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Harsh light shone on treatment of women

In light of huge progress across the game, several issues in recent week have shone a harsh light into how women are still treated in rugby. 

The narrative around the growth of women's rugby has been overwhelmingly upbeat recently. 

With growing crowds, record audiences, the rise of professionalism, fresh investments and new competitions, women's rugby appears to be on an impressive and unstoppable ascent.

The profile of the role of women off the field too has been improving, with women in senior leadership roles becoming more commonplace and with marginally more female voices at key decision making tables. 

That these are all welcome changes are obvious, but what is less so, as the game basks in this new era of optimism, is how easy it might be to forget that there are still significant issues with how women are treated in rugby. 

Over the past week, two major developments involving two well established rugby nations – Wales and Scotland – offered a sad reminder of this fact, as well as reinforcing the vital role the media has to play in highlighting unacceptable behaviour in the sport. 

First to Wales, where I would urge you to take the time to read the full independent review which was commissioned to explore bullying, sexism and harassment in the Welsh game. 

The panel found all this to be rife, alongside governance structures unfit for the modern era, a culture that was also often racist and homophobic, and a dismissive attitude towards women's rugby.

The experiences of many female employees and board members, along with the mistreatment of the women's game, paint quite a depressing picture.

For Amanda Blanc, one of the most successful businesswomen Wales has ever produced, to have felt the need to send not one, but two excoriating pieces of communication about the way in which key decisions were being made and the way in which women, including herself, were spoken to and about, is not just shocking, but mortifying when you consider the state of how the WRU itself was being run. 

The section on the women’s game explains well why there was such a decline in fortunes for the Welsh team, before things settled thanks to recent interventions, but paints a picture of a national team only tolerated by some parts of the WRU, and openly dismissed by others.  

An inordinately high staff turnover in the women’s programme tells its own story, as do the internal rows laid bare about how to handle a recent women’s performance review, which was largely critical. 

Comments from a member of the men’s performance staff describing the women’s team as “a sore on the arse” without challenge from a senior executive who was present, and similar attitudes prevailing at Board level, where one member described the women’s game as an “adaptation” of rugby in a presentation, also paint a clear picture of how women were constantly made to feel within the game. 

Though the report points out that this was not the experience of all women within and around the WRU, the primary takeaway is that that women largely bore the brunt of an archaic governance and leadership structure in a shambolically run organisation, where the voices of women went unheard and where the influence of women in decision making rooms were largely absent.  

None of these issues would have come to light at this pace had it not been for the outstanding job done by several media outlets, especially BBC Wales, whose research and interviews laid bare a toxic culture within the organisation. 

But what if the media had not investigated? 

Would women in the WRU and Welsh women’s players spend the next decade hoping that attitudes and structures would eventually change with time? 

Or would they simply wait and keep their fingers crossed that someone, somewhere would tell a story that would get traction within the media? 

As much as anything it was a surprise to read the full detail of the report and reconcile it with the fact that we have rarely seen or heard women in the Welsh game publicly complain. That is truly the sign of a rotten culture, where people feel unable to raise their head for fear of repercussion.

Next to Scotland, where a full apology was issued this week to the family of the former Scottish international Siobhan Cattigan, who died suddenly two years ago.

In that time, her parents, Neil and Morven, and her partner Ann, who believe that there were serious failures with how Siobhan’s head injuries were handled when she was playing for Scotland, have largely been ignored by the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU). 

While it has always been understandable that there were legal issues behind the scenes preventing the union from saying some things publicly; as Mark Palmer wrote in the Sunday Times at the weekend, no such ambiguity or restrictions have ever surrounded how the union engaged with her family and chose to honour her memory. 

“There was never any credible hindrance to union officials making meaningful contact with Morven, Neil and Ann, showing an iota of humanity, making them aware that their suffering mattered to them and that they were there to provide whatever support was required,” Palmer wrote. 

To read the SRU admit that they did not relay the family's wishes to all her team-mates to give them an opportunity to attend her funeral, and that they did not even contact the family to offer their condolences is simply devestating.

For a grieving family to be treated in this way is honestly quite hard to believe, and I am certain that the full apology from John McGuigan, the new Scottish Rugby chairman, would not have happened without continued media pressure – specifically by the Sunday Times and the Scottish Daily Mail. 

I would also defy anyone to argue that the union would have responded in the same way if a similar tragedy struck a men’s test player.

I cannot believe for a minute that they would countenance not engaging deeply with that player's family, for fear partly of a bigger and more immediate media backlash, a useful reminder of how the sport reconciles the differences in how it treats men and women.  

These incidents are not isolated.

In recent years we’ve had examples from several other countries, Ireland,New Zealand, and Australia among them, where unions have struggled to break free from traditional and outdated approaches to the inclusion of women, in the face of changing times and impressive growth in the women’s game. 

With the odd exception, rugby is still largely run by men, with most of the key decisions which impact women, either as employees or players, taken by people with no lived experience of what it’s like to make your way in a system and space that was built for men and boys. 

Many unions area also running their sport on the foundations of painfully outdated governance structures - the root of so many, though not all, of issues like those above. 

It does not have to be this way, as speedy changes to the game in Wales now highlight. 

Change is certainly afoot in rugby, and though we can welcome an era of positivity about the role of women in rugby, let’s also widely welcome fair and legitimate scrutiny of the negative too, accepting that often real change only happens when the mirror is held up so harshly it hurts. 


"Change is afoot, and though we can welcome an era of positivity about the role of women in rugby, let’s also widely welcome fair and legitimate scrutiny of the negative too, accepting that often real change only happens when the mirror is held up so harshly it hurts."