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More needed to boost women referee numbers

In the space of two years, four women will have made Australian sporting history by stepping on to the field to officiate top tier men's games.

In 2017 Eleni Glouftsis became the first female field umpire in AFL history, and Claire Polosak the first woman to umpire a men's domestic cricket game.

The NRL followed suit, appointing Belinda Sharpe to referee a prime-time game in July 2019, while Kate Jacewicz will referee in the upcoming A-League soccer season for the first time.

But advocates for female participation in sport fear their success won't become widespread due to cultural barriers in the top sporting codes, lower pay for officials of the women's game, and because many women are scared off by sexism and online trolling.

Despite soaring female participation in three of Australia's biggest sporting codes - soccer, cricket, and AFL - the number of female referees and umpires is mostly static, or declining in the case of cricket.

Football Federation of Australia data shows women and girls account for 21 per cent of registered outdoor club soccer players, but make up only 12 per cent of referees.

Recently departed FFA Director of Referees Ben Wilson told AAP the federation did not collate data on female participation in refereeing before 2017, but he estimated levels had been static.

FFA's interim Head of Women's Football Sarah Walsh told AAP the "systematic and cultural barriers" women in soccer face need to be addressed so "all women have an equal opportunity to not only participate in the game, but are able to progress to the level they aspire to in their chosen field".

In the AFL, the code has tripled its female player representation since 2015. But the proportion of female umpires has only grown from 8.7 per cent to 9.8 per cent.

Meanwhile, the proportion of registered female cricket umpires has dropped over the past four years, from eight per cent to 6.5 per cent, despite the success of the all-conquering Australian women's team.

The number of women actively officiating in the 2018/19 season was 108, only about a third of the women registered.

Over the same period, female participation in the sport has grown from 6.4 per cent to 10 per cent.

However, the National Rugby League is one code where the share of female referees is growing.

Since 2015, the number of female referees in the NRL has doubled, as has the female proportion of the total pool of referees.

For the past five years, it has run the Women in League Officiating Program - a "whole-of-person development program" for female officials.

The program includes mentoring, career progression planning and dispute resolution training. It has also linked its officiating program up with vocational education certificates.

Former NRL referee and general manager of officiating, development and pathways Tony Archer says the NRL is "tracking well" on female referee participation, and credits the supportive WILOP program.

"We certainly know that what we deliver to them has led us to grow in numbers and also retain at a higher rate than the national average," he told AAP.

However, women still only make up just under 10 per cent of all NRL referees.

Louise Evans, the communications director for peak national advocacy body Women Sport Australia, says female referees and umpires will not become the norm until the major sports provide equal training and pay for officials of women's and men's matches, as well as career pathways for women to become top level officials.

"Another major barrier is the issue of online trolling that women in the public eye face, as well as public attacks on their character and sexuality," Ms Evans told AAP.

"Until the major sporting codes create an environment where women in the workplace do not face hostility and discrimination, nothing will change."

The lack of female referees is not unique to Australia.

Polosak is the only woman to officiate a one day international cricket match, and while Englishwoman Julia Lee became the first woman to referee international men's rugby league in the late 1990's, high-level female referees in the code are still few and far between.

The English Premier League does not have any female centre referees either, but history was made when the 2019 UEFA Champions League Super Cup Final between Liverpool and Chelsea was officiated by an all-female team.

© AAP 2019