To celebrate International Women’s Day and its 2021 theme Choose to Challenge we chat to Joanna Charaktis, an assistant referee in the Westfield W-League, and star player Emma Checker who plays for Melbourne City FC and the Westfield Matildas. Gallagher is a proud sponsor of the Australian A-League and Westfield W-League, and the official referee partner and insurance broker for the competitions.
Earlier this year it was announced that Charaktis has been identified as one of the 156 match officials in contention to officiate at the FIFA World Cup 2023 which will be held in Australia and New Zealand.
She started refereeing as a 15 year old when she was playing junior football (at Glen Waverley Soccer Club and Whitehorse United), encouraged by her father Jim who had become a referee and saw there weren't many females in this role at the time.
She says she came to a point when she needed to choose whether to continue as a player or a referee, "and I was a better ref". Her decision also meant pushing into a traditionally male dominated space.
“It’s really important to continue challenging the expectation that some sports are only played by men or played better by men,” Charaktis says. “It’s super important to push those boundaries.”
From a football perspective we have come a long way in 10 years, she says, citing the increased numbers of players in women’s football and referees as well.
“Things have changed significantly in women’s football in Australia. The more traction we get the better it is. As a community and society we’re getting better at supporting women in the game, whatever the game may be.
“Based on the changes I’ve seen in my 10 years in women’s sport I have no doubt that it will continue. There’s no way that we’re going backwards in gender equality in sport. We’re only going to get better.”
Joanna Charaktis in action as an assistant referee in the Westfield W-League (Photo by Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Charaktis agrees with the idea that ‘you have to see it to be it’. “I think that we are all invigorated by seeing women and girls pushing the boundaries, and it has a flow-on effect from there to create a broader support system so girls can find mentors and then become mentors themselves. It’s so important that they can see the possibilities. We need to build on that support for each other and that’s why we need role models.”
She says she feels the bar is set high for women, particularly from the fitness perspective: “It’s harder to hit those marks. Expectation is low but the bar is always set high for women’s performance”.
Refereeing has helped her move confidently through other areas of her life, including in her career as a business analyst. “As refs we train twice a week, with our male colleagues, as one team. For us female refs it has made us confident to work well together with men and you can take that into every other area in your life, like the workplace. It has made us confident to speak up and to challenge things. I learn of lot of leadership and communications skills from having reffed both women’s and men’s football.”
Role models show the way for women and girls
These qualities are evident on the field, as Melbourne City defender Emma Checker can attest. The two women shared a trip in 2019 to the South Pacific with Football Australia when both had the opportunity to observe each other’s form.
Checker says she admires Charaktis’s strength of character, “the way she holds herself. When I got to know her better I admired her even more, she’s very genuine and she loves what she does. Those characteristics are what I love about her as a person”.
She says she found it beneficial to get to know Charaktis on a personal level because it gave her insight into the referee’s function: “I have greater appreciation of their role in our game and I gained a lot more respect for the position. Jo staying with the sport shows there are pathways [to choose], even if it’s not as a player. I hope more women can fulfil that role.”
Charaktis says Checker is a good role model too. “As a player on the field she’s always very respectful, she keeps her cool and is quite calm and collected, and she’s a great team player. I think she has a presence as a female in sport that comes from a being focused mature player.
“Her super power is her strength which gives her fitness and endurance on the field. And she works really hard. She’s dedicated and committed, and not afraid of a challenge. She presents a really good role model. These qualities are recognised in other sports as well, they’re part of being good role models for women in sport.”
Like Charaktis, Checker also believes that participation in sport brings women a higher level of self-esteem. “A big part of equality is for women to back themselves as being equal.”
Commenting on the International Women’s Day 2021 theme Choose to Challenge, she says, “It encourages me to continue to challenge what is broadly the norm. Sometimes it can be a hard fight… but there are so many things we need to challenge if we don’t want to remain where we are.”
Charaktis agrees: “It’s a good initiative to really start calling out inequalities, not just in sport but everywhere, any area that’s male dominated. It’s good to see when men get involved too. It’s important that men stand up and speak up in support of women’s challenges. We need them on our side to drive change.”