The Rebel Girl: Blowing the Whistle on Sexism

— Catherine Sameh

MY PARTNER OFFICIATES junior high and high school basketball. Now in her sixth year, she relates a story. She arrives at a local gym one Saturday morning. Two games are to be played simultaneously—one girls’ and one boys’.

She greets her partner, a young male rookie, and two older males, veteran officials scheduled for the other game. "We want you to do the girls’ game," says one of the veteran officials.

"Who am I assigned to?" she asks. "The boys," he replies. "Then we’ll do the boys,’" she says, nodding to her young partner.

"Well, as the senior official ... ," the veteran begins. My partner interrupts: "How do you know you’re the senior official?"

"How many years do you have?" he bats back. "Six," quips she. After a long silence the veteran turns to his partner, saying, "I guess we’ll do the little darlings today."

While one can confidently say that the popularity of and participation in women’s sports is at an all-time high, sexist attitudes towards women in athletics remain deeply entrenched. As my partner’s experience illustrates, not only are female athletes patronized, but women in positions of authority in athletics struggle to be taken seriously.

Like many trades still dominated by men, officiating has incorporated women’s participation only hesitantly. In our city’s basketball officials’ association, only fifteen of the 300 officials are women. Though the association’s bylaws guarantee their equal participation, women officials are repeatedly denied the important opportunities of male counterparts.

Here is one example: Women are rarely assigned boys’ games above the (high school) freshman level, while men are assigned to both boys’ and girls’ games at all levels.

Women officials would benefit from officiating upper-level boys’ games because their game is quicker, cleaner and more physically powerful. It offers exposure to above-the-rim action that girls’ games can’t. It’s not a better game, but simply different, offering officials the chance to hone different skills.

Conversely, male officials should be encouraged to learn and take seriously the nuances of girls’ basketball, instead of minimizing its importance or seeing it as secondary to boys’ basketball.

The association provides a potentially democratic structure for advancing in the field, yet women remain at a disadvantage. Advancement is determined in large part by poor evaluations, done every year. With so few women officials, women are evaluated primarily by man, many of whom remain stuck in old-school methods.

Recently evaluated, my partner was encouraged to be more authoritative in her calls and more of a disciplinarian with the kids. Her more fluid style of talking to the kids, giving advice before penalizing them,was overlooked or seen as opposed to calling a tight game.

The situation of women officials illustrates that equality is meaningless without avenues for support and advocacy. As a small contingent within an old-boys’ club type of association, women officials have learned that while older male officials may turn a sympathetic ear to their concerns, few concrete changes occur.

Lacking visible, meaningful support, women (and younger male) officials have to rely on oppressive methods like schmoozing with the club’s elite in order to move up. If unwilling to invest that kind of energy-draining effort, women are more apt to stagnate or leave.

The plight of women officials tells but one part of the story women and girls in all areas of sport find themselves in. Caught in an industry with one foot in the future and the other stuck in the past,we face incredible opportunities and barriers at every turn. And while Title IX and other equal opportunity laws and policies have been landmark victories, our work clearly is not done.

ATC 61, March-April 1996