Diversity and Inclusion | 04 Mar 2020

‘From heels to rugby boots’: Gender lessons from rugby stars

Giselle Mather, Director of Rugby at Wasps, Kerry Phillip, Legal Director at Vodafone Business, and rugby player Harriet Millar-Mills.

Two special guests from the world of women’s rugby join Vodafone’s Women in Business Network to mark the start of our celebration of International Women’s Day.

Giselle Mather, Director of Rugby at Wasps, is known as the “Godmother of English Rugby”. She is one of the UK’s most senior and respected coaches following many years as an England international and experience training male rugby talent at London Irish rugby club.

She was joined at Vodafone’s hi-tech V-Lab in Paddington by Harriet Millar-Mills, one of the country’s brightest and best rugby stars, to discuss their careers and experiences on the road to equality in sport.

And both these strong and talented women had inspiring stories to tell.

Harriet Millar-Mills, who plays back row for Wasps – a team Vodafone sponsors – is also part of England’s 32-strong England squad for the Six Nations tournament. She has won 52 caps for England and the Women’s Premiership Players’ Player of the Year Award twice.

But her success has come at a price.

After New Zealand beat England in the 2017 Rugby World Cup final, an injured Harriet had to undergo multiple surgeries that knocked her out of the game just when she was at her peak.

“The recovery process was difficult,” she admits to the Women in Business Network audience, many of whom are watching via video link.

“But I had a goal to get back to playing and I focused on it. I kept saying to myself: ‘What’s the next step, what’s the next step? What else can I do to be better?’ I had to take ownership.”

It took her a gruelling two years to get back to full fitness, but she’s now training for Wasps and England again, while also teaching maths part time to school kids in West London.

Challenging perceptions

Women’s rugby has had to blast through a barrage of ignorance and chauvinism over the years, but this has only bred resilience and determination in female players, Giselle believes.

photo of Bernie Gooding striking the #EachforEqual pose
Bernie Gooding, Legal Counsel at Vodafone Group, striking the #EachforEqual pose – the symbol of this year’s International Women’s Day.

“I was often mistaken for the physio when coaching men,” she says dryly. “The aggressive, physical nature of the sport jars with the traditionally nurturing, caring traits associated with being a woman. I get that. But as a coach I need ruthlessness from the players!”

Women shouldn’t feel they have to ape the men’s game, she argues.

“We’re not trying to be men, we’re not trying to play the game the same way. We’re not as physically powerful so we run the ball more. Kicking is not such a tactical advantage.”

As female rugby players are usually amateur, juggling work life and sport, Giselle says her job as coach is to turn each player from “a girl in heels to a girl in boots”.

“I think the boot represents competitiveness and ruthlessness,” she asserts. “Women traditionally haven’t been able to access that kind of passion and still be considered feminine.

“I hope what we’re doing challenges that.”

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is #EachForEqual – a year-long campaign encouraging both women and men to fight for a gender equal world and to celebrate the “social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women”.

Giselle says she is confident that the Rugby Football Union is supporting and nurturing female coaches, leaders and players.

“I’m a coach, my gender is not my issue it’s everyone else’s,” she concludes.

As for Harriet, she loves the fact that “rugby is a game for a great diversity of shapes and sizes. You learn to appreciate what other positions are doing on the pitch and you have to protect each other’s back, which intensifies the camaraderie.

“We operate as a team. We get it done together. We’re focused on a common goal – just like in business!”

As part of the #EachForEqual campaign, those present make pledges to further women’s equality. Giselle says she will try “to raise people’s awareness of their unconscious biases”, while Harriet pledges “to continue to be a rugby player, not just a female rugby player.”

With two such inspiring women as role models, the goal of a gender equal world will undoubtedly come sooner rather than later.

  • The Big Swarm, London’s oldest Women’s Rugby Derby, takes place on Saturday 18 April. Wasps, Richmond Women and Saracens are playing, as well as youth teams, at Twyford Avenue. For more information on how you can support the event, click here.