Bibiana Steinhaus’ rise must properly address gender inequality in the beautiful game


The 2017-18 Bundesliga season brings various rule changes, including the use of video assistant referees, new kick-off times and shirt sleeve advertising. However, the change that seems to be stealing the headlines is the debut of the Bundesliga’s first ever female referee, Bibiana Steinhaus.

History was made in Germany’s top-flight on Sunday 10th September when the 38-year old oversaw the 1-1 draw between Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen, but players and commentators should now move on. Instead, Steinhaus is still being placed under particular scrutiny, which, if it persists, will impede progress towards greater gender equality in the sport.

In May, Steinhaus was named as one of four new officials to take charge of matches in the 2017-18 Bundesliga season. The 38-year old policewoman has been refereeing matches in Germany’s second tier since the 2007-08 season and was also appointed to referee the 2017 UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain.

Whilst we cannot ignore the significance of her achievement, we must put Steinhaus’ gender to one side from now on if we want to make real progress when it comes to equality in football.

Her debut in Germany’s top flight is, without a doubt, a landmark achievement for women in football and will pave the way for more female top-flight referees in the future. However, it is her gender that has constantly been drawn to the forefront of the media’s attention. Whilst we cannot ignore the significance of her achievement, we must put Steinhaus’ gender to one side from now on if we want to make real progress when it comes to equality in football.

In an interview with the German Football Association (DFB) after her appointment to the Bundesliga, Steinhaus said: “My aim is to make female referees a normal part of professional football and show simply that they belong in the game”.

For this to happen, we should be respecting her and assessing her performances the same way we would her male counterparts. We should not give any undue praise, nor criticism to Steinhaus because of her gender. She is a professional just doing her job and should be treated as equal in all respects.

Unfortunately, we are reminded that there is still a long way to go before we can achieve such equality in football. Steinhaus has already experienced sexist remarks on the football pitch in the run-up to her appointment as a Bundesliga referee. In 2015, then Fortuna Düsseldorf midfielder Kerem Demirbay received a five-game suspension for saying “Women don’t belong in the men’s game” to Steinhaus after she showed him a second yellow card.

On Saturday 12th August 2017, Franck Ribéry played a prank on the Steinhaus when she took charge of Bayern Munich’s DFB Cup first round win over Chemnitzer FC. She awarded Bayern a free-kick in the 78th minute, but whilst she was preparing to mark out the distance to the wall, Ribéry untied the lace of her right boot. Although not an obvious act of sexism, would he have dared to play this prank on a male referee?

Whether receiving criticism or praise from football players or fans alike, there is clearly an inordinate focus on Bibiana Steinhaus’ gender. Whilst we should not undermine her breakthrough achievement as the Bundesliga’s first ever female referee, it is important not to place her gender in the foreground of our assessment of her performances and the way we treat her.

Lorraine Watson, who recently became the first woman to referee a senior men’s game in Scottish second-tier football, said: “The more it happens, the more normal it will become.”

With Steinhaus’ appointment to the Bundesliga, a glass ceiling has been shattered, rather than broken. If she continues to make headlines because of her gender, this indicates we are inadvertently reinforcing gender norms where they should be eroded.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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