The second of three webinars hosted by Football Australia for Female Football Week was undertaken last night, this time celebrating the careers of four female referees and hearing about how they forged their careers.
Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb, Kate Jacewicz, Lara Lee and Maddy Allum had the opportunity to share their journey in football and the story of their careers so far.
German referee Steinhaus-Webb is best known for being the first female referee to take centre stage in German men’s professional football. Her refereeing journey began as a teenager, at 16 years old.
“I had been with my friends playing football, visited a club and knew very quickly that playing football might not be my strongest point!” she joked.
“My Dad is a referee and supported me in picking up a referee course and made my way through the rings with positivity around me, but also with a lot of disappointment and low points.”
She credits the community of referees around her for helping to lift her up as she strove to referee in the Bundesliga for the first time.
“I spent a really long time in the men’s pathway, in the second Bundesliga back in Germany and knocked for 10 years on the door, wanting to become a Bundesliga referee,” she explained.
“My goal in life was really, 3.30 Saturday afternoon. This is when I want to kick off – 3.30 Saturday – because that’s the classic Bundesliga kick-off time, but you can’t reach that goal on your own.
“You have to have a strong team around you, but you share all your knowledge, all your experience, and put everything into one basket to make sure that you get the best out of it as a team.
“I’m praising the teamwork because I truly believe you will never remember good referees when the assistant referee raised the offside flag for the one deciding important goal.”
Since 2020, she has hung the boots up on the field, taking up a role being in charge of the refereeing program in the English professional game.
“What I don’t want, is anybody waiting for 10 years to have a chance to perform in the highest competition, and that’s my goal now,” she said.
“It’s time to crush some more glass ceilings. And I’m looking for support, so give me a shout.”
Victorian Kate Jacewicz is someone that has broken one of those glass ceilings herself, becoming the first woman to referee in the A-League Men’s competition in the 2019/20 season. Other career highlights include officiating the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and being one of four Australians chosen to do the same in 2023.
“I started playing football because my two friends who were boys played football, and I believed that I could do anything that they could do and better. I think I’m the only one that’s still involved in football in that little story as well!” she joked.
One day, when her brother’s Miniroos referee didn’t show up, she decided to take the whistle and officiate the game. She loved it, although her 13-year-old self could have never dreamed how far refereeing would take her.
Fifteen years on the national panel, the international FIFA list for 13 years, youth and senior Women’s World Cups, Asian Cups, Olympics – she’s experienced it all.
“I’m so privileged to have travelled the world through football and have had the opportunity to meet so many diverse and amazing people and form lasting connections,” she said.
“Refereeing taught me that mistakes and failure are lessons that make you better, and are a pathway to success. I’m a better communicator, I’m a better listener. It has taught me to show compassion and acceptance and understanding when we are so lucky to have what we have in Australia.”
“Football and refereeing has taught me so much about myself in life and just being on the football field with the world’s best players is just a bonus really.”
For Lara Lee, it was her rebellious streak that first introduced her to football.
“All of the boys were playing soccer in the back part of the primary school and all I wanted to do was play,” she recounted.
“Traditionally the females in our family did ballet, so I had to do ballet. I was not allowed to play soccer, but I loved it. My brothers, played soccer, they enjoyed it! I wanted to be on that love for football as well, so I used to sneak down and play soccer from grade one with the boys.”
Not letting multiple blood noses deter her, she eventually convinced her parents to let her play in clubland from u12s. That’s where she had a fateful meeting with someone who would be influential in her decision to take up refereeing.
“So I played for a local club and I met a goalkeeper. Her name is [current FIFA referee] Rebecca Durcau,” she said with a smile.
“I ended up changing clubs, she went on to referee and I was about, I think 17 or 18 [years old], and Beck started to referee my matches. She would say ‘Laura, come join, be a referee’ and I kept saying ‘no, I don’t want to be a referee!'”
Durcau’s badgering finally got to Lee once she started studying teaching. She decided to get a referee licence in order to increase her employability to be part of the football program at Marsden State High School, where she is now a coach.
That same year, an ACL injury led her into having to make a choice – playing, or refereeing. She chose refereeing, and the rest is history.
23-year-old assistant referee Maddy Allum was the final panellist to share her story. An assistant for the A-League Women’s grand final this season, she began with the Canterbury Referees Association in New South Wales.
“It was a dream come true to get to a grand final,” she said.
“At 23 years old, it is a strange feeling just to accomplish something that you’ve worked years to achieve. But I guess I kind of see my journey as far from complete. Yeah – it’s only just the beginning for me.”
Allum started at only 15 years of age, and fell in love with refereeing from the start. She credits the NSW Referees Academy as being instrumental to her growth as an assistant referee.
“It was the sort of place where I learned the value of being prepared, coachable, and just dedicated to get where I wanted to be,” she explained.
“I think with hard work over those years, the opportunities started to come for me with the National Youth League and then eventually the A-League Women’s Panel.”
“Through this journey I’ve grown up a lot with football and as a person,” she continued.
“I’ve created long-lasting friendships and just appreciated that training and hard work it gives back to me as a person just as much as it does on the field.”
Steinhaus-Webb shared a motivational quote that helps inspire her as a referee. It was – “choose your jersey a size bigger and grow into it!”
For her, the quote was about being able to leave your comfort zone to grow as a person, and be unafraid of failure.
“I know that we as referees get pretty instant feedback from people around us and there is well, 50% like what you do, 50% don’t like what you do. So that is something that always comes with it,” she explained.
“So you build certain resilience and you understand that your feedback is maybe not measured by instant feedback from players on the field of play, maybe there are other people you listen to more closely.
“Is it really social media that you rely on, or is it your friends, your family, your coaches, your mentors that actually help you to grow? Having those goals and dreaming big is my version of like, of taking the jersey a size bigger.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Enjoy the challenge.”
The first question in the panel discussion was around what the panellist would do differently if they were starting out in their career today, providing clear insights for the young referees on the call.
“My piece of advice for those either starting out or refereeing from a younger age is consistency is key,” Jacewicz answered.
“And what I mean by that is that just going out and smashing yourself for a week and then you don’t do anything for the next 4 weeks or, you know, smashing yourself for a month, and then again, you just crash and burn.
“Consistency is over a long period of time and turning up every day for every session, even when you don’t feel like it. It’s turning up to that game, even though you don’t feel like it, and taking and finding something in reflecting on the match, even though it’s this utter carnage of a match or you don’t feel like you got anything out of it or you just feel garbage afterwards, there’s always something to find and something to gain.
“It took me, I want to say 25 years to learn that! I’ve learned it in the last 20 weeks. So again, we all have lessons to learn, no matter how late in your career.”
Steinhaus-Webb was asked about what she would change for youngsters starting out today, and what inspiration she would give them.
“It’s so rewarding being part of this referee family and I see my goal now these days to build the structure and give the opportunities to female officials to strive for their goals,” she answered.
“Do we have the training, the coaching, the support structure around female officials to help them to build on their momentum? Do we actually have teams in that area to officiate and can we also dip into the men’s game and the other way around? Be inclusive. Be diverse.”
Lara Lee made the point that while there had been progress for female referees and in the women’s game, that process wasn’t even in all areas and all parts of the world.
“We never thought we would see six women go to the Men’s World Cup, so that’s evolution right there,” she said.
“I think it’s about opening and opportunity and access – that’s the key. We are very lucky in Australia. We have opportunity and access with Football Australia.
“I’ve just come back from Cambodia from SEA games and other women throughout the world do not have the access that we have, so we have to be fortunate, but we then also have to help break the barrier for them so that it creates a norm and a habit.”
Maddy Allum was asked to give tips and advice to help prepare for a big match, particularly in light of her recent appearance at the A-League Women’s Grand Final.
“Over the years, I’ve recognised that we are capable of so much more than we realise,” she answered.
“It’s not so much about putting too much pressure on ourselves when we have these appointments come our way, because we’ve done all of the hard work throughout the season to prepare for those moments.”
For Allum, it is about trusting in your preparation and filling yourself with belief.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the women who broke down doors I literally get to walk through, so I think it’s just such an exciting time in women’s football,” she said.
Of course, one of those women was Steinhaus-Webb. In doing so, it wasn’t always easy. She explained that she found refereeing to be a school of life – and that the lessons that refereeing taught could apply to all areas.
“One of the biggest setbacks probably for me was not being promoted to the Bundesliga continuously, year after year,” she explained.
“Picking yourself up from it is tough and it becomes tougher when you try to fulfill every task that is given to you.”
She emphasised the importance of leaning on her colleagues.
“When we fell short, so not being promoted, not being nominated and you start over the whole process again for another season and then for another season, you think am I really good enough? Is there something that’s holding me back?” she continued.
“That’s really, really tough and that’s where you need your family and your refereeing friends most to give it another go. Go back out there.”
She also said it was important to keep perspective.
“We are talking about a game, a game of 90 minutes, a game of football, which is important, but it’s not the end of the world, okay!” she said.
For Jacewicz, her refereeing mentors have been a huge influence on her career as well, helping her when she has felt down and providing trusted sources of feedback and information.
“Don’t be afraid to trust those that are going through the same journey as you, because there are some of the most powerful connections you’ll make,” she said.
Lara Lee echoed those thoughts.
“It’s about who you need to talk to at the time to help just debrief,” she said.
“Family are great. My Mum is my biggest supporter, but you know, no matter what decision I make, right or wrong, I’m right in her eyes!
“So she’s great when I need a little bit of an ego boost but when it comes to actually – let’s look at the process, I probably need to have a look at the people who can tell me straight.”
Allum concluded that loving what you do, and having that belief, are the most important things.
“It really comes from a place of just loving what you do and also being passionate about your role and purpose in the game as well,” she said.
“Just believing in yourself.”
This webinar focusing on referees was the second in a series of three being hosted by Football Australia for Female Football Week.