The number of female football umpires in Victoria has increased significantly since 2014, with more women picking up the whistle than ever before.
Data released by AFL Victoria revealed that in the last two years 166 women have taken up umpiring for the first time, bringing the total number of female football umpires to 735.
The data shows that women now make up 10.3% of Victoria’s entire football umpiring population.
Female participation across all roles within the sport has grown immensely in recent years, with women’s football becoming the fastest growing sector of the game.
23-year-old Lucinda Lopes is a football fanatic who has made herself known, not just in the Victorian umpiring circle, but throughout the football world.
Lopes began umpiring when she was just nine years old and has since made her mark as one of the most promising female field umpires across the country.
“I previously did Auskick with the boys at school and wanted to play club football but back then there were no girl teams, so Mum suggested I umpire instead,” Lopes tells upstart.
“It was so random and something I had never thought of before, so I wanted to give it a go.
“I’ve continued to umpire because I just love it. I love making the split second decisions and always being on the move.”
In 2015 Lopes became one of only two females to be included in the AFL’s Female Umpire Pathway Scholarship Program, aimed at fast-tracking talented female umpires to reach the senior AFL Umpire List.
— Peter Dawe (@Dawery) September 23, 2014
“I have had so many support groups that have helped me out. Having the opportunity to hold an AFL Female Pathway Scholarship in 2015 and 2016 has enabled me to meet the top umpires, coaches and training support crew,” Lopes says.
Having been involved in the game for years, Lopes has experienced the shift in attitudes toward female umpires in football first hand, as more and more women have become involved in the game.
“When I first started umpiring there was no respect for female umpires and the abuse at local junior games was disgusting,” she says.
“Things have changed since then. The game is much more inclusive and respectful towards women – not only female umpires, but players, coaches, trainers and other staff members behind the scenes.
“I hope in a few years time being an AFL female umpire won’t be seen as something odd or that stands out. I would like people to just come to the game, see a female umpire and not look twice.”
— SBS News (@SBSNews) February 23, 2016
AFL Victoria has been committed to providing female umpires with opportunities to reach their full potential through a number of female participation and high performance pathway programs.
AFL Victoria Umpire Development Manager Neville Nash supports female umpire participation in his role by providing support to 12 Victorian umpiring leagues in recruitment, retention, coaching, training and education of umpires as well as umpire coaching.
“I believe that attracting females into umpiring is a recruitment initiative that will work, especially as female umpires are now accepted by the football community,” he tells upstart.
“AFL Victoria and myself are committed to providing opportunities to female umpires through various umpire development programs and promoting female role models such as AFL Goal Umpire Chelsea Roffey.”
Nash’s efforts to support female umpires are highlighted by his involvement in the AFL Victoria Female Umpiring Academy.
The Female Umpiring Academy was established as an effort to further support and develop talented female field umpires aged between 16 and 26, assisting them to move further up the umpiring ranks.
The women involved in the academy meet fortnightly at Visy Park where they undertake training sessions conducted by Nash and AFL Field Umpire Mathew Nicholls.
“Our female umpire academy provides opportunities for female field umpires to come together to develop their umpiring knowledge, skills and also their personal development,” Nash tells upstart.
“The purpose of the academy is to encourage the girls to be the best they can be with their umpiring, to advance to umpiring senior football and hopefully to go on to join the VFL Development Squad, which three academy umpires have been able to achieve,” he says.
The academy is supported by two of AFL football’s most influential female figures, AFL Goal Umpire Chelsea Roffey and Western Bulldogs Vice President Susan Alberti, who have both led the way for females in the sport.
For the first three years of the academy’s existence, the female umpires trained under the guidance of former AFL Field Umpire Marty Ellis. He officiated 244 AFL matches, including the 2001 AFL Grand Final, in a career that spanned 13 seasons.
Now the Head of Umpiring at the Northern Football League, Ellis says the increase in female umpiring participation is a positive change.
“I think it’s a positive move because the growth of female football around Australia and in Victoria is skyrocketing and we need to support that with female umpires as well,” Ellis tells upstart.
“It’s important to support female umpires to say that they have just as much equal responsibility as male umpires. They still need to implement the same rules and earn the same respect as male umpires.
“Just because you’re female doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to the game or can’t be an umpire. Your role is just as important as if there was a male doing it because you’re there to adjudicate the game, look after player safety and enforce the laws.”
Ellis continues to support the growth and development of female umpires throughout Victoria, working as an umpire observer for the Victorian Football League and the Northern Football League and assisting AFL Victoria with a number of projects.
“I support female umpires through observations, match feedback, putting them on career pathways involved in academies like the female academies, giving them appointments, promoting females where appropriate to higher age groups and exposing them to a higher grade of football – it’s all part of my role,” he says.
“There’s definitely a career pathway for female umpires and they’re becoming more involved and more accepted in the football community as valued umpires.”
“Provided they’re able to adopt the training and the commitment that’s required with the job they can definitely move in leaps and bounds forward.”
Jessica Neale is a third year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University, you can follow her on Twitter here: @_jessneale