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Women's Rugby Stars Smashing The Stereotypes

Equality, diversity and inclusion are frequent speaker topics our clients ask us for help with here at Speakers Corner. Indeed, we were lucky over the summer to welcome Catherine Mayer, Nancy Doyle and John Amaechi to our offices and discuss potential solutions. 

Despite their varying backgrounds and experiences, they all share the same important message; if we don’t allow equal opportunities for everyone, we all lose. Being inclusive should never be about box-ticking, it’s about unlocking potential and creating a fairer, more productive future.

Turning our attention to the traditionally male-dominated sport of rugby, we chatted to the female stars who are smashing the stereotypes to find out the challenges they’ve faced in their rise to the top and the lessons businesses can take from their experiences. 

Destined to Play

Danielle Waterman – known as ‘Nolli’ – is one of England Rugby’s leading lights with over 15 years playing at the senior elite level, gaining 82 International Caps and scoring 47 tries. Her achievements across men and women’s rugby are unrivalled, as Danielle is the only player in the world to have played in four rugby world cups – one of which they won – as well as the Olympic Games.

Speaking about how she became involved in the sport, Nolli told us:

“I was always destined to play rugby. I have two big brothers and my dad also played – so from my perspective I wanted to join in with everything they did – and I loved it.”

Rugby is definitely in Nolli’s blood. Her father Jim, a Bath Rugby legend, is the fourth most capped player in their history and both her older brothers have played county level rugby for Somerset, with one also having schoolboy England honours. But it wasn’t an easy journey for Nolli and she faced many challenges along the way.

“From an early age one of the main challenges I faced was that there were no female changing rooms at the rugby club - I would regularly have to change in the toilets and wash my knees in the sink!

I then went on to play amateur (or professional with a little ‘p’) for 12 out of my 15 years playing and so had to balance a full-time job throughout my international career which is a significant challenge. At the same time, Rugby has presented me with lots of opportunities and allowed me to meet people which has hopefully set me up for the future.

Another huge challenge in women’s sport – not just rugby – is the lack of media coverage over the years. It is improving but it’s still very sporadic and inconsistent which makes it extremely difficult for women’s sport to build a sustainable fanbase.”

Rugby star, Danielle 'Nolli' Waterman

Making Progress

It was recently announced that from the start of next year, the England Women’s team will be offered full time contracts – a significant step forward for the future of the game. Nolli is pleased with this step forwards...

“It’s a really good opportunity and it’s something we’ve pushed for a number of years. The biggest positive from it is the consistency it brings.”

But what more can be done to continue this progress?

“The game is changing significantly and improving, but there’s always more that can be done. Whilst we should celebrate the improvements, we need to look at what we can be doing. Often, we’ll point the finger at governing bodies and the media, but there is also responsibility for people who enjoy sport. Are they taking their daughters to play? Are they taking their children to watch women’s games? Are they supporting on social media? Whilst the improvement is great, we should always look at what more we can all do.”

Smashing Stereotypes

We also spoke to the face of international women’s rugby, Maggie Alphonsi MBE, who has represented England no less than 74 times, helped her country win a record-breaking seven consecutive Six Nations crowns, and was key to the team’s first World Cup victory in 20 years in 2014. Maggie faced her challenges head on.

“The challenges I have faced is people making the assumption because I don't fit the stereotype that I don't know rugby. I love to blow stereotypes out of the water. I have overcome these challenges by not backing down and taking on opportunities that will test my knowledge and give me visibility. I am willing to put myself out there so I can pave the way for others like me to take the stage and inspire others to follow.”

Face of women's international rugby, Maggie Alphonsi

What Can We Learn?

So, by looking to the stars of women’s rugby, what can we take away and apply to the business world to make a more inclusive and diverse workforce? Maggie believes that one of the first steps is to change our terminology.

“I feel the words are now perceived as sometimes negative and segregate us from those we want to help lead the change. To break it down it simply is just about growing and strengthening your business/organisation and the best way to do that is to find people with different strengths, skills and ability who can help you achieve that. I'm not a huge fan of quotas but to lead change you need to get a diverse range of people in the room and research has stated that there needs to be a minimum of 30% attendees from diverse backgrounds in the room to get momentum. But I do believe there should be no limits to diversity and equality. It is non-stop and should always be on the forefront of people's mind.”

Nolli also believes that business leaders should take the time to think about how they can provide equal opportunities to everyone and allow the best people the chance perform at their best.

“I always approach things from the mindset, ‘if you’re good enough, then you should do it’. It shouldn’t matter who you are, it’s what you do. Opportunities are often looked at as only one-way, but if someone is the best at what they do then business should mould opportunities around that person. Business need to be flexible enough that they can provide opportunities in a way that everyone can put their hand up regardless of the restrictions in their life.”

Nolli also adds, “In sport, we thrive on regular feedback. Often in business, there isn’t that system. And it’s a two-way street, if a person hasn’t been able to take an opportunity, they need to be able to feed back as to why – If someone isn’t offered an opportunity, then they also deserve to understand why so they can improve. Feedback is a positive thing – it should give everyone the chance to learn and get better.”

Maggie and Nolli are proven examples of the successes that can be achieved no matter the background, no matter the stereotype. If we can create opportunities that give everyone a fair chance to perform at their best, we can create a future that is not only fairer, but more prosperous and successful.

To book Danielle Waterman, Maggie Alphonsi, or just for some more info, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070 or email info@speakerscorner.co.uk.

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