How to Recruit and Retain more Female Officials

A Q&A with Sonia Denoncourt

Sonia Denoncourt is a former FIFA level referee, achieving some incredible accomplishments including 3 FIFA Women’s World Cups and 2 Olympic Games. She now works with a range of referees and leagues to focus on education and development. You can follow her updates on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.


Are there any different communication methods leagues and associations should use for female and male referees need to be managed when starting out?

Yes and no. When working with FIFA, we would spend time in a lot of different countries with vastly different cultural standards for the way men and women are communicated to. Generally, the most important thing to remember is to provide ample support and communication, particularly with young referees. When they begin officiating, women are generally more intimidated. The new era is calling for internet platforms and online education as a great tool to communicate.

What are some of the better strategies that you’ve seen to promote officiating to women?

Women’s only refereeing groups have been very helpful. But some of the easiest implementations can often work the best. Little things like providing uniforms specifically made for women or equal pay, these are things that every league can immediately implement and would certainly make a difference. Referees in regional areas face other challenges like getting regular games and having access to education and mentors. Utilising online platforms and education can make a big difference to stay informed and keep uniformity of applying the Laws of the Game around the Globe.

Football is football and the same for everyone. However, we know the needs of different groups can vary significantly so customizing the education and mentorship has a greater impact and provide a better retention rate for women and young referees.

How important is mentoring for young referees?

Very important. Within 2 years, around 80% of referees have quit from the time they started. Why? A lack of mentorship and support. They don’t have any system or software to check their games and lodge their performance. There is also an abundance of abuse, and its worse than we think. A mentorship program at the beginning of an officials career gives them the tools to become more competent and reach 2 years which drastically improves their chances of officiating long-term.

There are different ways to mentor officials; from watching their games, offering support, giving constructive feedback, dispensing proper teaching, moral and mental preparation and support, fitness advice and following up their progression in achieving their personal goals. Mentoring is giving the official the tools they need with a very personal & individual approach.

Have you worked with any leagues that have implemented mentoring programs?

At FIFA, we embarked on the Referee Assistance Program (RAP), whereby we would visit different countries and effectively educate the teachers and assessors. A lot of countries don’t even have a referee department, so if you can build a pyramid of knowledge with a few key people within a football association it can make a huge difference for the development of referees. Similarly, if you have inexperienced teachers who aren’t correctly enforcing the laws of the game it makes it very difficult to create a culture of excellence. Locally, I am involved in another mentorship program which had great success this year.

You’ve achieved some incredible success as a referee at the FIFA International Level, were there any extra barriers and challenges existed for you to excel as a female referee?

I am very grateful for the career that I had. In 1994, I was one of only 4 referees on the FIFA list. Being women, we were tested more aggressively and always needed to outperform the standards because there was a low level of trust that we could competently officiate games. Now it’s getting much easier, and having more women’s international games and tournaments helps a lot. I still believe gender discrimination exists, I don’t agree that only men should officiate men and only women should officiate women. When a man would accomplish similar officiating achievements as me, he would be given a range of rewards like a new car, watch and laptop whereas I would barely get a thank-you letter.

Standards are still far apart, financial rewards for the same job done are drastically disproportionate between men and women. The FIFA women referee program was first implemented in 2005 when I joined FIFA. I then started from scratch and build up a system to match the needs of the modern game and provide the international women referees a much structure environment which is continuing today. From only 4 women international referees in 1994, there are about 1000 today worldwide. The standards have improved a lot and more opportunities are given.

What can sports associations do right now to start ensuring they recruit and retain more female referees and umpires?

Ensure that all policies and procedures are governed by fairness. Females are more adversely affected and unfortunately gender issues are prominent in many soccer associations. The way women are treated by teams and organisations makes things much more difficult for referees. We need to continue to recruit officials at a young age and provide support. I believe the most successful programs are based on performance and fairness.

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