Saturday, 20 April 2013

Sport and Feminism collide....this time in Rugby

This is not an unusual occurrence. Most organised sport is male dominated both in participants and the decision-makers. They don't tend to have women's best interests at heart although they throw the odd carrot in our direction. So my feminist hackles rise quite regularly. However this latest revelation of nincompoopery* within Rugby really does merit analysis. And although this post is a bit after the fact, it is a really good example of male privilege in action and an unawareness of said privilege.

I recently started following @WRUWomenSupport on Twitter (Welsh Rugby Union Women's Support). From their tweets it became apparent the the Welsh Rugby Union were about to make a decision to the detriment of their Women's national team. They were proposing to remove the women's team from the six nations tournament along with Scotland and Italy thereby creating a 2-tier event with England, Ireland and France in a "top" division. A divisive proposal in more ways than one. Thankfully they came to their senses and the motion was defeated on the 10th April 2013. But how was this even an option? Can you ever imagine the removal of the Scottish, Welsh or Italian mens' teams from their respective tournament, even if they were continually losing? In fact the Scottish and Italian men regularly end up fighting for the wooden spoon yet no proposal has been ever been made to removing them.

A brief history of the tournament: The 6 nations competition for women began in 1996 as a 4 nation tournament for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. France and Spain joined in 1999 and 2000 respectively. However in 2007 RBS took over the tournament and substituted Italy for Spain to bring it in line with the men's tournament. Whilst I am sure the increase in sponsorship was very welcome and did a lot of good for the chosen teams, it was more than a little ruthless to discard Spain like that. They were certainly collateral damage. And bringing it in line with the men's tournament does still make men the default.

Following this year's tournament where Scotland lost two games 76-0, they and the Welsh Rugby Union put forward a proposal to split the tournament. Whilst I appreciate that it must be soul-destroying to lose by that much, regularly and in fact have not won a match since 2010, why is the reaction to this to cut the funding and sponsorship for the team by splitting the tournament? Surely a more logical approach would be to support one of your national teams to greater effect. Unless of course, they were disposable.

Well from the WRU's annual report from last year it does in fact appear that the Women's national team is indeed disposable. From page 9 of the report:
  1. Elite Rugby includes our funding, staffing and support of the national team, the national age grade teams, the sevens team, the national academy, the regional academies and a £6.2m sum to the four Regions for international player release, in addition to £1.2m to the semi-professional Premiership Clubs.
I would like to think that the national team refers to the women's team but that would be a folly. In a 104 page document the word "women" is mentioned 11 times; there are two photographs of the women's team, one playing and about 2 1/2 pages including photos devoted to the women's game. Although it is only an Annual Report it is yet another example the eradication of women in daily discourse. In this instance men is really the default. In fact the women's team is always referred to in the report and in media as the Women's National Team. The men's team has no reference to their sex.

It is laughable really that anyone would actually think that "the national team" refers to the women given the amount of spending on the two national teams. Men's Team: millions; Women's Team:10's of thousands. And of course the amount of media coverage both teams get is pretty much incomparable as is the pay. The Welsh women's team is self-funded and not allowed personal sponsorship. No pay and no leave entitlement. Absolutely disgraceful. They also have no development squad, no U19s or U20s either. This proposal could have decimated women's rugby in Wales. The fact is, that any further support and finances that could be devoted to women's rugby would be seen as a detraction from men's rugby. And let's face it, that's what is important here.

So how did a proposition to remove the Welsh team from the 6 nations even gain any ground. Well if we look at the Scottish RFU Board and the Welsh RFU Board we can see they are all men. Every one of them. No representation of women at all. Is it unsurprising that women are disposable, their voices eradicated? I did find a woman, Julie Paterson on the Welsh RFU Executive as the Director of Compliance. The irony of that job been given to a woman is not lost**. And there is a woman, Kath Vass on the Scottish RFU Council, representing Women's Rugby. There appears to be no direct representative at all from Women's Rugby on the Welsh boards.

But surely some reference/collaboration/consultation was made with those who manage and run the women's game or even some recourse made to the players. Apparently not. How divisive is that? Not unsurprisingly the players themselves felt unimportant and dispensable. And despite vocal opposition from players and other teams the proposal was still viable until a couple of days before the meeting, when Roger Lewis, the WRU Chief Executive finally came out and said he would oppose it.

From a more structural and societal aspect this is another example of men believing that they can tell women what they should be doing and making judgements on women's sport (generally subjective ones). Within sport there seems this constant reference to men's sport and not treating women's sport as an entity in its own right. Constant references to competitiveness, training workloads, skills all in comparison to the default of men. Women's sport is not allowed to grow by itself, is not allowed to be given similar credence, proportional spending or in fact any kind of equality unless men say so. That is not equality, it is benevolence and pretty sexist benevolence at that. As a woman I don't want my equality being decided on the whims of men. I want women to decide it and women to structure it so the world is more suited to women (in this case the world of sport) rather than us having to fit in with the existing world that is structured for men. Men: Hands off our sport!

*A lovely and fitting term co-opted from TheRealSGM.

** That is in no way meant to be derogatory towards Julie Paterson and her work. It is just a reference to the word "compliance" and how women are trained and stereotyped into being compliant from an early age.

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