Women and Refereeing

By: Morganne Gagne 
Edited by Frannie Sensenbrenner & Margaret Rote in 2015

Page Outline

Commentary on Women in Refereeing

In the eyes of Brazil 2014, female referees did not exist. No woman has ever refereed in the World Cup, a fact that did not change in Brazil.  The list of referees from the 2014 World Cup is entirely male.  However, we did not want to forget female referees, as they are an integral part of global soccer.

Scarcity of Female Referees

The role of gender is a popular topic of discussion in soccer and soccer media coverage, but often ignored when talking about referees.  This is likely the case because female referees are almost nonexistent at the professional level and exceedingly scarce at the local, collegiate, and national levels.  While the number of female and male youth athletes is roughly equal, a significant disparity exists in authoritative roles (referees and coaches).  Randy Vogt, of Soccer Youth Insider, attributes this scarcity to a couple of factors. First, all referees must start officiating at the youth level. Most coaches are males, and Vogt believes they are more willing to intimidate a female referee than a female referee. According to Long Island Soccer Referees Association (LISRA) President Cathy Caldwell,

“We lose female refs three times more frequently than male refs due to verbal abuse.”[1]

Morganne Gagne, the author, shared a similar experience refereeing in Massachusetts. In eighth grade, she enrolled in the Grade 9 certification course with 7 of her soccer teammates and only 2 boys. When she graduated high school 5 years later, only the two boys and Gagne were still refereeing in their local league. Most of Gagne’s female friends blamed their departure from refereeing on abusive coaches and parents. Whether female referees are subject to more verbal abuse on the field than male referees, as Vogt claims, Gagne cannot be sure. Female referees may feel more intimidated by male coaches and players, and as a result, display less confidence in their calls.

Secondly, Vogt believes females tend to view soccer in more social terms than men. Again, this is a broad generalization that may not always hold true; however, Gagne agrees wholeheartedly when Vogt says “No matter the gender, refereeing can be very lonely.” When paired with a compatible crew, refereeing can be a fun, social activity. Caldwell agrees with this sentiment,

“I ask the assignors to pair up the few women in the chapter with me as we have such a good time officiating together…When I work with other women I find an immediate bond.” [2]

With this argument, the scarcity of female referees creates an unfortunate Catch-22: with such a small pool, less women are likely to begin officiating and those that do will may not want to stay with it. For this reason, Gagne believes it is imperative to develop strong mentoring programs for female referees.  Youth tournaments such as WAGS (Washington Area Girls Soccer) have taken steps in the right direction. In October 2013, WAGS developed a unique mentoring program that involved 8 female FIFA referees mentoring 27 ammature female referees.[3]

Differences in Officiating Men’s and Women’s Games

In theory, men and women play the same game of soccer – the same rules, the same field size, the same number of players. Yet the style of play is vastly different. Men play a faster, more aggressive game, which Greenwood has observed in America:

“Men’s and women’s soccer in America is very different. Women’s soccer is softer, more thoughtful. Many American male soccer players are too focused on being great athletes with power, and are not as focused on the most technical aspects of soccer. Great European men’s soccer, a lot of women’s soccer in America and the top male soccer players world-wide all play with good skill and finesse”.
-Ada Greenwood, San Diego Surf Soccer Club coach[4]

Men and women also behave differently towards referees. Kari Seitz, former FIFA referee, says “Men do crazy-weird stuff you don’t see in a women’s game. Believe it or not, they’re very, very emotional.”  Men and women will disagree the same amount, but express it in different ways. Sandy Hunt, one of the first two women to officiate in the MLS and now a retired FIFA official, found that men will gather and get in your face, while women might approach you privately, in a less aggressive manner.  Statistically, fewer fouls are called in women’s games than in men’s, but this does not mean that their views on retaliation differ. Both genders will seek revenge; however, men will do it immediately. On the other hand, women are willing to wait. [5]

“She’ll make sure there’s justice. [Women are] willing to wait a couple seasons. Girls think about it on the bus ride, they talk about it.”
-Sandy Hunt, former MLS and FIFA referee

Due to the differences in playing styles and attitudes, female referees must behave differently than male referees when officiating men’s games. Hunt believes female referees should not get aggressive as a means of player management:

“I’m not a threat to any man. I’m not going nose-to-nose with some big soccer star and try to overpower him because it would be foolish and look ridiculous. My strategy is to try to gain cooperation.

-Sandy Hunt, former MLS and FIFA referee[6]

 Female Referees You Should Know

Despite a shortage of female referees, women have made significant progress in the world of men’s soccer in recent years. In 2004, a woman officiated a men’s World Cup qualifier, and in June 2011, an all-women’s crew worked a second division men’s pro match in the Czech Republic. Exceptional female referees have broken down the gender barrier, and the referees highlighted below are ones that everyone should know:

The First Lady of German Referees: Bibiana Steinhaus

Policewoman by day, refereeing superstar by night, Bibiana Steinhaus is the first woman to referee in the second division of the Bundesliga. Steinhaus began officiating in her hometown in Germany’s Harz region. As a self-proclaimed “almost talentless,” defender on the field, Steinhaus found officiating as a more successful means of continuing involvement with the sport. She finds that her role as a referee aligns well with her career in the police force, stating her responsibilities in both are to “monitor and ensure that rules and laws are being obeyed, and that people aren’t trying to make them themselves.” At 34 years old, Steinhaus’ notable appointments include the U-20 World Cup in Thailand, the Military World Cup in India, and the Women’s World Cup in Dresden. [7]  She is one of the referees in consideration for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

Steinhaus had a rough start in her road to refereeing fame. In her first live TV match, a player inadvertently patted her breast. However, she didn’t let the incident phase her, and both she and the player laughed about it afterwards.[8] Watch the scandalous pat here:

The Most Experienced Referee in US Soccer: Kari Seitz

Kari Seitz is US Soccer’s most experienced international referee, with 4 Women’s World Cup tournaments and 3 Olympic games under her belt. She was given the high honor of opening the London Olympics when she blew the whistle to start the women’s game between Great Britain and New Zealand. Seitz has officiated college, semi-pro, and professional games in the MLS. She loves refereeing, but it doesn’t pay the bills – Seitz also works as a general manager for a San Francisco-based ad agency.  The world of female refereeing progressed exponential during Seitz’s career, and she hopes to see it continue to push forward:

“It’s my hope in my lifetime that we get some women referees in the World Cup. I’m aware that things don’t happen overnight. I tried to move the needle a little bit. And I made a bit of an impact.”[9]

-Kari Seitz

After a 28-year career, Seitz retired in October 2013 having officiated 200 professional matches, more than 1,000 college matches, and the US WNT more than 50 times.[10] A tribute to her successful refereeing career can be seen below:

If you are interested in learning more about the female referees active in FIFA today, please visit FIFA’s website for a complete list.

Female Referees in Other Sports

Female referees are becoming more common in other sports as well, however they continue to face criticism. Lauren Holtkamp is currently one of two full-time referees in the NBA.[11] Recently, Holtkamp issued a technical foul against Clippers player Chris Paul. After the game, Paul told reporters that “this might not be for her.” Paul’s comment instigated a heated debate on social media, and ultimately the NBA issued Paul the standard $25,000 fine for criticizing a referee during a public forum. The National Basketball Referees Association supports Holtkamp’s call and continues to stand behind her.[12]

During the 2012 referee’s union strike in the NFL, Shannon Eastin became the first female official in an NFL regular season game.  She served as a line judge in a game between the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions.  According to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, “Women are more honest and fair than men and they know how to catch a man cheating.”  At the same time, Foote was concerned about Eastin’s safety, stating “I hope she’s just a line judge.  Don’t want her to get hurt.”[13]

Eastin paved the way for other aspiring female referees in her debut in 2012.  Sarah Thomas, a mother of three, is one of two women currently enrolled in the NFL officiating development program.  She said, “With their respect and the respect that I have for them, it just doesn’t feel like it’s a male-dominated profession.”[14] Hopefully, we will see female referees as mainstays in the NFL and other male professional sports leagues in years to come.


[1] Vogt, Randy. Why so few women referees? Youth Soccer Insider. 31 August 2011. http://www.socceramerica.com/article/43561/why-so-few-women-referees.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smith, Kevin and Boehm, Charles. FIFA referees grace WAGS Tournament as part of unique mentoring program. SoccerWire.com. 15 October 2013. http://www.soccerwire.com/news/refs/fifa-referees-grace-wags-tournament-as-part-of-unique-mentoring-program/?loc=new-england

[4] SN Staff. Women’s Soccer vs. Men’s Soccer. SoccerNation.com. 17 June 2011. http://www.soccernation.com/womens-soccer-vs-mens-soccer–cms-1335

[5] Borzilleri, Meri-Jo. Women have made forays into men’s soccer. ESPN W. 11 August 2011. http://espn.go.com/espnw/news/article/6846762/calling-shots-women-made-forays-men-soccer

[6] Ibid.

[7] Leffers, Jochen and Ruf, Christoph. Professional Referee Bibiana Steinhaus: ‘Football has Changed to a Great Degree.’ Spiegel Online International. 29 June 2011. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/professional-referee-bibiana-steinhaus-football-has-changed-to-a-great-degree-a-771353.html

[8] Borzilleri. Women have made forays.

[9] Baxter, Kevin. Referee Kari Seitz has been there, done that. Los Angeles Times. 28 July 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/28/sports/la-sp-oly-baxter-soccer-20120729

[10] Longtime U.S. Soccer Referee Kari Seitz to Retire. US Soccer. 8 October 2013. http://www.ussoccer.com/news/referee-programs/2013/10/longtime-us-soccer-referee-kari-seitz-to-retire.aspx#sthash.trBOr1vu.dpuf

[11] Payne, Marissa. Clippers’ Chris Paul fined $25,000 for critique of female referee. 7 February 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2015/02/07/clippers-chris-paul-fined-25000-for-critique-of-female-referee/

[12] Mazzeo, Mike. Chris Paul: It was about a bad call. 6 February 2015. http://espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/story/_/id/12288601/referees-union-backs-nba-female-ref-lauren-holtkamp-personal-comments-chris-paul-los-angeles-clippers

[13] NFL female ref Eastin makes history. 2 June 2014. http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/shannon-eastin-makes-history-as-first-female-to-officiate-regular-season-game-090912

[14] Reed, Tom. On-field official Sarah Thomas hopes to earn her stripes in the NFL. 12 June 2014. http://www.cleveland.com/browns/index.ssf/2014/06/on-field_official_sarah_thomas.html

One thought on “Women and Refereeing

  1. Clarence

    How come was former referee Kari Seitz got to officiate in games involving the U.S wnt 50 times? Are not referees and assistants suppose to be neutral?


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