Bibiana Steinhaus entered history books yesterday, September 10, 2017 by becoming the first woman referee to officiate in a top European football league. She was the referee in the Bundesliga game between Hertha BSC and SV Werder Bremen on Match Day 3. She became a celebrity and was trending on social media. So far so good.
But once this initial euphoria dies down is when we will get to know the real impact of her path breaking beginning. To begin with this is 2017 and yet we have to talk about gender equality. Not just in football, in sports in general but even in other spheres of life. That there exist a gap be it in opportunities, be it in equal pay, be it just the general perception. Women are fighting on all fronts to find their footing.
However, I want to focus here more about the world of sport, the world I am familiar with. As a sport administrator, I have come across attitudes that are patronizing, condescending, and downright, why exactly are you here to oh, poor you. I am sure there are many other women out there in the sport industry who would have many more stories to share. Back to Bibiana though.
That she has broken the glass ceiling is to be appreciated. It has to be celebrated. Because hopefully she has opened the doors for many other women out there who are interested in careers as referee at the highest level. And not just in football/soccer but other sports too. Well, cricket did see women umpires standing in for men’s games. But again, it is not yet a regular thing.
So when are we going to see Bibiana again in action in the Bundesliga? More importantly, I wonder what will be the reaction if she makes a mistake in her next game or in future matches? Will the narrative read, oh what is a woman doing in the men’s game? Will the talk be about her gender or will she be given the same benefit given to other men’s referees – they are human after all and/or incompetent? Because even while her appointment was widely accepted all around, there were still some social media posts which highlighted the gender bias (the most common question – does she know the offside rule? C’mon, give me a break, there are many men who still don’t the exact rule and no, I am not the expert either).
While we are on subject of mistakes, two recent high profile matches (both 2016-17 season) come to mind. One the round of 16 UCL quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG at Camp Nou and the other the UCL quarterfinals between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich at Santiago Bernabéu. Both matches involved some questionable/debatable decisions from the referees and his assistants. But all the talk was about either it being human errors and/or incompetent officiating. I wonder if Bibiana find herself in similar situation, will it all be blamed on her gender? I genuinely hope not.
Also, hopefully to those who it matters the most – the players on the field, it is about their confidence in her as a referee and not about her gender.
As much as we celebrate Bibiana’s achievement (and it surely it has to be applauded), I just hope in future we concentrate on her performance (or lack of it) rather than talk about her gender. Here is to many more Bibiana Steinhaus’ on football pitches at the highest level and hope to see her on pitch soon in the Bundesliga and other competitions.