Huge potential exists for games to grow but an increase in females at top table is essential
It might be stating the bleedin’ obvious to say that women’s sport can sometimes be hampered by men’s sport being viewed as the definitive template to always follow.
Low marks for originality on that opening line, but it might be worth consideration again on International Women’s Day. Because in the fight for equity and equality, what can get lost is the right to design what’s right for women – as opposed to what’s right for women automatically following what’s right for men.
Take the scheduling of the Women’s Six Nations as an example. Moving this competition out of the same traditional February-March time slot as the men’s and U-20 competitions, and into a late March-April window, was one of the best decisions for the women’s tournament.
Ireland’s first game in last year’s Women’s Six Nations at the RDS had a record attendance of 6,113 for a standalone women’s rugby international in Ireland, not to mention the record-breaking 15,836 for England-Ireland at Welford Road.
Imagine if the women’s competition still ran concurrently with the men’s? The women’s team would be in a dogfight for attention and space with the Irish men’s and U-20s who’re currently going for Grand Slams.
So how did this smart move away from the traditional Six Nations schedule come about?
While it’s thought the proposal was being considered pre-March 2020, it was accelerated by the pandemic. How long would the idea of a standalone Women’s Six Nations window have been dithered over if it wasn’t moved by circumstance in 2021?
The easy thing to do, particularly in the area of team sport, is to copy and paste whatever it is the men are doing.
The perception might be that any deviation from how it’s done in men’s sport might somehow make women’s sport appear less. But maybe this is where a bias comes into play where men’s sport is automatically viewed as the ultimate reference point and we should never move away from that.
But there has to be scope for a different way of thinking too.
Three years ago, rugby referee JP Doyle told the BBC that a smaller rugby ball would be easier for women to play with instead of using the same size-five ball that men use.
“Even in golf, the women’s drivers are different to the men’s. Rugby is one of the few sports where the women’s game is played exactly the same. It’s not about playing with a size five or four, but why don’t they design their own ball in the women’s game,” Doyle said.
Last week, it was announced that a first women’s Lions tour is looking increasingly likely after “positive initial findings” from a feasibility study. That’s a positive, for sure.
But as Fiona Tomas from The Daily Telegraph pointed out, “the women’s game is nowhere ready for one” because a more competitive Six Nations is needed first.
The lopsided nature of it means if a women’s Lions team were picked tomorrow it would largely feature England players. Is this the best approach for women’s rugby in the medium-term future? Is there another way of doing this?
It’s sometimes hard to escape the sense there is a performative element around big announcements about women’s sport without the necessary scaffolding there to support it.
A number of Ireland’s top female rugby players turned down IRFU contracts last year and decided to continue playing club rugby in England.
There were headlines like “FAI to introduce professional contracts for players in the Women’s National League” last November when it was really down to individual clubs to decide if they were in a position to offer semi-pro deals.
There are other aspects that are so bleedin’ obvious and sometimes it’s because the template isn’t there in men’s sport which means it’s a delayed consideration for women’s sport.
The increase in women’s teams moving from white shorts to dark shorts to alleviate players’ concerns when they have their periods has common sense written all over it.
The England women’s football team led the way with their openness on this last summer.
The IRFU announced in January that the national women’s teams will switch to navy shorts from next season while the Kerry women’s Gaelic football team are the latest LGFA team to also change to darker shorts.
Wearing dark shorts might seem like a small factor in the big picture, but it’s another example of how sport historically took on what was done for men with no consideration for what was right and comfortable for women.
I don’t need to add that the historic lack of women in decision-making roles meant a lack of female points of view.
Amid a worldwide gender health inequality, we know there is a comparative dearth of women-specific research in areas like the physiological effects of the menstrual cycle and return to play post-partum for elite sportswomen.
It’s 2023, yet words like “ground-breaking” were still used last month to describe the RFU’s announcement of a new maternity policy for pro female rugby players which includes 26 weeks of leave on full pay.
There is something almost uncomfortable in giving kudos to the RFU for improving their policy. Women’s professional rugby might be relatively new, but maternity benefits and protection of contracts in the workplace are not.
Women’s sport is at a stage of huge potential and growth. For so long, sport was designed by men, for men, of men. We need to see more of it being designed by women, for women, of women.