Eimear Ryan: When you’re the first female anything, the burden of representation is real

On Easter Monday, Rebecca Welch became the first woman to referee a match in the EFL when she took charge of a League Two clash between Harrogate Town and Port Vale
Eimear Ryan: When you’re the first female anything, the burden of representation is real

On Easter Monday, Rebecca Welch became the first woman to referee a match in the EFL when she took charge of a League Two clash between Harrogate Town and Port Vale. Picture: Nigel French

There are many glass ceilings left to shatter in sport, but the past few years have seen a few cracks made in an unlikely one: that of refereeing.

The great Stéphanie Frappart reffed a World Cup qualifier between Holland and Latvia last month, adding yet another garland to her list of firsts; last year, she became the first woman to referee a Champions League game. Our own Joy Neville and Michelle O’Neill are no slouches either. In 2016, Neville becoming the first female rugby referee to officiate in the PRO14, and O’Neill served as an assistant ref at both the Uefa Super Cup and the Women’s World Cup final in 2019.

On Easter Monday, Rebecca Welch became the first woman to referee a match in the EFL when she took charge of a League Two clash between Harrogate Town and Port Vale. Prior to the game, she reflected on the significance of her appointment, seeming to realise the symbolic power of this milestone: “I do think it’s important to show that women who are in the top 1% of their category can proceed to the next level… It shows that there is a real opportunity to young girls who are wondering to take the whistle or are already referees.” Can’t see, can’t be and all that.

Another Irish refereeing trailblazer, Maggie Farrelly, had a different perspective when she spoke at a Sport Ireland webinar last month. Farrelly, who became the first woman to ref a men’s inter-county fixture in 2015 — an Ulster minor football quarter-final between Fermanagh and Antrim — didn’t buy into the rhetoric quite as much.

“Starting out when I made my debut as an inter-county GAA referee, ‘history making’, ‘barriers’, and ‘gender’, all that kind of terminology was used. What we are hoping for in the future is that we can take these words away, that it is no longer about gender… we shouldn’t have to distinguish between male or female referees.”

Farrelly’s reluctance to buy into the barrier-breaking hype is understandable. Of course no one wants to be tokenised in these situations, or reduced to a symbol. Welch’s debut was greeted with a predictable smattering of sexist tweets, but even some of the well-meaning, positive coverage was a little patronising — there was a distinct note of surprise that her performance in the game was so strong.

It’s fair to assume that the female referees I’ve mentioned got to where they are because they love sport and have worked incredibly hard, not because they were hell-bent on being the first female referee in their field.

But from the outside, their achievement is inspiring. All of them have excelled in a male-dominated field; all of them have anecdotes about being met with bewilderment, confusion and sometimes downright sexism when they first started showing up to referee matches.

Culturally, women refs are held in the same sort of jokey suspicion as women drivers. As O’Neill said on the Game Changers podcast last year: “As a woman you have far less room for error, but you learn to deal with it.”

When you’re the first female anything, the burden of representation is real.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that many female trailblazers in sport get tired of discussing it all the time; they would rather just get on with their jobs. In a piece for International Women’s Day, RTÉ sports broadcaster Evanne Ní Chuilinn said: “I think we’re gone past calling me a female sports presenter, or calling Katie Taylor a women’s boxer. She’s a boxer, she’s the best in the world. The next step is to start taking the word women out of everything, and I know women in sport is such a positive message but we need to get to a point where it’s just sport. It’s so subtle but it’s the next step.”

Ní Chuilinn’s words got me thinking about the quandary that many women in male-dominated spaces face. I’m a woman who is a sportswriter, a job I love and am very lucky to be able to do, in a country that boasts several brilliant female sportswriters. Emma Duffy, Cliona Foley, Mary Hannigan, Joanne O’Riordan, and Mary White are some of my favourites, and in terms of players turned pundits, Valerie Mulcahy and Bríd Stack provide excellent insights. But female sportswriters are still in the minority, in Ireland and everywhere else. Do you lean into your difference, or downplay it?

In some ways, difference can be an asset. Women are outsiders in sport, and as a writer, that’s a brilliant place to be: You have a different point of view, lens, filter, however you want to put it. You get to ‘tell it slant’ as Emily Dickinson advises. (I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that the men who make up the majority of sportswriters — many of whom I admire hugely — have homogenous opinions; far from it. But for men, the main characters in sport are generally people like them; women have a different starting point.) 

Because of this, I never minded being referred to as a female sportswriter. I’d also be reluctant to reject the ‘female’ qualifier as I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I consider it to be somehow insulting. But to Ní Chuilinn’s point, it’s a little bit of baggage that men don’t have to reckon with.

The tell is that we don’t feel the need to say ‘male referee’ or ‘male sports presenter’. In tennis and athletics, we might say ‘women’s singles’ and ‘women’s 800m final’, but we also still specify ‘men’s doubles’ and ‘men’s javelin’; the lads are not the default.

In our wider society, at some point we stopped marvelling at female doctors and decoupled the prefix ‘ban’ from the word ‘garda’. Perhaps that’s where we’re headed in sport, too.

For now, the ‘first female’ stories are important milestones, and to be celebrated.

But when a Frappart or a Welch is no longer newsworthy — when girls have hundreds of role models as opposed to a handful — that’s when we’ll know we’ve made progress.

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