Big deal: A female field umpire and a woman’s place

There was big news in Australian Rules football on Sunday. People really enjoyed watching footy at Princes Park. Well, until the game started. They also seemed to enjoy Essendon’s ragtag bunch flogging Carlton’s ragtag bunch. Oh, and a woman bounced the first ball… and umpired the rest of the match too, apparently.

The AFL media had Eleni Glouftsis shining in her first AFL match, while the back page of the Advertiser had her making history with a perfect bounce. She was trending nationally all day on Twitter while the TV commentators squealed with delight at the wonderfulness of it all.

Yet, to be honest I was just a bit conflicted. I just couldn’t work out if this is a big deal or not. Here’s why:

It’s not a big deal

Highlighting a woman doing something men do all the time is a tad fraught

So a woman umpired a football match. Big deal. In a meritocratic society no-one should bat an eyelid. A person good enough to do something did it quite well. Excellent, but why the gushing hyperbole?

The media’s approach was accidentally sexist

As mentioned, the media went off about it. The newspapers described the most perfect bounce in the history of Australian Rules football. It wasn’t but it was perfectly serviceable. Glouftsis had a competent first outing at AFL level, as you would expect of a good young umpire. But the media need to portray it as perfect.

Are they just, clumsily and accidentally, reinforcing the idea that Glouftsis’s performance and her gender are somehow related? Pretty sure there’s a word for that and it’s definitely pejorative. Also, it reminds us that, as elsewhere, it is not enough that women are performing their roles with the same level of variable competence as men. They must be better to be considered just as good. Backwards and in heels perhaps.

Also, once you’ve set up the notion that the umpire’s gender is linked to their performance (something that is inconceivable with a man) it’s difficult to unhitch. It’s a bit like thinking it’s ok to say you really like Asians because they’re good at maths. Intended as a compliment but built off a racist premise. There’ll be enough people conflating gender with individual performance in this case, the media don’t need to get their ham fists on it. This conflation, however well intended, is also patronising to a quality umpire.

How far have we really come?

It is, apparently, a sign of the progress we’ve made as a society. But it could also be seen as the very opposite. 45 years after women won equal pay, 40 since Glouftsis’s home state was the first to introduce a Sex Discrimination Act and 30 since the Commonwealth followed suit and we have one female field umpire at the highest level. Almost. That could show how little we’ve come, not how far.

It was a pre-season game

Sure a piece of history was made but to what extent? If this was the reaction to Glouftsis umpiring a pre-season game just imagine when she umpires a proper game. The sooner the better, really.

But, it really is a big deal

Real ground is being broken

Let’s start at the beginning. While the goal-line trails blazed by Chelsea Roffey and Rose O’Dea are important, field umpires are a different kettle of fish. In fact their kettle is full of great white sharks.

Field umpires need to be strong enough to bounce a football four metres in the air (go down to your local park and try it sometime, I’d recommend wearing a helmet) and fit enough to run the best part of an interval half marathon in two hours. The sort of training running times required of AFL level umpires aren’t that far off women’s Olympic qualifiers.

AFL field umpires are unique and elite athletes. As a result of the strength and speed requirements it is a semi-profession to which men are, generally speaking, more naturally suited. No sexism here just pure athletic reality (highly recommend the reading of Same Difference by Carol Bacchi to explore the murky depths of sexual difference in a patriarchal context). This is why Glouftsis is a big deal.

Women capable of being an AFL standard field umpire are much thinner on the ground. Glouftsis’s selection as the first hasn’t happened by chance. As a teenager she was identified through the SANFL umpiring development system as a person with the physical characteristics and decision making ability to umpire at the highest level. Through persistence and hard work she has got there.

It is a signpost on the long road to change in footy gender relations

As a sporting community there are a whole lot of issues on which we remain divided. A large proportion, maybe even the majority, currently think it’s ok to abuse players on grounds barely distinguishable from race, and to sexually harass women in their workplace because, after all, it’s just a bit of fun.

People are still marginalised based upon their gender or race and the greatest vitriol is saved for those that stand up to it. The bad news, to a certain extent, is that those minds are unlikely to change, the ideas have rusted on.

So let’s not worry about the dinosaurs. More important is what the next generation thinks about what is usual and what is not. Glouftsis’s presence in the AFL will be seen by girls, and by boys, and they will not think it unusual – unless we keep reminding them.

Combined with the rapidly growing participation and organisation of female Australian Rules teams, kids playing footy right now will grow up not thinking of the footy club as a man’s domain where the women are at the periphery or only down on the netball courts. It is a step in a cultural change that will enrich all of our lives, should we allow it. Particularly those of the women in our lives.

Girls need to see it to be it

We know so much now about the ‘see it to be it’ concept and its profound effect on girls. Despite what those uneasy about feminism may think, girls don’t need ‘feminazis’ or ‘mad witches’ to point out to them that they are not well represented in some professions: it is already obvious to them. And when they see ‘it’ the pathway of what is achievable for women in footy, as elsewhere, is open.

Girls watching TV are actually disempowered by it as a result of the extremely limited roles they see women play. Seriously! Well, girls watching the AFL can now get a bit more empowered. Glouftsis is one of the ‘its’ (in a good way).

Glouftsis is South Australian, of course

Leaving aside the issue that, in an apparently national competition, people who want to umpire at the highest level are required to live in Melbourne, Glouftsis is another product of a state that can be proud of its history of social innovation.

In the colony of South Australia property owning women were able to vote in local elections from 1861. Following this, in 1895 SA was the first colony/state to have all women voting. What must Queen Victoria have thought when assenting to that bill? South Australia has a whole heap of other progressive street cred which has, sadly, diminished in recent years.

When it comes to footy there is plenty we can point at, also somewhat diminished in recent years: the longest continually running competition; the first to feature a system of finals; the oldest current best and fairest (or fairest and most brilliant as correctly phrased) medal in Australian sport; and the first female field umpire to officiate a state league game (that was Glouftsis in 2013). And we also invented Barrie Robran.

A South Australian being the first female field umpire in an AFL game confirms the state’s status as an innovator. We can do it earlier and better, just not as influentially. The Betamax of states if you will. At times it’s good to remind ourselves we are a forge of progress when we don’t cling too desperately to the past. Big enough to do anything and small enough not to get bogged down.

And finally…

Goddamn, it is just so good to see a young person work bloody hard and to capture so precisely the moment at which the rewards begin to be reaped. To quote another South Australian that is special and very much a big deal. Well done, Eleni, here’s to the first of many!

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Andrew Weiss says

    For me it was just refreshing to see the other side of AFL that being the umpires. For me personally (probably because I am an umpire myself) it would be great to know who the new umpires are and what background they have and why they took up umpiring

    I know the best umpire is the one you don’t notice on the field but I think in order for the game to thrive we need a more positive portrayal of umpires so more young people take it up. The more that take it up the better quality you usually get at the top level.

    Being an umpire myself I have a better appreciation that they will all make mistakes and sometimes you have a really good day and other times a really bad day but never does an umpire deliberately go out to ruin a match. If we counted the amount of errors umpires do compared to the players I think you would find the players definitely have more and they are both under the same amount of pressure. Why we put umpires under so much scrutiny I still do not understand.

    As for Eleni, what a breath of fresh air she was especially when being interviewed by the countless number of radio stations etc. Lets hope she is a success as an umpire and inspires many young people to take it up in all levels of football.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Dave,
    It shouldn’t be a big deal and it won’t be the more we get used to seeing it, just like the goal umpires. I’m more miffed at the fact that she didn’t get anywhere near as much coverage for being Greek. Imagine commentators in the 1970s and 80s calling a Greek, Female Umpire? We’ve come a fair way, yet we still have a fair way to go. This is a development for the better. Thoughtful analysis Dave. Kudos.

  3. Sam Laffy says

    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they didn’t have such comprehensive media coverage then questions would be raised about why Eleni and her achievements weren’t celebrated properly. It’s impossible to win these days.

    It is good to see a female umpire ‘breakthrough’ though. Eventually people will not even notice, much like how Chelsea Roffey is able to simply do her job as goal umpire.

    I’m more excited by the prospect of an expansion of the Women’s Competition!

  4. Phil – I thought she was a Cypriot? Then again what’s the difference??

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    That would make Eleni a Greek-Cypriot-South Australian-Australian.
    The difference?Part of the island is under Turkish rule, the other part Greek, part Commonwealth, part Cypriot. It’s a real exercise in global hyphenations, Dips. She’s a fine umpire – Why don’t we leave it at that eh ?

  6. Rick Kane says

    Good analysis Dave.

    It is a big deal, a very big deal and the reason why goes back to the first point you posed: “In a meritocratic society no-one should bat an eyelid”.

    This is from an article on the website, The Mandarin: understandings of merit can skew not just who gets selected, but who puts in an application: “It’s subjective. We all have a sense of what merit is, but I suspect too often we see merit as being most reflected in people who look like us. “If this is the case, it’s not surprising that the progress of women into leadership positions has been slow.” Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

    Merit is one of the bullshit walls males have built as a (perhaps unintended but I’m not sure) fortress to keep the ‘other’ out. Well the stagehands are encroaching the stage (I think that’s a Marilyn Lake quote) and hopefully the world stage will look markedly different than it does today and sooner than later.

    100 years of footy it takes to get to here. Hopefully it takes only 10 years before the number of female footy umpires (and females in the public sphere) exponentially increases to more accurately reflect their numbers in society. For that to happen men (including myself) have to define merit a lot differently. First, men need to understand the difference between privilege and merit.

  7. Thoughtful Dave. Well done and good luck to her. Hope she enjoys a fine career.

    How likely is she to officiate during the season proper?

  8. E.regnans says

    Good one D Brown.
    I’m with R Kane. This is huge.
    For boys to see a girl as the authority figure on their sporting field (on their sporting field!) is a wonderful thing.
    Merit is offered around as an excuse at times. (Who decides on the criteria to be met? Old white men. Who decides whether those criteria have actually been met? Old white men).
    And fair enough, it’s just a job she has won.
    But so is Prime Minister. So is Governor-General.

    For aspiring, dreaming, wondering, speculating girls… it’s a positive event.
    For girls to see what is possible.

    And yet, from the very youngest – everything is possible.
    From the youngest, dreams are cut-down; denied.
    – Dad, why can’t I marry a girl one day?
    – Dad, where are all the girls (on the footy field)?
    – Dad, why can’t girls be in charge?

    At the local level we can chip away with our kids, our friends. But at a society level, I reckon these kinds of wins are very significant.

  9. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Yep, Andrew, sometimes I think people forget to separate the theatre of sport from the reality of fallible people just trying to do a good job. I didn’t hear any of the radio but having heard the equivalent in the SANFL in 2013 Eleni comes across as personable and engaging (which she is). I reckon the next step for the AFL is to put a bit more of their vast wealth into umpires’ pockets.

    Thought I’d leave that for you to point out, Phil.

    I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to win at all, Sam. We can’t help but win in the long term. More about starting at first principles (maybe second) and working out if the right things are done for the right reasons. The point was not that the ball was perfect as it went I no the air, it was that it went into the air at all. Totally agree re. women’s footy.

    You more than effectively demolished my meritocracy straw man, Rick.

    From what I understand Mickey, Glouftsis is effectively on the bench for season proper. If an umpire goes down, she’s potentially on. Given the relative success of the weekend both publicity and quality wise I’m sure a pragmatic organisation like the AFL will be on the lookout for a good opportunity.

    Would struggle to agree more, ER

  10. Rick Kane says

    Hi Dave

    Yes, I took your meritocracy point as a straw man but I wanted to reinforce the bigger historical power of that insidious institution. Perhaps I thought you were letting it off more leniently than i would. The overall assessment in your essay is indeed much deeper and more incisive.

    It may be a semantic point but i would have said young woman rather than young person in your conclusion.

    On a lighter note, kudos for contexting SA. It does punch above its weight. Now can SA clean up Hindley St? That’s a blight for the weary traveller who foolishly books into the Grand Chancellor.


  11. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Dave interesting article umpiring is difficult enough as it is with out the stupidity of having to master a skill witch has nothing to do with the game and yes knackery folk I was terrible at it.Dave you are right re helmet my 1st game on the country panel at Ardrossan nose at right angle and blood every where
    no blood rule back in 83 so i kept going,get rid of the bounce completely will help both sexes.
    I have seen Eleni umpire and no doubt she has plenty of promise and I wish her well personally I think it ia a game you must have played as a adult to umpire.i no I was far more aware returning to umpire after playing for the blacks,lots of points to debate and consider,Dave well played

  12. Malcolm, I think it’s sexist to assume Eleni hasn’t played football as an adult, whether that is or isn’t crucial to her development.

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Warren I was referring overall that personally I think it is vital that you have played footy as a adult
    It is a area where the umpiring department have got wrong where they see a athlete and think they can teach them to umpire unfortunately I have seen it on plenty of occasions.In Elinis case I do not think she has played adult footy I will happily stand corrected certainly no intention re sexist

  14. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for further comments folks.

    Rick, the young person was deliberate. Would take equal joy in a young man I knew achieving their life’s ambition. And as for Hindley Street, I am also a bit conflicted about that. In a way that part of Adelaide (thanks to a redeveloped Adelaide Oval and new small venue licences) is a bit of a melting pot and the good places are to be found in a couple of the laneways that lead off that particular avenue of delights. Do you need one for the other? I’m not sure.

    Thanks Malcolm, my favourite bit of commentary last year on ABC radio was a questionable umpiring decision followed by one of the commentators saying “decisions like that make you wish the umps actually had experience playing the game… oh, it’s Leigh Fisher”. My point being what we really want is umpires with a feel for the game. Experience playing is one way to get that but I don’t think the only way. Conversely some players play for years and still have no feel for the game beyond understanding the mechanics of the position they played.

  15. Elemi is a hero in our house and has been since she umpired her first Norwood game.

    Not that I noticed at first, but I attend the footy with my daughter who was then in primary school and it was the first thing she noticed.

    As a father I was taught an important lesson about the need for positive role models for girls in all areas of life.

    When the hero doll assignment came home from school it was a Eleni or a suffragette . The teacher then banned sports persons as heros , sick of everyone doing Taylor Walker .

    Being a umpire is hard and being a female umpire must be harder. Out at Elizabeth Oval my daughter challenged the bulldog supporters for their sexist comments. Her logic was she was a kid and would get away with it or just run fast. I was a dad who knew it was a long way to the car.

    But i saw that the sexist comments impact extended not just to those on the field but the girls in the crowd.

    The SANFL asks supporters to report unsocialable comments and crowd behaviour . Sexist and homophobic language seems to be tolerated .

  16. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Farmboy. Similarly, my daughter is very quick to notice women in a football environment, which is surprising given I never thought she actually paid attention to the goings on on the footy ground.

    Re. SANFL crowd behaviour (good on your daughter btw), it is definitely changing… slowly. When I first moved back to Adelaide a bit over 10 years ago, racist and homophobic comments were common place. Once the SANFL made it clear people would be turfed for racist stuff that pretty much stopped. The same for the most part with the homophobic stuff (I call it out when I hear it and, thankfully am scary enough looking that they usually listen). The sexist stuff still has a long way to go. The SANFL needs to be more explicit about the sort of talk that’s unacceptable because I don’t think there’s currently a common understanding and the current wording is too broad/vague.

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