Welsh and World Rugby's trailblazing women

By Molly StephensBBC Sport Wales
'I've challenged and checked and questioned' - Liza Burgess

There is no denying rugby is a sport predominantly associated with men, and it is a fact there are more men called Brett than there are women on the executive committee of the game's governing body, World Rugby.

However, in Wales the situation is different.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has made an active change to recruit more women to their boards.

But who are these women? How have they obtained these positions? What challenges have they faced in their rise to the top and what are the changes they want to see going forward?

The Scrum V podcast has been speaking to them and the one woman who is blazing a trail at World Rugby.

Julie Paterson - WRU operations director

Julie Paterson
'If you stand your ground, it doesn't matter whether your opinion is right or wrong'

Paterson joined the WRU in 1989 and was appointed to the Executive Board in 2006. She is responsible for the management of the Professional Rugby Agreement and chairs the Rugby Management Board in Wales, while also sitting on the Pro14 executive board and representing Wales on the World Rugby council.

"At the time [of her appointment], there were no other female execs across the whole of world rugby so we were the first union to put a female on their exec board... it was huge," said Paterson.

"If you stand your ground, it doesn't matter whether your opinion is right or wrong. It's your opinion and you should stay with your opinion. Your credibility goes up over time because people know you're true to your word and remain solid. I think that's helped my progression.

"I wouldn't turn up if we were ticking the box."

What change do you want to see?

"I think we need more women to step up to the plate and put themselves out there. You might not get voted in the first time, you might not get the job the first time trying, but keep on trying.

"You've got to be in it to change it, and it is changing, but there is still work to do.

"I don't think it's automatic that you're accepted and I think you do have to earn your stripes, you have to prove that you are good at what you do, and you do have the network and the experience to bring about change."

Aileen Richards - WRU board member

Aileen Richards
'I'd spent a lot of time working in lonely executive boards as the only female'

Richards joined the WRU Board in 2015, but prior to that she spent 30 years at Mars Incorporated working across the management structure in a number of high-profile roles.

"This is not a planned career. This is just taking opportunities and seeing open doors and trying to step into them as hard as I can," said Richards.

"I supported rugby since I was seven. I grew up in Wales, I had a passion for Welsh rugby, and I've never lost that. And, to be honest, I'd spent a lot of time working in lonely executive boards as the only female - so I mean that part of it didn't worry me.

"I was surprised by the attention it got [when announced onto the board], but I wasn't worried about being the only woman and being a trailblazer."

What change do you want to see?

"We've done a lot. Have we got more to do? Absolutely. We've got to drive faster on diversity.

"I want to see a female on the council and then on the board that has been elected by the clubs as a district member, because that's the lifeblood of the WRU. That's the one thing that I wish would change and change faster."

Liza Burgess - WRU national council representative

Liza Burgess
'You don't want to be just a face sitting there, you want... to stand up for what you believe in'

Burgess captained Wales Women in their first international in 1980 and went on to win a then record 87 caps over a 20-year period. In 2018 she became the first Welsh woman to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame and is the first woman to have been elected to the WRU board.

She said: "The most important thing is have you got the right skill set for the job? You don't want to be just a face sitting there, you want to be someone that is really passionate, is able to check and challenge and put your views across. It's really important to stand up for what you believe in.

"For me it was a case of I saw this as a huge opportunity. I certainly didn't think about anything like trailblazing because I was more focused on what can I do, will I make a difference?

"I wanted to represent the Welsh people that play rugby and the game that I love and I'm passionate about."

What change do you want to see?

"I've challenged, checked and questioned and really done the best I can for club rugby and women's rugby within Wales.

"I think for me that's the kind of legacy I'd like to leave, to make sure that I did everything that was possible within my jurisdiction as a director, to keep questioning and asking those questions so the women's game can develop.

"I feel passionate about it and I'd love to see the infrastructure in Wales create a really viable competitive structure to keep our Welsh girls in Wales.

"At the moment, the best opportunity for them to play at the top level and to get that performance exposure is over in England.

"That's the right thing to do in the short term, but long term we need to get that infrastructure right in Wales."

Amanda Blanc - chair of WRU Professional Rugby Board

Amanda Blanc
'We need to make sure that rugby reflects the community in Wales, because if it doesn't people will look to things that do'

Blanc is the independent chairperson of the WRU's Professional Rugby Board (PRB) and automatically joins the WRU board. She is also the chief executive of Aviva PLC.

"Everybody is a role model for something slightly different and, therefore, the combination of that is quite powerful. I do think that it is something we should be proud of and we should continue to promote," said Blanc.

"Now you've got to make sure that women's rugby gets some focus in Wales. There was an announcement about coaching - that's all really very exciting and something we all look forward to, seeing Wales do really well in women's rugby."

What change do you want to see?

"The investment [in player contracts] needs to happen. We're meant to be representing the community in Wales.

"Communities are made up of men, of women, of different diversity, different ethnicity and I think that we need to make sure that rugby reflects that, because if it doesn't people will look to things that do."

Marianne Økland - independent director of WRU Professional Rugby Board

Marianne Okland
'There's no point in having a competition if we have one dominant team that wins it all the time'

Økland is a senior figure in the financial sector - a non-executive director with international leadership experience in banking and shipping. She is also a member of the executive committee of Penguins International RFC, a touring club dedicated to promoting rugby and its values around the world.

"I think diversity generally - not just gender balance but different experiences, different upbringings, different perspectives - is important," she said.

"Most boards that are successful have a wider diversity on their boards and their management.

"I think the fact that we have such great well-qualified women [in the WRU] and they've been able to find them - it's brilliant, absolutely brilliant."

What change do you want to see?

"My understanding is that it's getting some priority and they're now looking to get the new head coach of the Women's national team. So if I want to achieve something, it will be to improve that team.

"Hopefully they will be able to compete in the Six Nations with the likes of England, because there's no point in having a competition if we have one dominant team that wins it all the time."

Angela Ruggiero - World Rugby executive committee member

Angela Ruggiero
'Get more girls and women to pick up a ball... let them know that it's okay to play rugby'

Ruggiero is one of the world's most decorated ice hockey players - a gold-medal winning four-time Olympian with a record number of international appearances for Team USA, who became a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. She is the only woman on World Rugby's executive committee.

World Rugby's supreme decision-making body is its council and 18 of the 52 representatives are women.

"I think of all the little girls that saw me play hockey and picked up a stick and a puck and went out and tried... playing and fighting through the taunting and the name-calling," said Ruggiero.

"I love the sport and I take the same approach to any other trailblazing thing that I might do in the business world now because it's not a burden, it's an honour and a way to set the tone. I certainly learned from many before me.

"I've always said if you can see it. You can be it."

What change do you want to see?

"With the World Cup and the Olympics around the corner, 2021 is a big year for women's rugby. Being on the board I'll continue to encourage investment in the women's game.

"I would welcome Wales to continue to think about new ways that they can evolve the women's game, invest in the women's game. Getting more girls and women to pick up a ball and want to play. Getting them exposure to rugby and letting them know that it's okay to play rugby. The future is female in a lot of ways.

"Sport isn't just about sport, it's about teaching young boys and young girls about life through rugby - about team-work and setting goals. They get to be a part of that amazing culture that rugby has and that team game that they'll hopefully apply to the rest of their life.

"I'm just happy rugby exists and that it's opening its doors in more meaningful ways to the women's game."

Listen to more exclusive interviews on the BBC Scrum V podcast on BBC Sounds.

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