If women can get to the top on the sports pitch — and we’ve seen that they can — there’s no reason why they can’t do the very same in every other sphere of society, writes Clodagh Finn.

If more women played team sport, the world might start to look very different. The glass ceiling may well come crashing down. The gender pay gap could be permanently side-lined. Women might start to dream bigger.

Wishful thinking?

Of course it is, but just imagine what would happen if we could harness, say, the success of the Irish women’s rugby team — the first Irish team ever to beat New Zealand — and use some of that energy, determination, and strength to improve the daily lives of Irish women. The transformation could be radical.

It’s hard to think that, five years ago, the squad was treated as something of an afterthought, to put it politely. The team struggled raise funds. They travelled to games on red-eye flights and slept on floors when they got there. The media was indifferent, at best.

That has changed, utterly. You can expect plenty of coverage of today’s Six Nations Championship game against Wales as Ireland prepares to host the Women’s Rugby World Cup in August. RTÉ will be broadcasting every game.

What a change from the dark days of 2012, when the coverage of women’s rugby focused on their difficulties in getting to the game, rather than the game itself.

You mightn’t recall but, that February, following a series of mishaps, it took the players 27 hours to reach Pau to play France. They arrived, exhausted, at 7am and yet took on a strong French side just five hours later and lost by a point.

The story that made the headlines was all about the “plane, train, and pony trek”, as some of the players sardonically recalled. In fairness, that was quite a tale, but now, thankfully, the focus is firmly on the game and how best to bring it on.

Perhaps the best compliment we have paid the Irish squad is that we’ve started to talk about them not as women but as rugby players.

That’s the kind of turnaround that should be championed in every girls’ school in the country.

Maybe our educators will take the lead from Network Ireland, the women’s business network, and introduce a module called ‘Lessons from the pitch’.

That was the theme of its International Women’s Day event at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Wednesday when women from several sporting disciplines spoke of their success on the pitch and how it had helped them when they were off it.

Fiona Coghlan.
Fiona Coghlan.

Fiona Coghlan, the captain of the 2014 Grand Slam-winning team, spoke about the passion and vision that spurred on her teammates to get up at 6am to train, then do a full day’s work before turning around to tog out on the pitch that night.

Fiona O’Driscoll.
Fiona O’Driscoll.

Fiona O’Driscoll, winner of six All-Ireland camogie medals, told women not to set their expectations too low — playing small does not serve the world, she said. Her mantra? “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

The same positive message was repeated by jockey and broadcaster Tracy Piggott (“sport gives people important tools that they can use in life”), and Canadian silver Rugby World Cup medallist Andrea Burk (“go for gold”).

Tracy Piggott.
Tracy Piggott.

It made me regret bitterly not having played a team sport and wonder if it was now too late. Women’s Rugby Veterans, anyone?

Because, as Special Olympics Team Ireland basketball coach Vicki Ronning said, it doesn’t matter a jot if you’re not any good at it.

“You can’t be good at everything and that shouldn’t stop you. Failure is OK too,” says Ronning.

How many schoolgirls let that fear put them off joining the team?

I wish I had heard Network Ireland President Rebecca Harrison warn about the dangers of becoming the stereotypical woman, ie, the one who waits to be 100% qualified before trying to do something.

Instead, she says, women would be better off if they followed comedian Joan Rivers’ advice. She was smart enough to go through any door that opened.

If only I’d realised the doors that team sports might have opened. It’s the path to fitness and health, of course, but so much more — camaraderie, co-operation, team spirit, leadership, and social interaction skills.

That list goes on and on. What a shame, then, that 76% of the sport played by Irish adults is individual sport while just 24% is team sport, according to Irish Sports Council figures.

On the other hand, most of the sport played by under-18s is team sport. Whatever you do, under-18s, play on. If more girls signed up to play rugby, football, camogie, or basketball, they would emerge into the post-school world with the kind of unshakeable confidence that comes with playing as a member of a team.

What a different kind of Ireland we might have if they could transfer the skills honed on the pitch — problem-solving, conflict-management, focus, discipline — to the workplace.

We might suddenly find it full of powerful female negotiators who are not afraid to say what they thought, in case they were seen as difficult or awkward. There might be more co-operation, more mentorship and more family-friendly policies.

Outside the workplace, women at home might not feel so atomised or alone. As we’re at it, let’s not stop there. In this new world of team-spirited women, there might not even to be a need for International Women’s Day. That single day, though celebratory and inspiring, is testament to the continuing inequalities faced by women everywhere.

Here’s hoping the next generation of women will take their inspiration from the successes on the sporting field and fight to change the depressing fact that female managers in business in Ireland are still paid 16% less than their male counterparts.

If women can go from zero to hero on the sports pitch — and we’ve seen that they can — there’s no reason why they can’t do the very same in every other sphere of society.

Ready to line out?

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