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Chelsea

Chelsea Roffey

Year of Award: 2014 Award State: Victoria Community > Social Change
Community > Gender Equality
To explore strategies for influencing social change that enables and encourages girls to be the authors of their own lives - USA, Canada, Sweden, UK, India
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As a woman, and a Queenslander, I was never expected to reach the pinnacle of officiating in Australia’s premier elite football code.

A fortunate childhood blessed with opportunity, encouragement and support instilled the confidence in me as a 17-­‐year-­‐old footy fanatic, to give umpiring a go. In many ways, the challenge of confronting a traditionally male environment acted as a source of motivation.

Despite the odd challenge presented by my gender, local football was mostly accepting of having females among the ranks of its officials. Being elevated into the macho world of AFL football five years later would expose me to broader public and media opinion that put a decidedly different slant on my role within football, and the community-­‐at-­‐large. The stakes were higher, the scrutiny far greater, and gender – not decision-­‐making – in many respects became the central focus of my role.

Naivety was an asset early on, and evident in the interviews I did months before even stepping onto an AFL field. I was all too aware of the pressures to perform competently, but equally, I felt intense gratitude for being given the opportunity. That sense of “privilege” fed the fear of tokenism, and raised the stakes even higher. During moments of doubt I reasoned that my employer couldn’t afford to take a chance on someone incapable of doing the job.

Time trials, push-­‐up tests, skinfold requirements, uniforms – all measured against male standards – served as reminders of my uniqueness and fuelled a deep motivation to prove I’d earned my spot. I wrestled with self-­‐doubt and insecurity about my ability, acutely aware that any slip-­‐ups – and successes – would inevitably fuel the gender debate.

Uniqueness has its advantages; despite being in the traditionally maligned role of “white maggot”, my story has been widely embraced – from the media to fathers of footy-­‐playing daughters to Aboriginal women in Alice Springs cheering for  me over the fence to, perhaps most tellingly, the Collingwood cheer squad.

In 2012 my appointment as the first woman to officiate in an AFL Grand Final prompted a history-­‐making visit from the Prime Minister of Australia to the umpires’ rooms before the game; I was honoured, but the underlying unease remained. It was a penny-­‐dropping moment accepting that gender, not ability, would always be the overriding factor of my experience.

What would the world look like if stories like mine weren’t considered so extraordinary? Where gender did not dictate the ability for children to define success for themselves … where they could knock on the door of opportunity and, beyond having it left slightly ajar, that door was flung open and genuinely embracing of skills and talents developed through a different world view?

If gender was not seen as a barrier to be overcome, serving to constantly reinforce a sense of privilege for those lucky enough to take that glimmer of a possibility and turn it into a reality? If it was simply a matter of: “That’s how it should  be”.

In recent times, the AFL has increasingly shifted its focus to encompass broader diversity measures including gender equality. Observing this process of organisational change, along with my experience as the sole female on-­‐field official over a decade, has naturally affected the lens through which I view the world.

Part of my aim when undertaking this Churchill Fellowship was to investigate my belief that while many Australians appear to support the notion of equality, the pace of progress is being hampered beneath the surface, on a cultural level. The fellowship gave me an opportunity to reflect on that culture within a global context. It also offered the chance to observe the experiences of girls and women within a variety of cultures, giving insight into the sorts of approaches that could work in Australia.

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