it’s only for a few. So thinking about all those little community coaches everywhere, like really bringing them on board, this is why it’s important to have diversity in your group. This is the benefit that diversity in your group creates not just gender diversity, but racial diversity, every different kind of person will bring different perspectives into umpiring, and different strengths.
Damian: We talk about coaches, but all support staff as well. So this varies depending on level, but strengthening conditioning coaches at an elite or semi-elite level, making sure that they’ve had experience or they’re upskilled or whatever the case may be. They’re educated around female athletes rather than male athletes and coaches and also one of the callouts in our research, I’m sure this would benefit every code, is getting more female or umpire coaches, and encourage more females to get involved in officiating.
Tarik: Everyone involved in this issue is closely watching what the next steps will be. Sometimes apologies, end up being a stunt with no meaningful action. What steps need to happen next after the apology for it to be viewed as meaningful progress?
Victoria: We were really heartened to see a new position created as general manager of umpiring AFL and that that position has been filled by a woman who’s called Lisa Lawry. I think that that’s probably helpful to see another person who’s actually thinking about umpiring. So it shows resourcing of umpiring generally. We thought really carefully about how the data would produce recommendations. So here are the problems. Here are the findings. Here are key findings. What are some recommendations? You know I worked really hard with Damian on that specifically because Damian knows a lot about umpiring and football and he knows about all the systems in umpiring and football and he had some amazing ideas that actually matched up with our findings.
So if we were gonna make a difference to the findings that have come out in this study, here are some recommendations. So more work with the community to build up from the ground up about these recommendations. A strategy around women’s umpiring. That takes those recommendations into account. I think that would be a really great step.
Damian: There are 11 recommendations. I certainly would like to see all of them implemented, but if I did need to focus on one, it would be creating a committee or working group or whatever the right terminology is that would oversee the implementation. That was a recommendation where a committee should be put together who can really monitor the progress of this, independent, and come together on a regular basis to make sure it is progressing.
The AFL within community umpiring did have a Diversity working group. So very similar to that, but specifically focusing on implementing the recommendations that were within the support.
Victoria: Probably note that that diversity working group has not sat for a couple of years now. I think there was a big push from that group around this research. And I say this as part of that group, you know, it was an important space to review the research, to kind of test the recommendations, they contributed to the recommendations as well, that group, and they made them richer.
So it just goes to show, you know, we need diverse voices pushing these recommendations and we need diverse voices that help to implement them as well because sometimes, it can feel like these things fall off the radar is a priority. So just having a kind of group that ensures that accountability of that would be really helpful.
Tarik: Vic, Damian thank you so much for putting this report together and thank you for joining us to share your experiences on the challenges for female footy umpires and umpire culture.
Damian: Thank you.
Victoria: Thanks for having us, Tarik
Tarik: You’ve been listening to Smart Plays, proudly brought to you by Club Respect, Victorian Women’s Trust and its harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls.
We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors with special thanks to the Wood Foundation and Spicers Australia. Executive Producer is Mary Crooks. Creative producer is Patrick Skene and thanks to the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. Smart Plays was edited and mixed by Pariya Taherzadeh. I’m your Executive Producer, Host and Club Respect manager Tarik Bayrakli
This podcast was produced in Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
For more information about this podcast, including show notes and resources, visit clubrespect.org.au and follow us on social media @ClubRespectTeam.You can also find out more about the Victorian Women’s Trust via their website vwt.org.au or follow them on social media: @VicWomensTrust.
Thank you for listening.
Smart Plays is Club Respect’s new podcast that shines a light on uncomfortable topics in Australian sport and aims to rebuild respect as the base platform for interaction between fans, parents, coaches, players and officials.