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Driven by the purpose of increasing awareness on diversity and inclusion within rugby, The Varsity Matches launched their Women’s Captains Talks in conjunction with Jefferies last month, drawing parallels between the pitch and the office, and highlighting challenges and opportunities throughout the course of these women’s careers. Moderators Becky Lane, VP Equity Research Travel & Leisure at Jefferies and Cambridge rugby alum, and Jess Tayenjam, co-chair of CURUFC, sat down with four panelists to talk about how the Oxford and Cambridge rugby clubs approach and foster a diverse and inclusive team – and how this applies to the working world and sports more widely. Focusing their discussion within the themes of the past, present, and future, these panelists provided an honest and forward-thinking insight into the state of the clubs today and plans down the line.

“I’ve been playing for 17 years now, and athletics have vastly changed. When I first started playing, there was still the notion that girls shouldn’t play rugby – it’s not a girl sport,” shares Amy Wilson Hardy, professional rugby player training with team GB for Sevens. “When the women won the World Cup in 2014, and then the Sevens at the Rio Olympic games, that really opened people’s eyes up to women in sport.”

Above all, this viewership opened people’s minds: 7-Aside gave the world further reason to love the sport, and men and women were granted equal televising time. Social media followings and sponsorships grew, and new opportunities – and a new outlook surrounding rugby came about.

Charlie Amesbury, previous professional rugby player and associate at Morgan Stanley, notes that when he joined Harlequins in 2000, the female team wasn’t treated with the same gravitas. While both the men’s and women’s teams socialised, their statuses remained different. “When I first started rugby, there was often a girl who played with us who was better than us all,” he notes. “She eventually left rugby, but of course we could have done with more female teammates!” Charlie emphasises his commitment to swelling the ranks, speaking regularly to colleagues with daughters wanting to get involved in the game.

Regarding The Varsity Matches’ one-club approach, Captain for the Cambridge Women’s Team Laura Bleehen notes how the seemingly simplest things, such as equal use of the pitch, is key to this development. “Being able to use the same facilities, with the big crowds and the thunder lights, is a pretty amazing experience. During our Friday training sessions, we split the pitch equally and have the same amount of time as the men’s team. It’s amazing to see how much the sport has developed over the past 10 years and hope that it only continues on in the future.”

Oxford Women’s Team Captain Jessica Abele attributes the move to Twickenham as being a pivotal moment for the women’s team. By receiving equal parts of the sponsorship, women’s sport became worth investing in – including proper coaching, and access to pitches and gyms. Both the men’s and women’s clubs want to see each other win, and how they interact is the way forward: people grow from working together and sharing experiences. “Last week, I spoke to a player who said this interaction with the women’s team has only made him a better person and professional,” Jessica says.

At Cambridge’s 150th anniversary, Charlie was delighted to find new photographs of the women’s team amongst the historic photos lining the walls: a new history. Nodding to Jessica’s comment on the importance of interaction, Charlie highlights the gym as a positive joint venture where men and women equally contributed fundraising efforts, showing what benefits can be brought when everyone works together. The next steps? Making more changes so that women are more comfortable to train in that space.

Despite positive changes being made, we still have a long way to go. In 2020, upon arriving at the Wasps Men’s ground to play, Amy overheard a six-year-old boy note to his mother how nice it was to see women carrying the men’s kit. There is still huge progress to be made, particularly in terms of messaging for future generations. On the other side of the coin, that same year Amy saw positive change at a difficult time when the England 7s program disbanded and jobs were lost. Raising funds became a full-on group effort, and the men experienced a huge salary cut to reach the level for women to have equal pay. Amy was elated to see her male team members’ enthusiasm about the change, despite it affecting their personal circumstances: they were now on an equal playing field, on the same journey.

In terms of realities of the environment of one club, Jessica notes that women, unlike men who are targeted for teams, are reliant on recruitment. It was therefore refreshing to see the men’s efforts to recruit women for their teams: “The men’s captain has also stepped in and stepped up [as an ally] for the women’s team, just as much as I do, in advocating for both sides.”

Encouragement goes an equally long way. Charlie admits that in his time, it was standard for women to come to training, but interactions were often awkward, and the two groups rarely meshed outside of socials.

“We always watched men’s games but they never watched ours, and it never felt that equal – but now that we are building friendships with me, we have seen 20-30 cheering us on on Wednesday afternoons!” Laura says. “When they see us play, they can give advice. It’s all about creating environments.”

Women underestimating how much they’ve achieved is a recurring pattern, notes Amy. “We underplay what we’ve done, we put others on a pedestal, and often wait to be spoken to – but we need to acknowledge we are on a level playing field, and it shouldn’t be awkward. Take initiative to start the conversation. We can learn from each other’s games and are seeing this increasingly. Having even one go-to person with whom you can speak honestly is so helpful, and the senior boys were great at imparting their knowledge in a non-patronizing way: they’d been in a pro environment longer, they’d done the learning, and wanted us to do well.”

“Confidence and speaking up for yourself is a learning across all professional spaces,” notes Becky from Jefferies’ perspective.

Following encouragement and openness comes funding: Amy describes the importance of publicity and sponsors backing women’s games and raising the profiles of women’s sport as a chicken and egg situation: sponsors want to see the game improve to invest, but the game needs investment to improve with resources. Nonetheless, the power of funding has shone through, and seeing brands enhance and improve the game has been inspirational. In the 2015 merge move to Twickenham, a huge role was played by sponsors with an equality-driven agenda: they pushed for the Women’s Team to go to Twickenham and emphasised equal support. Visibility is the biggest player in driving diversity: it inspires people and puts pressure on clubs to elevate the standard of women’s rugby by showing it in prominent stadiums.

Diversity is a challenge that has historically faced both rugby and the financial sector: the reputation that comes with being part of that, and who can partake in those spaces. In terms of driving diversity forwards, Charlie sees the way to expand – on the pitch and in the office – as making everyone comfortable in a given space, so that men and women can belong together. Be it little everyday interactions to big initiatives from top executives, it all happens in how we interact.

“I’ve met so many people from different backgrounds, and that’s why I love rugby,” says Amy. “We must build those relationships into squads, between males and females.” Unifying growth helps us to move forward, and continuing to use rugby as a platform to show that we are all- encompassing and inviting is the way to inclusivity.

There is certainly progress to be made in promoting rugby to all communities and equalising representation. Another key to inclusivity is language, and actively adjusting that language where necessary. The more boundaries are pushed, the more that can be changed.

And gender inclusion is just the beginning.

“We need to work on racial inclusion: we have a large number of white women playing, and as a team, the most important thing is to make players feel safe, welcome, to have fun; to be allies. Women’s rugby by nature is inclusive, and having an LGBT officer in the club, and as much representation as possible, makes for a safer space” adds Laura. “Simple things like gender neutral toilets – tiny things – can make someone feel a lot more included.”

“There are a lot of parallels between sport and the working world, including financial services. If we set a vision as individuals, as teams, as institutions, and keep ourselves aligned to it, there is a powerful theme around sharing experiences and individual interactions: how we talk to each other, hear from each other, and how we get to meet and interact with different people,” says Jess. “You are all role models, and it’s great to be able to be able to be the change we want to see in the world.”

From the pitch to the office, both The Varsity Matches and Jefferies are proud to work towards an equal playing ground, and to creating a shared space that allows for open conversation, and in turn for the opportunity to be seen and grow together.