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Woman Officials: Paying Attention, Not Drawing Attention Is Key to Success

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Being a woman official who wants to achieve varsity status requires an understanding of the unique challenges and dynamics that may not exist in traditional work environments.  After 7 years as an official and five years as a member-at-large on the association's executive board, I have concluded that promotion requires us to pay attention to those elements that improve our skills while not drawing attention to our gender or any aspect that negatively influences the perception of our abilities.  We must pay attention to critiques from evaluators on how we run on the court, how we speak to players and coaches, even what we look like when standing still during a dead ball.  For me, paying attention is the easy part.  The hard part is to not draw attention, or at least the wrong kind of attention, to myself during the process. 

Basketball, referee's jersey, and whistle

At a recent meeting, non-varsity officials were encouraged to seek feedback from varsity officials observing their games. One female official complained openly that the varsity observers were negative, and that she was bothered by the tone of their voices.  I cringed when I heard this and wanted to scream, "Man up, girl!  Listen and learn from what they are telling you!"  From personal experience, evaluators point out areas for improvement, mistakes, or other issues that affected the game at hand. "Why did you  call a foul at one end of the court, but not the same foul at the other end? Did you have the best positioning on that call? Why didn't you signal for the last second shot?"  The comments or questions are pointed out in an effort to improve the official, the crew and the game. This approach is used consistently by every evaluator at every camp I have attended and every halftime and post-game discussion with observing officials.  This is the nature of officiating, and if a female official, or any official for that matter, is unwilling or unable to accept criticism, then they ought to find another avocation.  Even weeks after the female official's comment was made, it still came up in conversations with fellow officials and draw negative attention to her. 

I recently had the opportunity to work a scrimmage with one of the few female varsity officials in our association.  Up to this point, I had known her name only and had not met her nor seen her at many association events.  While off court, she commented that she had not received a post-season assignment in five years. Post-season assignments, such as officiating district or regional playoffs and state tournaments, are viewed as plum assignments, assigned only those top officials who are deemed exceptional.  She went on to say that the reason she was not awarded these assignments was for her refusal to kiss a _ _.  It was clear to me that she was frustrated with association politics, but it was also clear that she took no responsibility for her role in earning those assignments.  I have rarely seen her at membership meetings, pre-season clinics, post-game gatherings, officiating camps, or end-of-season banquets. By electing not to participate, she had drawn attention to herself by her absence in a way that did nothing to help her.  So, what is the lesson here? No matter what level of official you are, one key to advancement is making sure the leadership knows that you show up, that you are present, and accounted for.  Let them know you are HERE.

Double standard? 

Physical fitness and athleticism are a given for all good officials. But are they more important for a woman than a man? At a camp a few summers ago, one evaluator very matter-of-factly commented to me on the fitness of two female officials. One was relatively trim, and he asked her how she stayed in shape. By contrast, he noted that the other official had put on weight over the last few years. He went on to express disappointment that, when he asked her if she was working on losing the extra weight, she responded, "No, because I don't have the time."   As I listened, I  was wondering to myself, "Would he make the same comments about overweight male officials? Would he even have this conversation with a male official?"   It is an unfortunate reality that the fitness and shape of a female official plays a role in the perception of our abilities. We must accept the fact that dealing or NOT dealing with it draws attention to ourselves, whether we like it or not.

In one rare and unfortunate incident, a female official dressed inappropriately in a deliberate effort to draw attention to herself.  It was reported to me by the lead crew official that the timer assigned to their game wore an "oversized official's striped shirt tied with a belt, black pants, and black stiletto heels."  By association rule, the official timer must wear a full official's uniform for two reasons: first, because the timer is an official member of the crew and must dress accordingly; and the second because in some cases, the timer, who is a certified official as well, might be required to replace an injured official. The official's poor choice demeaned the crew, the organization, and other female officials. (Needless to say, that official is no longer with the association.)

Having said that, I am not meaning to suggest that the standards by which female and male officials are judged aren't in many ways identical and fair.  We are all expected to know the rules, to hustle on the court, and to abide by the association rules of professional conduct. The fact that only 28 of the association membership (about 6%) are female officials is indicative of the profession in general.  After all, how many women do you know who LIKE to run suicides and be the target for verbal attacks by coaches and parents for 90 minutes or more, several times a week?  Not many.  The women who do sign up do so because we love the sport and we love officiating.  But even love is not enough to get promoted.

Band of sisters 

One official proposed the creation of a woman official working group. The purpose of the group is to share best practices, as well as provide networking and information sharing opportunities between and among the woman officials within association. As a board member, i am facilitating the creation of the group and will co-chair it.  The email response to the creation of this group has been overwhelmingly positive. I can hardly wait.