New Zealand’s Eloise Blackwell carries the ball against England. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
This is a landmark year for women’s rugby, one that has already seen two bucket list items achieved with Super Rugby Aupiki having kicked off and nearly 30 Black Ferns awarded with improved contracts.
Later this year, the World Cup is expected to break all sorts of attendance records and in doing so, turn a handful of players into household names and open commercial opportunities that would once have been unimaginable.
It’s not as if we need to turn the clock back particularly far to see how seemingly different the landscape is now for female athletes.
The World Cup-winning Black Ferns of 2017 flew home from Northern Ireland in economy class, their only financial recompense coming from an assembly fee of $2000 a week.
There was no World Cup bonus or parade for them like there was for the All Blacks in 2015, who in addition to their full-time salaries, were paid a weekly assembly fee of $7500 as well as a $100,000 bonus when they were crowned champions.
It’s easy to see how things once were and how they now appear to be and champion the word progress, believing that because the wheels are now in motion, that it is inevitable women’s rugby will arrive at its goal destination of pay and opportunity equality with the man’s game.
But for all that it may appear that women’s rugby is now advancing inexorably towards juicier sponsorships, fatter paychecks and universal respect, there was a reminder this week that insidious forces continue to work within the system both here in New Zealand and indeed globally.
If we believe too much in this word progress and measure it solely through the creation of material entities such as Super Rugby Aupiki, then we may miss the fact that the prevailing cultures and attitudes which have hampered the growth of women’s rugby continue to be as prevalent and powerful today as they always have been.
The real enemy female athletes face is unconscious sexism: the micro discriminations that that go unchecked and mostly unrealised in a male-dominated environment.
And it’s a tough, almost impossible enemy to defeat as it’s hard to know where it lurks and how it will manifest.
But it’s definitely there, as evidenced by the ill-considered and poorly executed tweet from the All Blacks Twitter account on International Women’s Day.
Paying tribute to the supporting roles various women play to the All Blacks was perhaps a telling reveal that the prevailing instinct of some who work for New Zealand Rugby is to mentally attribute a hierarchy where men are always at the top.
This isn’t playing armchair psychiatrist the way it may seem. One tweet could indeed be dismissed as a genuine error of judgment and attributing wider meaning to it a ludicrously long bow to draw, were it not for the fact that NZR has endangered its government funding by failing to meet the demand of having 40 per cent female representation on its board of directors.
Only two of NZR’s nine-strong board are female, while there is only one woman in their seven-strong executive team.
This lack of female representation is endemic in the game as there is just 16 per cent female representation on seats of governance across provincial rugby.
Women simply aren’t in positions of power or influence anywhere in the rugby landscape and perhaps that’s why, during the early grip of Covid in 2020, the option to ax up to five teams from the Farah Palmer Cup was seriously contemplated to save cash.
The competition played out with all 13 teams in the end, but the fact the Farah Palmer Cup had its head on the chopping block for a period while the Miter 10 Cup never did, alluded to this deeper sense that women’s rugby is seen as sacrificial: the first thing that will be chucked out the basket when the balloon loses height.
But a more powerful illustration of the subsidiary and disposable status women are too easily granted came that same year when Covid induced wide scale redundancies at the national body and 60 per cent of the jobs lost were held by women.
Chief financial officer Nicki Nicol and head of women’s rugby Cate Sexton have both resigned in the last few months and while the game may have big ticket items such as better contracts for the Black Ferns and a fledgling Super Rugby competition to wave the flag for progress, there is a stronger narrative simmering beneath the surface that tells a different story.
But it would be unfair to suggest NZR stands as some kind of monolith in the wider rugby landscape.
Latent sexism is a global curse. In 2018 neither the Black Ferns nor Wallaroos were allowed to warm up on the field in Sydney, the ground-staff feared they would mess up the turf ahead of the men playing after them.
In 2020, clothing manufacturer Canterbury launched the new Irish jersey range with current male players but used female models for the women’s kit.
These high-profile acts of discrimination are most likely the tip of rugby’s sexist iceberg as what goes unreported are the endless misogynistic jokes at fundraising dinners, the verbal abuse yelled at female referees from the sidelines and the constant physical reminders be it lack of kit, coaching or access to facilities, that enforce in the minds of aspiring female players, this notion they are inferior.
The darkest finding to date has come from research by Monash University in partnership with the Harlequins club in the UK, which found that 37 per cent of female players have been subjected to homophobic slurs while 60 per cent have been victims of sexist slurs or negative jokes .
And it’s this pervading culture of sexism – be it unconscious, deliberate or otherwise – which makes it wrong to be talking of progress.
Progress implies there has been definitive and significant movement when the deeper body of evidence suggests that absolutely hasn’t happened.
Women have secured a couple of notable victories, but the big scalp – a fundamental reboot of male attitudes to drive more females into decision-making posts – continues to evade them.