International Womens Day: Inspiring Inclusion

Today (March 8th) is International Women’s Day! We want to recognize a few women in Dutch rugby and their experiences and advice on inspiring inclusion. Within this article you will read about 4 amazing women in rugby: Shereza Pool, a rugby coach, Annabell Hansmeier and Kathrine Ritchie who are both referees and Jessica van den Bosch, who is on the board as secretary of Rugby Nederland. They will discuss what rugby has brought them and the positive and negative experiences as a woman working in rugby. Finally, they share some advice and tips for women looking to do the same.

What has rugby brought you? 

Shereza Pool: Because of rugby, I am the person I am today. Rugby is so much more than a sport. It’s a great environment to learn what your stronger but also weaker points are and that you can always ask for help. The strong values in rugby, have helped raising me to be a better person. 

Annabell Hansmeier: It helped me grow a lot on and off the field, also as a person. I became part of a community and made a lot of friends nationally and internationally. Eventually I met my boyfriend in this community and moved to the Netherlands where rugby really helped me in finding friends and being included. Without rugby I would probably not feel as home in the Netherlands as I do now.

Kathrine Ritchie: Rugby has brought me many things across the years, I’ve met many amazing people, I’ve made some incredible memories and been afforded some fantastic opportunities. I’ve also grown a lot as a person, both on and off the field.

Jessica van den Bosch: Rugby is a very inclusive sport. Whether you are big or small, strong, or fast – there is room for everyone on the team. The Dutch women’s rugby team is doing amazingly well internationally. With the Dutch Girls Rugby team, a pathway is now explicitly created for the girls. A good thing as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully this will inspire many girls to start playing rugby.

How do you feel included in rugby in the Netherlands? 

Shereza Pool: I feel super included, I started playing rugby when I was 7. I was the only girl in the team till I got to senior rugby. I felt included because trainers and opponents didn’t treat me differently than the boys. At senior level I joined the women’s team, that was no different. Everyone respected each other, treated everyone like they want to be treated. 

Annabell Hansmeier: As a referee you sometimes feel excluded. You travel mostly alone to your matches and on the pitch itself you are not part of a team. At the matches that I got I was warmly welcomed by the clubs. Doesn’t matter if it was a women’s or men’s competition. At the end of the day, we have the same goal, and we have to work together to make it a good match. So, I always feel included at my matches. Off the pitch a lot of referees became friends so there is always a go to. 

Kathrine Ritchie: I’ve been loving my time so far in rugby in the Netherlands. It’s been a very positive and welcoming place, which has been such a good experience to have coming straight into the Ereklasse this season. The whole community is so enthusiastic about rugby as a whole which is great to be a part of, and I feel very welcomed as a match official, not just a female match official, within both the men’s and the women’s game.

Jessican van den Bosch: I never played rugby myself, but as a ‘rugby mother’ I have been closely involved with the sport for the past 14 years: encouraging my boys during matches, generating extra funds with the sponsorship committee. And of course, the many, many car rides to tournaments and later away games. Although I’ve always enjoyed doing that, it’s great that now that my boys are older they can take care of things themselves. This way I can use my knowledge of governance and management for rugby in the Netherlands as secretary of the board.

What kind of positive experiences you have had and any challenges you have overcome regarding being included?

Shereza Pool: The most positive experience is that you make friends/connections for life. Not only on the pitch, but also next to the pitch. So when there are challenges like injuries, insecurity, mental health issues you can always talk to you friends and staff. That’s one thing I experienced and that helped me to become a better player. 

Annabell Hansmeier: I experienced it a lot that mainly men teams are skeptical in the beginning to see a female referee. It is definitely a challenge then to prove to them that there is no difference in the performance of a female and a male referee. Having people convinced that a female referee could achieve the same level as a male referee is definitely a positive experience. There were and still are sometimes moments when I am struggling on feeling included in rugby in the Netherlands. Mainly it is when receiving feedback over my physical appearance (body, height, voice, etc.). Those are things that can’t be changed but apparently in some people’s mind there is a standard set for these kinds of things. These sorts of feedback can really make you feel excluded and doubting if there is really a spot for you in the community. Luckily these moments are rare and the moments of random spectators coming up after a match and telling you that they love to see a woman referee a match are much more often.

Kathrine Ritchie: The whole rugby community has really made me feel a part of things right from when I first arrived last year. Unfortunately, there are still some challenges around full inclusion as a woman in what is still predominantly a male environment here in the Netherlands, but this happens everywhere. There are always issues around things like kit and changing rooms, having all of the same facilities, resources and opportunities that the male officials enjoy. In my opinion, I have found that many of these things are really a legacy issues, mostly rooted in funding problems, in infrastructure challenges. These things cannot be changed overnight, however it is important that we continue to raise these issues and ensure steps can be taken to address them as soon as possible.

Jessica van den Bosch: There is still room for improvement in terms of diversity: more women should participate in club boards. The board of Rugby Nederland should also be more diverse. Women are natural connectors, good at involving others and that contributes to the further development of the sport and the organization. So herewith an appeal to all rugby women and rugby mothers: sign up because who better than ourselves can make this possible? 

Any tips for women looking to do the same?

Shereza Pool: I loved everything about rugby, but I always had a lot of fear. Fear to make mistakes, to get injured or to be in pain. My trainer told me, as long as you do something 100% you can’t do it wrong. That’s a lesson I took with me for the rest of my life.

Annabell Hansmeier: Do your thing, be confident and find your own way. 

Kathrine Ritchie: I know it’s a cliché, but don’t be afraid. You’ll be amazed what you can do if you give it a try. If possible, find a group of people you can talk to and share thoughts and experiences within a safe space, because it’s so much better to go through on this journey with other people than alone. You’ll always have ups and downs on the journey, that’s sport and that’s life, but you should always try to remember why you started, and to enjoy yourself – that’s the most important thing.