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'Cycle of using the women's game as a stepping stone needs to be broken'

By Rachael Burford
Officials Sara Cox, Wayne Barnes and Christophe Ridley during a minute's applause before a Gallagher Premiership Rugby match. (Photo by Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

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A few weeks ago, Sara Cox made history by becoming the first female to referee a men’s Premiership rugby game. The news coverage was extensive, to say the least. The attention flooding in on social media made it one of Premiership Rugby’s most popular Twitter posts to date.

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Many have come out to congratulate Sara for this achievement, as did I, and although she has obviously worked extremely hard to have even been considered for the role, for me it raises wider questions in my mind about the women’s game, and where it sits in comparison to the men’s.

If working in the men’s game is seen as a career highlight, what does this mean for the women’s game? If we are framing the men’s game as a career pinnacle, we are also by default framing the women’s game as a steppingstone, which could have negative implications for its sustainability in the future.

This isn’t just about referees. It’s about everyone working in the game, from administrators right across to coaches. If the men’s game is seen as a promotion, we will constantly be losing talent in the women’s game, meaning we will be stuck in a never-ending developmental phase, which isn’t good for anyone.

Before we start pointing fingers, I want to make it clear that I have thought this way too. When I have had opportunities to work in the men’s game, I was guilty of thinking it was better than working with the women because the men’s game is often held in higher regard. I think, to some degree, we are all guilty of feeding into this unconscious bias, and not holding both games to the same standard. For some reason, and I know I am not alone with this, I almost feel like because the men had accepted me to work with them, that it somehow confirmed I was good at what I do. When in reality, I know that working with both games was equally as good for my broadcasting career.

Some professionals will just want to specialise in either the men’s game or the women’s game, and I don’t have an issue with that. What I am hesitant about, however, is when individuals use the women’s game as a springboard for their own professional gain.

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It’s been seen time and time again, when individuals leave the women’s game to pursue opportunities with the men, often leaving teams in difficult situations before crucial matches or tournaments. However, we must bear in mind that these people working in rugby do have careers to consider, and they also, like everyone else who has a job, must make decisions based on what is best for them. I am not blaming these individuals for wanting to pursue the best opportunities available to them, but I am questioning the framing of the opportunities given. Based on this, we must then ask ourselves how we can make the women’s game as attractive as possible, to recruit and retain the best people within the game.

Sara Cox made history by being the first woman to referee a men’s game, but this won’t be the last first we see in rugby. It’s frustrating that we have had to wait so long for something like this to happen and it makes me wonder if we will be seeing more moves like this in the future. For example, will we see more women coaching in the men’s game or even women being selected for head coaching roles in the international game, as this is still a space that is dominated by men.

At what point will the mainstream media be celebrating some one getting a job in the women’s game? If Wayne Barnes decided to referee in a premier 15’s game, I wonder if that would be seen as a similar achievement?

So, how do we now ensure we are retaining talent in the women’s game? I don’t think it’s a simple one-word answer, and I would welcome people’s thoughts on this, as for me it looks like it must be a combination of things.

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Do I think that the men’s and women’s games are currently on equal footing? No. This change isn’t going to come overnight either but we must recognise that currently there is a gap in perception between both games and we should be looking at ways to narrow the gap to give the women’s game the best chance of development.

If this issue persists, I fear that the women’s game will suffer a huge drain of talent in the future. We are already seeing hints of this, with individuals using the women’s game to gain experience in certain areas, which then makes them more desirable to future employers in the men’s game. Somehow this cycle needs to be broken.

Money doesn’t grow on trees, and often throwing more money at a problem isn’t necessarily the right route to fixing it. Do we need to take a wider look at the pathways into the men’s game, to make these clearer and ensure the women’s game isn’t used as collateral in this? Should we be focusing on improving the overall standard of the women’s game, to make it more appealing as a long-term career option for those already involved?

I understand that this issue isn’t specific to rugby as a sport and is probably relatable to many other areas of women’s sport in general. Also, this isn’t intended to be a slight on anyone currently working in the women’s game, as I know a vast amount of people who work tirelessly day in day out to promote it.

It is, however, important to be asking the bigger questions like this, to ensure that as we progress, we are building a robust and sustainable route forward, for everyone.

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'Cycle of using the women's game as a stepping stone needs to be broken'

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