Reflections on 100 years of women's rugby league

Published by Danny Kazandjian - secretary general International Rugby League
23 Sep 2021

At last year’s International Rugby League annual general meeting, fifty member delegates attended, but only three were women. In the preceding two years, from a total of 82 member delegates, there was only one woman each year. In fact, in 2018, of the IRL’s 19 full members, which aggregated 158 Board Members, only 11% were women, well below the average for national sports federations (NF) in those countries (in 11 of those 19 countries, the average female representation across all sports federations was 25%). At IRL Board level the gender balance has been no more level: there is currently one female Director on a 12-strong Board; in 2018 and 2019 the Board was all male. The federation, born in 1948, has only ever had two female Directors.

While this imbalance is common in sports, and boardrooms more generally, other sports have adopted strategies to correct this imbalance - World Rugby opened up its governing council to new, women only, seats  in 2016; while FIFA incipient Women’s Football Division is targeting 60 million female players by 2026 – yet rugby league has been somewhat slower to react. But react it must – and is.

Few sports have a prouder history of tolerance and openness than rugby league. Its culture is very much centred on its inclusiveness, open to all to play, regardless of social class and race.

Since its creation, rugby league has depended on its commercial revenue streams, from spectators, sponsors and broadcasters, in order to survive (unlike, for example, several Olympic disciplines, which do not rely on those revenue streams). Its appeal to the ticket buying public was one of the main reasons it had to change its rules.


But, if the sport continues to underperform with one half of society then, at the very least, it is denying itself custom from a huge proportion of potential consumers. Furthermore, the sport is trying to modernise itself, which includes identifying more with social conventions, most significantly the involvement of women at every strata of the sport. Should we fail to do that then we risk losing pace with our competitors and falling short of criteria required by important stakeholders such as National Sports Authorities which, in many territories that play and are important to rugby league, require compliance with codified levels of female involvement to trigger direct funding. Why, then, has it allowed a constituency of 50% of society to become marginalised and rendered impotent and, more importantly, what are we doing to ensure more women leadership?


No less a figure than Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, strongly opposed female participation in the Games, which he described as the ‘‘solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism…with the applause of women as a reward”. His attitude, according to several studies, is endemic in the sport sector, which carries a prevailing discrimination against women, which is due largely to the perception of sport as a “male domain”, an incubator for male hegemony. As women joined the industrialised work force during and after the two world wars – a trend that accelerated rapidly after World War II – and as the wage gap narrowed for the generation born after 1960, masculinity has faced a struggle of gender identity. Rugby league was an archetype in advocating this intrinsic masculinity. Professor Tony Collins wrote that, “In 1952 Bill Fallowfield [a leading English administrator] had claimed that the game had no place for ‘cissies’ and in 1967 the English rugby league sent out a circular to clubs warning players not to indulge in ‘kissing and cuddling’ after scoring a try.” Even by the 1980s the marketing slogan focused on the sport being ‘a man’s game’.”

Thankfully, those attitudes are in the past, and rugby league has the opportunity to gain added value through women leadership. Encouragingly, the value placed in women leaders, and the opportunities afforded to them, have never been greater. Women leaders provide role models for the next generation to aspire to, while diversity (not necessarily just women) within boardrooms ensures decision-making and output reflects the needs and interests of the community, rather than just one part of it.

Wide-ranging studies, spanning decades, have found that gender diversity has a positive impact on firms’ bottom lines; others have concluded that women leaders have a direct impact on improved financial performance. The sport sector has the tendency to reflect capitalist relationships, legitimising competition and consumerism, so the corollary to these contentions is that gender has an increasing importance to the business of sport, with many new female customers to attract; female who are often gatekeepers to potentially longer term fans and participants – their children.

As leadership trends move away from the ‘Great Men’, transactional style to a more nuanced, consensual, emotionally intelligent approach, women could be neurologically hard-wired to lead in the modern era. There are countless studies that have scored women higher in those characteristics than male counterparts. Women have more opportunities to produce the hormone oxytocin (which coordinates childbirth) which scientists believe promotes social behaviours, including parental behaviour, the formation of social bonds, and the management of stressful experiences, all important parts of transformational leadership.

Rugby league has the tendency to look to former players to lead it. This is true in some of its biggest federation and in 2018 over 42% of its full members’ Chairs/presidents and CEO/secretaries were male ex-players. Of course, the sport is young in many of those territories so leadership from the small rugby league community, the majority of whom are players, is natural. It stands to reason then, that if the sport increases its women playing population there will be more opportunities for women leaders, transitioning from the field to the boardroom and executive roles. The trend is positive: in the top five countries (using women participation as a metric – Australia, England, France, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea) all are seeing significant increases in the number of women in their playing population. NZRL, for example, recorded just under 5% women in its registered playing population in 2014, whereas this year the figure is 27% and growing. The RFL launched its Women’s Super League in 2017, the ARLC launched the professional NRLW a year later; the 2019 World Cup 9s saw gender pay parity; the 2021 Rugby League World Cup gives women’s rugby league its highest international profile ever; Wales Rugby League’s new strategy focuses on all of its clubs fielding women’s programmes; the emerging African nations are prioritising women’s activity. There are countless examples pointing to a positive trend in women’s participation, but we are on the start of a long journey. For example, the combined women’s playing population in those five nations in 2018 was 34,000, while the AFL’s reported total the preceding year was just under 45,000.

Supporting this member-led trend, the IRL formed a Women and Girls Advisory Group last year, one of whose initial projects has been the formulation of a multi-year women’s leadership programme to nurture our future global leaders. While it has not yet been implemented, it simply must.

While the list of senior women rugby league leaders is short, there are some notable examples of success. Sally Bolton, who worked in rugby league from 1995-2014, rose from her job as English rugby league’s event manager to be appointed CEO of Wimbledon – one of world sport’s blue ribband jobs - in 2019. In 2015, a former rugby league club marketing manager, Lynne Anderson, who, like Bolton, also had a lifelong association with the sport, was appointed CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee, one of the movement’s premier organisations. A third – Australian rugby league’s first female CEO at the elite level - Liz Dawson, currently chairs the 2021 women’s cricket world cup organisation and is the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s vice-chair, in addition to multiple other board roles.

While we reflect on the historic 100 year anniversary of women’s rugby league, we can look forward to building a sport that has the chance to make significant strides, no matter the metric used, by ensuring that we continue growing women’s participation and cultivating our leaders of tomorrow.