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The number of women playing rugby has soared in recent years, with more than a quarter of global players now being women (2.7 million). In 2018 alone there was a 28% increase in female players. Women’s engagement off the pitch has also grown: 40% of rugby’s 400 million strong fanbase are women. With growing female engagement and participation, these are signs of positive movement towards gender equality in a previously male dominated sport and indeed sport in general. 

Changes have also been made at an organisational level. Governance reform has resulted in 17 female positions being added to the World Rugby Council and the addition of a quarter final stage to the World Cup in 2021. These are steps that World Rugby have taken to help achieve their stated aim that “By 2025, rugby will be a global leader in sport, where women involved in rugby have equity on and off the field”.  

However, behind these positive statistics, a murkier picture lies. Though female players are now paid individual match fees and classified as professional players (with England being the first team to go fully professional in 2019), the Six Nations Tournament was revealed to be the ‘worst offender’ for rugby’s gender pay gap. Major disparities between the prize money given to the winners of the tournament have been found, with the male champions receiving £5m and the women’s team receiving nothing. Moreover, government data on the Rugby Football Union shows that women are paid 20.7% an hour less than their male counterparts.

Testimonies from players also highlight the barriers the game still faces. Former England Captain Catherine Spencer has spoken out about the ‘vicious cycle’ women’s rugby is stuck in, whereby a lack of media coverage results in poor sponsorship deals. Giving credence to this claim, a recent YouGov survey revealed that only 26% of people would be happy to see more coverage of women’s sports at the expense of coverage of men’s sports. Canterbury’s use of female models instead of players for the promotion of the Irish team kit is another recent example of unequal exposure and emphasises how traditional stereotypes surrounding femininity and body image still create barriers for the sport. Since visibility is vitally important to transforming views on women’s sports and creating positive role models to inspire the future generation, it is an issue which must be addressed.

The Rugby World Cup was recently rebranded, so that the term ‘Women’s rugby’ will no longer be used in pursuit of gender neutrality and the elevation of the women’s game.  World Rugby has called the change “the ultimate statement in equality”. However, though the re-labelling of the World Cup has been celebrated, it has been also been heavily criticised. For some, the removal of the term ‘Women’s rugby’ has anonymised the identity of the sport and with it the celebration of women’s involvement. Indeed, it would have been just as simple to add ‘Men’s’ in front of the title, rather than erasing the phrase ‘Women’s rugby’, which may have inspired young girls desperate to try the sport. 

Young girls can use sports like rugby to challenge harmful stereotypes as well as experience benefits such as greater fitness levels and improved mental health. But schools are also hindering equality through their continued gendering of certain sports; only 43% of school girls are offered the same sporting opportunities as boys, with rugby considered a firmly male activity.

World Rugby and other organisations must promote women’s rugby as a financial opportunity worth investing in to media channels and sponsorship agencies, arguing that the quality of play will attract more viewers. Female players themselves must also be endorsed by the media to create role models that young girls can aspire to. In terms of education, teachers must make sure that girls have access to the same range of sports that boys do, and challenge their own preconceptions around male and female sports. This will allow young girls to try a wide variety of sports and feel confident in doing so. 

It is only through the normalisation of sports as gender neutral that equality can be achieved and it will take a society-wide effort, involving schools, the media and sports organisations.

Constance is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.