As the first ever female official in the Premier League, Sian Massey-Ellis has shone a light on the discrimination faced by women in this often overlooked aspect of the game.

Working as an assistant referee in the top flight for over ten years, the 35-year-old has risen through the ranks to make her mark on elite men’s football.

Speaking at the Breaking Barriers series set up by Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), Massey-Ellis reflected on her first game in the Premier League. She said: “I was incredibly nervous, I just wanted to do well to show girls could achieve in the Premier League. I felt like I’d worked really hard to get that opportunity and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”


She added: “Afterwards I thought, if I had a bad game would people think that was just because I’m a girl?”

The Coventry-based referee, who has also officiated in the FIFA Women’s World Cup and men’s Europa League, admits that she was always the first to criticise the referee when growing up. However, surprisingly this isn’t what bothers her on the sidelines today. In fact, she views frantic, furious fans quite fondly, as their reactions embody a passion and love of the game that she shares.

However, this criticism quickly becomes unacceptable when it shifts to sexist abuse. Massey-Ellis said: “A comment like ‘you were so far out of position’ I can take, but it’s not okay to be personal. Coming through as a youth, I learned a way to deal with [sexist] comments, it developed me as a person.”

Jawahir Roble, a graduate of UCFB’s BA (Hons) Football Coaching & Management programme, shares in Massey-Ellis’ experiences of discrimination on the pitch. She said on the webinar: “If people do cross the line and say things like ‘you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be in this game’, then I try to educate them. I tell them ‘just because I made this one mistake, you’re going to generalise it?”

She added: “You can’t say ‘girls can’t referee’ because I’m having a bad game today.”

As the UK’s first female Muslim referee, Roble, known as JJ, says she receives regular glances for wearing the hijab while officiating. She explained: “In terms of girls from ethnic minorities involved in refereeing and football in general, work has to be done by getting role models, people that look like them, in the game. And putting out campaigns to encourage them, catering to their needs; some girls don’t like to be seen by boys, they like to have their own safe space.”

One of the main reasons JJ didn’t pursue a career in football was due to a ban on women playing with hijabs, which has since been lifted, but the turn to refereeing is, she says, the best decision she’s ever made.

The Somalia-born referee’s ultimate goal is to officiate in the Premier League. This is, Massey-Ellis believes, a growing possibility for young women around the world. She said: “I think it shows that it’s achievable for anybody – race, religion, different cultures or background. It is now becoming more of a reality and hopefully the more of us there are the more it becomes the norm.”

Click here to visit our dedicated page for International Women's Day and find out how our students and staff are breaking barriers in sport.