In a historic first, Australia will see a female referee officiate a top-tier national rugby league game.
Belinda Sharpe will make history during the match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday evening. Sharpe says she hopes her appointment will inspire other women to strive to become referees.
"There are so many female referees across the country, particularly at grassroots," Sharpe told the ABC. "Hopefully they can see they can have a full-time career, knowing that the opportunity is there. I hope that it inspires others."
Since 2014, Sharpe has worked as a National Rugby League (NRL) touch judge — a role that sees officials monitor the try-zone. Alongside working as a touch judge at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, Sharpe has also refereed the women’s State of Origin.
Throughout her rugby career, Sharpe is certain she has never been treated differently because of her gender.
"I've been on the same pathway as every other official to get to this point," she said. "I've worked just as hard as everybody else. I’ve never been treated any differently on the field, and I’ve certainly never been treated differently by my colleagues and the other referees, and that’s the way I like it.”
Head of football at the NRL, Graham Annesley, said Sharpe’s appointment was based purely on merit.
"She had to earn her stripes and wouldn't be here unless we thought she deserved the opportunity over all her colleagues," he stated, before explaining that her appointment for a second match this season would depend on her performance Thursday.
"She will be assessed like any other official over the weekend,” he added.
The past few years have seen significant strides made for women in Australian sport.
In 2017, the Women’s Australian Football League debuted. A year later, the NRL’s Women's League was established.
Despite the historic establishments, both leagues have been met with misogynist comments. Research has also revealed Australian sport has a gender pay gap of 27%. The gender pay gap broadly throughout Australia is 14.1%.
In response to the gender issues in Australian sport, the CEOs of the nation’s top sporting federations — including the NRL and Football Federation — signed up to the Male Champions of Change Pathway to Pay Equality report. The report strives to ensure top female athletes receive equal prize money, exposure, and opportunity as their male equivalents.
For Sparke, she ultimately hopes each small step toward a gender equal society sees more girls achieve their dreams.
"It's important to follow your dreams," she told Nine News. "If you want to be involved in any sport as an official or as a player, it's important to work hard and not lose sight of what your dream is."