Helping Girls and Women Win

Earlier this month, Sarah Thomas made history when she became the first woman to referee an NFL playoff game, sparking news coverage of topics like the recent push for women officials in the NHL and the rarity of female officials in professional sports. What was often overlooked in these discussions was the incredible dearth of female referees at the grammar school level, and the impact it has on girls.

The absence of women leaders is a major part of a cyclical series of disparities for young women in sports. Having more women officials would help give young women athletes a wider understanding of their opportunities and what they can accomplish—not just in sports, but in all of life.

I’m a former basketball player and high school hall of famer, but I never wondered why the majority of coaches and referees were all men until my own daughters were playing the game. In my daughters’ school, for example, a new gym was opened after the eighth grade girls’ basketball season was completed but just in time for the start of the boys’ season. Similarly, girls had to wait until fifth grade to start competitive basketball—whereas boys got to begin in third grade.

As a nurse and servant leader who is used to advocating for patients, I immediately went into action to make my voice heard and fix these gender-based inequities. The outcome: an eighth grade girls’ basketball tournament was held the year the gym opened, and now all girls now have the opportunity to compete in a girls’ basketball program in their own gym, just as the boys do.

But this goes beyond establishing better facilities and expanding opportunities for girls to get on the court. Young women athletes need to see women in roles of leadership as coaches and referees.

The number of women referees in professional sports is dismally low: 1.6 percent in the NBA; 0.8 percent in the NFL; and a whopping zero in the MLB and NHL. The number of female coaches is equally low. The problem is even more evident at the youth level—where girls’ participation numbers in sports are higher, but there’s an even lower amount of women in sports leadership.

Even the bright spots highlight the bigger problem. Earlier this summer, Hanah Shehaiber made history when she refereed for an Illinois High School Association soccer state championship game, because she was the first female in Illinois to serve as the center referee ever.

The participation of girls and women in sports decreases at the high school and professional levels.  Between 2009 through 2015, of those aged 15 and older who played basketball, only 10.5 percent were female. The lack of female sports leaders at the youth level is worth noting here—as is the urgency of the potential negative health and school performance implications for girls who choose not to participate in sports in high school.

Research shows that connections to female leaders provide girls with the confidence they need to become leaders themselves, and increasing female coaches, role models and media images of women playing sports is necessary to improve girls’ participation in sports.

That’s why we need to get a head start. The lack of female leadership in sports needs to be addressed early on, when girls are playing in grammar school. Female leaders like those found in the Girl Scouts of the USA provide examples of what girls can accomplish, and organizations like the Girl Scouts provide young women with the example of female leaders that empower them to be leaders. Youth sports needs to provide similar mentors to women referees to increase their visibility on all playing fields.

Women, especially those who participated in sports programs when they were younger, can also help close the cycle of gender inequity in sports by coaching and refereeing girls grammar school and high school athletic games. From my own experience, as a girls youth basketball coach for over 12 years and as a girls basketball youth referee when I was in high school, I know how rewarding it is to empower girls to be the best they can be in sports. If there are no female officials in sports programs in your community, the easiest way to rectify that is probably through completing the requirements to become one. (You will not only serve as a female role model, but also make some extra money for yourself!)

Although the need for referees at the youth level is high, women are rarely seen in part to feeling unwelcomed in the role. A 2014 study found that uncivil work environments—including lack of mutual respect from male officials, perceived inequality of policies, lack of role modeling and mentoring and even gendered abuse—pushed former female referees toward their eventual resignations, echoing the experiences of women who work in other male-dominated professions.

Marian Wright Edelman, an advocate for children’s rights has stated that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Increasing the number of female officials in youth leagues will show girls participating in sports what they can accomplish when they are older, will eventually increase the number of female officials at all levels of sports, and allow females to be connected to a sport they once loved playing. That’s a scenario where everyone wins. 


Mary Heitschmidt, Ph.D, RN, is Director of Clinical Research, Co-Director of the Center for Clinical Research and Scholarship, Assistant Professor at Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.