The system is broken: What rugby can teach us about equality

Updated: Jul 6

By Kym Hamer & Kit Jackson


Image Source: Edgar Pimenta via Unsplash

Recently we were asked to offer some thoughts about the role of women in leadership across the world. With Kit having been involved in Homeward Bound and Hearts in the Ice – two programmes committed to empowering and equipping women in STEMM to lead the change that will be necessary to address climate change on the planet – and Kym being an influencer, entrepreneur and speaker on women in B2B and leadership - we were both surprised when the question gave us pause.

Kit began her career in strategy in an industry dominated by men. Not just in the consultancies she worked in but also in the leadership positions across all kinds of sectors – financial services, manufacturing and retail just to name a few. They were her clients, her managers and also the ones who filled the board rooms and executive committees. It was the way the world was and Kit dealt with the world as she saw it. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls this WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is.

Kit challenged the dissenters and proved herself to the doubters. Along the way, she started to wonder why she so often felt like a warrior going into battle. Kym’s experiences were similar so we started to talk about what we thought was going on beneath the surface.

Take a look at the hard-wiring

The conversation quickly became one about the root cause of the problem – the system. Consider that it does not matter which appliance you plug into the outlet, if the electrics are not wired correctly, nothing will work and you will not get what you want. So it goes with the conversation about equality - if the system is broken, no matter what you do to address equality on the surface, you will not produce the outcome you are looking for.

There’s a cartoon doing the rounds on social media that we think brilliantly sums up the difference between being equal, being equitable and addressing the root cause of the inequality.

Height – or lack thereof, something which a person cannot do anything about – now makes no difference. The game itself has not changed and the people have not changed but access to it and experience of it has.

Good big blokes are better than good little blokes

(Bob Dwyer, Australian Rugby Union Coach)

Football forms a large part of the sporting curriculum in schools. But attrition is high, and as Will Hinch writes in his recent article Should Youth Teams be Split by Size not Age, the answer is not always as simple as it would at first seem.

Human beings develop at different rates mentally, emotionally, and physically and the difference between boys in the same year group can be broad. There has been discussion in rugby circles that suggests that age-based grouping is not only unfair but is playing a part in discouraging kids out of the game at the grass roots level.

Some boys develop a tall, muscular frames in their early teens while others develop this 3-4 years later, if at all – so to have a group of such physically diverse 13 years olds (for example) compete means bigger players can use their size to push through leaving smaller players at a disadvantage and feeling disheartened. At a mere 5’7”, a world champion like Lionel Messi could just have as easily been one of these. At the same time, younger players who have size on their side have little incentive to invest in developing skills.

Hinch points to the bias that has developed in UK Academies. Players born in September or October (the start of the school year) are more likely to be physically developed than those born in June or July (the end of the same school year) and as such selection has been skewed towards players of a particular age.

This evolves into a problem at elite level - Hinch says,

“…our national teams have been woefully exposed by a lack of technical skill, and age-grouping has now been identified as the source of that problem.”

Across the other side of the world, New Zealand adopted weight categorising in primary schools a few years ago, allowing them to place more emphasis on skill versus the brute force that becomes an option for bigger kids when competing against smaller ones. And the word is spreading as other sports sit up, take notice, and consider new approaches like bio-banding to address the underlying cause of inequality in grass roots sport.

Having the conversations that matter

The questions that prompted us to write this article were threefold - why is female leadership so important today, what traits and skills do you think women bring to the table that men might not, and what is the call to action for women?

We say this: Leadership is important. Period. It is not a women’s issue, it is not a men’s issue, it is a system issue. Our system is broken. And unless we are willing to have the conversations that matter, nothing will change.

We need to face the hard facts: that equality is not a given and it will not ‘fix’ itself.

We need to be clear on what we really want the outcomes to be for our organisations and that it will take all of us to make the shift.

We need to educate and equip both ourselves and others with the capabilities - like listening and the ability to pull apart and interrogate the system - and commitment to working together to create something capable of producing those outcomes.

If we don’t take this on, we will simply continue to move the pieces around and miss out on really changing the game – a game where the sum of the contributions available from everyone who steps onto the field could be the catalyst for the very transformation our organisations are looking for.


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Kym Hamer is an international Business Coach & the creator of Building Brand You. She is the Founder of Artemis Futures and a Founding Board Member of CXSA Middle East.

Kit Jackson is the Founder and Managing Partner of Strategy Together. She is an international Strategy Execution leader and a globally recognised expert in using Strategy Maps and managing by Strategic Themes. 

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