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Taking Up the Whistle: the Landscape for Women Referees in the U.S.

By Amanda Cox

If you are a woman and you decide to be a referee, understand that you will be a minority. A mere 15% of USA Rugby referees are women. Throughout my career, I’ve frequently been the only female referee at an event. Be prepared for players to say they have “never seen a woman referee”. You will hear spectators comment “I didn’t know women could officiate”. If you’re fine with being the unicorn, here is what you can expect from your new referee peer group:

  • While there are 34 local referee unions across the country, 33 are run by men. The only female run referee organization in the United States is Minnesota, (“Dontcha know?”)

  • Your Referee Development Officer is probably going to be a man. There are only two LROs in the country with women in this position: New York and Northern California.

  • Your referee coach will probably be a man. Only 8% of referee coaches are women and the Referee and Laws Committee has a paltry 7% membership base of women.

The referee societies themselves have less than 15% women as registered members. My personal hypothesis (not proven) is that there are numbers of WPL players who have their referee certification but aren’t active in the referee society. These women are artificially inflating the referee numbers.  When I looked at membership in the referee societies, many of them are tracking much lower than the 15% number reported nationally, although there are a few bright spots like Minnesota which has 22% female membership.

Your career and ascension to higher levels may well depend on Performance Reviewers, yet only 5% of certified Performance Reviewers are women and all of the National Level Performance Reviewers are men. The USA Rugby Referee Manager, Sevens Pathway Manager and High Performance Manager are all men. The USARR Allocations officer is a man, as are most of the Allocations Officers in the US (I know of only two LROs with women in allocations, but that data is not tracked). A small bit of good news is that 20% of the Selection Committee are women.  The USARR National Panel is tracking right at 15% women, with 2 out of the 14 members. While it seems modest, it’s representative of the referee population and in the current climate that 15% serves as a small bright spot.

Why Gender Matters

As a woman referee and administrator, I often feel isolated. I hear the same sentiment from other women referees. I am consistently asked to come to events to represent the experiences and perspective of ‘women.’ It’s exhausting, but frankly there just aren’t enough of us to go around, and so I go. What I didn’t realize is how truly isolated the experience is/has been for me, and this chronic dearth of women at the administrative level isn’t helping us advocate for inclusion or changing the current culture. Change will come when we significantly increase the number of female referees and administrators but that will require clear pathways, thoughtful mentoring, equitable opportunities and a community of women who can support one another through the rocky terrain of refereeing.


Amanda is an Analytical Chemist living in North Carolina. She played rugby for over 18 years and is a founding member of Raleigh Venom (4 time National Champions). She's one of the most senior female referees including, CMO2, USARR Development Administrator, SERRS Assistant Referee Development Officer, and Executive Director, Referees, Carolinas Geographic Union.

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