In May, Claire Polosak of Australia became the first woman umpire to officiate in a men’s One Day International and India’s G S Lakshmi became the first woman to be appointed to the International Cricket Council’s panel of match referees. For a sport that has long been considered aggressively male-oriented, shading into outright sexism in the way women TV anchors are presented, this month, then, marks a great leap forward for women in sport. But both appointments, however encouraging, only serve to underline the deep-seated gender prejudice that lies at the heart of the international sporting industry. For the longest time, men officiated and managed women's sports; over time, women were grudgingly permitted to officiate only in women's matches. It is only towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century that women started playing a role in men’s matches.
Cricket, in fact, has been a latecomer to the equality party. The tennis establishment, which prides itself on its gender equality, paying men and women the same prize money and according equal TV time to matches by both genders, was among the earliest mainstream sports to break the gender barrier. In 2015, Eva Esderaki-Moore was the first woman chair umpire for a men’s Grand Slam Final, the US Open. Football, a sport that remains mired in the antediluvian attitudes of the previous century, was unexpectedly among the earliest to raise the gender barriers. In 2017, Bibiana Steinhaus, a policewoman by profession, became the first woman to referee in a top European football league men's match, a Bundesliga match between Werder Bremen versus Hertha Berlin (to mark the occasion, Hertha Berlin offered its female fans tickets at half-price). But well before that, there were many women who served (and still do) as assistant referees in men's games. Back in 2011, two established football commentators were relieved of their jobs after they were heard suggesting that Sian Massey-Ellis, an assistant referee in the English Premier League, didn’t understand the offside rule because the person concerned was a woman. In 2017, Tunisia appointed an all-women referee team to officiate in a professional men’s match. In retrospect, this is not so surprising; the North African nation is a regional outlier in terms of gender equality. In 2018, the Tunisian cabinet approved a law recognising gender equality in inheritance, a first for an Arab nation. In the US, home to the global feminist movement, a woman officiated at a National Football League (that is, American Football) only in January this year.
The paucity of women in sporting establishments — the number of women team owners or heads of sporting institutions are a noticeable minority — points to an ingrained chauvinism. That is primarily because sport is traditionally believed to be an activity that demands physical toughness and endurance, attributes assigned to males. Today, two trends are converging to change those attitudes. First, now that women have summited Mount Everest and travelled to the North Pole and spent months in space, the question of feminine weakness has been exposed as a myth. In games such as football that require referees to keep up with fast-moving players, no woman has been accused yet of lack of fitness. In tennis Grand Slams, women are regularly criticised for being paid the same prize money for playing three setters to the men's five sets. The Women’s Tennis Association indicated its willingness for women to play five sets in 2013. It is tournament administrators who say doing so would be too time-consuming. Second, as the burgeoning profession of sports psychology illustrates, mental resilience counts for much more than just physical strength. It would take a brave man to say women lag in this department. Ms Lakshmi will be the standard bearer for Indian women on this score.