Are There Any Female Referees in the Premier League?

Rebecca Welch
Rebecca Welch (El Loko Foto /

The introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) was supposed to stop the debates about controversial refereeing decisions in the Premier League. As anybody who follows football knows, it’s been quite the opposite.

Football’s governing bodies have tinkered with the rules and the guidelines for implementing them to try and fix the teething problems. One of the main guiding principles that the powers that be are trying to return to is that decisions should be made by the referees and/or their assistants, with VAR only intervening when obvious errors have been made or something has been missed.

That is the way that referees would like it even if it heaps more pressure on their shoulders. But, what of the man, or woman, in the middle? The training, fitness and professionalism of referees has never been higher but is enough being done to improve the diversity of people who get into refereeing?

There has been a particular push to increase the number of female officials at all levels of football. Thus far, there has never been a female referee in the Premier League but that is far from the end of the story. In this article, we look at the history of female referees in England, what the FA is doing to increase the number of female officials and some of the most famous female referees in football.

Female Referees in English Football

Football has been a male dominated sport for such a long time that it’s no surprise it has traditionally been difficult for women to break through into officiating professionally. Things are getting better though, thanks in no small part to the following four women.

Wendy Toms

Wendy Toms is the original trailblazer when it comes to female officials. She was the first woman to be chosen as a fourth official in the Football League when given that role for a match between Bournemouth and Reading. Toms continued her training and gaining experience as an official while also working for Parcel Force before being selected on the list of Football League officials for the 1994-95 season.

Despite coming in for some criticism during her officiating career – most notably when Gordon Strachan said of her performance in Coventry City vs Leeds: “My message is don’t be politically correct and promote people just for the sake of it.” – Toms was a regular assistant referee in the Premier League.

Toms’ performances as an assistant saw her given the honour of running the line in the EFL Cup final of 2000. She then became a highly accomplished referee in the women’s game, refereeing big European matches and proving herself to be an excellent ref.

Sian Massey-Ellis

Sian Massey-Ellis
Ed Seymour /

When Sian Massey-Ellis began running the line in the Premier League she was happy to just be given the chance to do her job at the top level. There was a disappointing inevitability about some of the reaction to her promotion though with off-camera remarks from Richard Keys and Andy Gray becoming a major news story.

That was back in 2011 and while Keys and Gray both subsequently lost their jobs at Sky Sports, Massey-Ellis continues to officiate in the Premier League. While she has also acted as a referee in women’s football, including in some very big matches, Massey-Ellis has not refereed a professional men’s match. Aged 37 she has run the line during the 2017 women’s Euros and the 2018 Champions League final (women’s) to name just two big fixtures. In 2019, she fulfilled this role for the first time in a men’s European game, being assistant ref for the Europa League meeting between PSV and LASK.

Natalie Aspinall

Natalie Aspinall was announced as the third woman to be promoted to the ‘Select Group 1’ of referees as an assistant in June 2022. Aspinall was already a highly experienced and accomplished assistant referee but that promotion was official recognition of the standard of her officiating and meant that she would be able to run the line in the Premier League.

Aspinall’s journey to the Premier League began 25 years before she finally got her hard-earned promotion. From those days where local newspapers would write relatively condescending articles about her chosen career, Aspinall has reached the top of the domestic game.

Rebecca Welch

Rebecca Welch
El Loko Foto /

Making it into Select Group 1 is a long and difficult process. Before any official can be considered for promotion, they have to prove themselves in lower levels of football. That process is even more difficult for referees than assistants given the extra level of responsibility. So, while Rebecca Welch is not yet a Select Group 1 referee at the time of writing, the fact that she became the first woman to be appointed to referee a match in the Football League is well worth celebrating.

Before her first Football League match Welch already had a considerable body of work which she’d amassed in the Women’s Super League as well as plenty of non-league football. The FA were quickly aware of Welch’s competence as a referee and it was no surprise when she was appointed as the referee for the 2017 and 2020 Women’s FA Cup finals.

Welch’s moment of history came when she took charge of Harrogate Town vs Port Vale on 30 March, 2021. While Amy Fearn was actually the first women to referee a Football League match, she only took charge with 20 minutes left to play due to an injury to the original referee. By contrast, Welch was appointed to referee the game.

The Gameplan for Growth

The FA is aware that more needs to be done to attract and promote women into the difficult world of officiating. Their efforts in that regard are included in the Gameplan for Growth, which states an aim for “the FA to become a world leader in women’s refereeing”.

The Gameplan for Growth was published in March of 2017. At that time, there were around 1,220 female referees at all levels of English football. The work carried out by the FA and all involved helped to raise that number to 2,146, an increase of 72%. Achieving that goal was only possible due to a dual focus on both recruiting women and girls at the grassroots level and also improving the training and coaching of elite officials.

In order to maintain that sort of growth the FA have decided that they need to make role models of the women who have already reached an elite level of refereeing. To that end, they have championed the success of the four female referees on the FIFA list of match officials – Rebecca Welch, Abi Byrne, Stacey Pearson and Kirsty Dowle – as well as the five assistant referees – Sian Massey-Ellis, Helen Byrne, Natalie Aspinall, Lisa Rashid and Melissa Burgin.

A lot of investment has gone into giving female referees who fall under the FA umbrella the same sort of resources and tools as their male colleagues. Thus, the Professional Game Match Officials (PGMOL) have developed a special fitness programme to ensure female referees are fit enough to cope with the demands of the modern game. The PGMOL have also given female referees working in the Women’s Super League the same analysis tools and professional support that all Premier League and Football League referees can use.

For all the success that the FA has had, the total number of female referees and assistants is still small compared to men. There are around 28,000 officials in England so even with the increase in women involved, female referees only make up around 7.5% of the total number of referees in England.

Other Countries

In May 2022, FIFA announced that three female referees and three female assistants would be used at the Qatar World Cup. That is the first time that female officials have been used in the World Cup but it is by no means the first example of female referees taking control of men’s matches internationally.

Many countries have moved faster and further than Britain. Indeed, Switzerland had a female referee in charge of men’s football matches as early as 1999. With so many female referees, let’s have a look at some of the most famous.

Stéphanie Frappart

Stéphanie Frappart
Sven Mandel /

That Stéphanie Frappart was one of the three women selected by FIFA to officiate at the 2022 World Cup was no surprise. She has become used to breaking down barriers in football, having refereed men’s professional football since 2011.

Months before reaching the very pinnacle of refereeing in women’s football when she took charge of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final, Frappart was already a regular referee in Ligue 1. Just one month after the Women’s World Cup final, Frappart took charge of the UEFA Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea and the following year she became the first woman to referee a Champions League match. FIFA’s decision to call Frappart up to the World Cup came after she successfully navigated a trial, refereeing the World Cup qualifier between the Netherlands and Latvia.

Despite her relentless rise to the top of the game, Frappart has come in for criticism at times. She has been known to break her usual low profile and defend both her record and her ability as a ref.

Kateryna Monzul

Pierre-Yves Beaudouin /

Kateryna Monzul is a Ukrainian referee who has done extremely well to come through the ranks of her home country but it’s the historic role that she has played in English football for which she is perhaps best known.

In 2021, Monzul became the first woman to take charge of an England men’s match. She, and her all-female officiating team, were given the task of refereeing England’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra. The game was never going to be much of a contest but Monzul was kept busy, showing five yellow cards.

Monzul’s other famous interaction with English football came when she refereed the 2022 Women’s Euro final. While the nation was gripped by the drama of the Lioness’s extra-time win, Monzul kept her eye on every detail of the match despite the fact that she had been forced to flee her home just months earlier.

Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb

Dontworry /

The career of Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb shows some of the challenges that face female referees in a nutshell. Despite working her way up through the ranks of German football to become a regular fixture in the Bundesliga, Steinhaus-Webb had to deal with a whole lot of criticism, some of which was very public.

Pep Guardiola was one of those public critics. The then-Bayern Munich manager confronted Steinhaus-Webb when she was fourth official during a Bundesliga match. Then there was Kerem Demirbay, who made a sexist comment to her after being sent off.

The most bizarre moment came courtesy of the state broadcaster of Iran. They had a contract to broadcast Bundesliga matches but cancelled a planned match when they realised that it would feature a female referee. They also changed the feed of a match refereed by Steinhaus-Webb, cutting to crowd shots every time the cameras pointed at her.

Qatar is not Iran but hopefully the visibility of women referees at the 2022 World Cup will have a huge impact worldwide. That it is happening in the Middle East may make it even more powerful and hopefully we will soon be seeing our first ever Premier League game refereed by a woman.