United by sport, divided by prejudice

In the last few months of my (to date) ten year hockey umpiring career, I have been very fortunate to have the support and encouragement of two very experienced local umpires, one of whom is at National League standard, while the other has umpired some international matches. The resulting opportunities and progression has also brought the attention of the region’s coaching team, who have observed me and given me pointers for further development.

As part of this process, I have been party to quite a lot of conversations about the state of umpiring both locally and nationally. The standard shortages of decent umpires, as with most sports, come up a lot in conversation. One area of umpiring in particular, however, has a notable dearth of good officials: the higher end of the women’s leagues, up to National standard.

My first reaction on hearing this was one of purely cynical opportunism: here’s a way, I thought, I can actually make use of other people’s prejudice to work my way up the ladder and do a (hopefully) really good job where others have decided, for their own reasons, to avoid progressing. I’ve always stuck by my principles on this one – as far as I’m concerned, it’s 22 people, some sticks, and a ball, and I’ll umpire the game in front of me.

When I mentioned this to my mentors and coaches, however, the response was universal opposition to my plan; and this was despite some of these people themselves being women. ‘Don’t umpire women’s hockey,’ they told me. ‘No one will respect you and you won’t be able to switch across to umpire any men’s matches at the same standard. Only umpires who “failed” in the men’s route become women’s umpires.’

I have heard some very legitimate and reasonable arguments in favour of encouraging women to umpire more and at higher levels, especially in women’s hockey, as a way of boosting female official visibility and thus pushing more women into considering doing that side of the game themselves. However, even with this, for the women’s higher leagues to be considered a virtual graveyard for any umpires hoping to progress up the ladder is massively harmful and derogatory to the women’s game.

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Female hockey umpires, as with many sports, face challenges because of player and supporter prejudice, but this is groundless and unfair

As has already been commented in this blog, women’s sports often draw from a much smaller pool of players (largely because of such prejudices) and to have a lower quality of officiating as a result of this is only contributing to the cycle continuing. If umpires of a good standard are appointed equally across all leagues, it will help to ensure those games flow better and are better managed, as well as cutting out the perception that the speed and pace of either game are purely down to biological factors, rather than also training, expectations and overall player numbers.

Questions arising from this week: how do we break down the prejudicial assumption that women’s sport is inferior to men’s? How do we ensure a fair coverage of officials across all areas of sport in a binary-divided game?

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