Women’s rugby is growing by the year, both in participation and exposure. The Harlequins Women’s team is full of incredibly skilled and inspirational women, and we at The Harlequins Foundation would like to take a moment to shine the spotlight on them. Harlequins launched its women’s squad in 2017, and our fantastic team have gone from strength to strength. The women on our team – and those on every sports team – are paving the way for girls everywhere to get active and involved with the sports that they love.
The benefits of being involved in rugby for women cannot be overstated. Harlequins Women player Elle Bloor says, “Emotionally I just get a huge sense of relief. The environment at the minute is quite high pressure, there’s a huge amount of risk, but a huge amount of reward as well. Being part of this environment is really challenging, and that for me is rewarding.”
Fellow player and Foundation coach Sheree Cooper concurs. “For me, I think it’s a release. No matter how like good or bad my week is, when I play rugby, I just feel happy. It’s such a good emotion that I have when I play and I just don’t want that to stop.”
The progress we’ve made so far getting girls into sports has been absolutely incredible, but there’s still much more to be done. Only 5% of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sport, and without role models to look up to girls are far less likely to want to try out sport for themselves. We partnered with experts from Monash University and made some astonishing finds regarding sexism and homophobia in male-dominated sports like rugby:
- 55% of women and girls agreed that “many women feel unwelcome to play rugby because of the jokes and negative language some people use about women”
- 59% heard sexist slurs and negative jokes about women and 36% heard homophobic slurs at their club in the last year
- 14% reported they had been the target of verbal homophobic abuse at their club
- 87% said people “often” incorrectly assume that they are lesbians because they play rugby (15% actually identified as gay or bisexual)
- 78% want “negative banter about women” to stop in rugby, and 85% want “negative banter about gay people” to stop (the earlier research by the Harlequins found 65% of men wanted homophobic and sexist banter to stop)
These things are stopping people from taking part, out of fear or insecurities around how they will be perceived. Research shows that homophobic language within a team decreases by as much as 50% when they host or take part in pride games – Harlequins recently hosted our third annual LGBTQ+ Pride match, paving the way for other teams as the first Premiership rugby club to do so. The importance of this cannot be understated – homophobia and sexism are closely intertwined, meaning this kind of visibility for women in sport can also help hugely.
Through visibility alone we can show young girls that they have role models to look up to, show women in sport that we support them, and celebrate the fantastic work that they do. But sometimes there is simply no pathway for girls to get involved, or to stay involved. Sheree faced this problem: “when I got to the age of 18, there was no women’s section at my local club. I played when I was 16, 17. But when I got to 18, there was nothing there. So I stopped playing, because I couldn’t travel to another club to play.”
Fortunately for Sheree, she was able to start playing again when a local club founded its women’s team, but there are plenty of young girls for whom participation is simply not an option.
The Foundation are creating opportunities for girls to get involved and active as well as providing paths towards professional rugby. Girls can be introduced to the sport through our flagship girl’s programme Switch, before becoming more formally affiliated with the sport should they wish through the Harlequin Amateurs girls’ section.
Sheree says, “I’ve made such lifelong friends within the sport that I wouldn’t have made if I wasn’t involved. And I just like the fact that the fans and everybody involved is such a community. If you come to a game, even if you don’t know the person that you’re sat next to in stand, you’ll probably still talk to them, and it’ll be a family atmosphere. The sport is just a whole community, and that’s what I love about it.”
As Sheree says, rugby is a community sport, and when we don’t take the steps to make sure every member in our community has access to it, we all suffer for it.
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