Carol Isherwood spent much of her childhood yearning for the kind of sporting opportunities that her male schoolmates took for granted.
Growing up in Leigh, in the north-west of England, Isherwood was exposed to cricket, football and both codes of rugby, but society dictated she was restricted to a watching brief.
“Of course, you weren’t allowed in those days to play with the guys,” she said.
Like many of her contemporaries who would go on to blaze the trail for women’s rugby in Britain, however, her chance would come once she had left home to study.
For Isherwood, it arrived following a chance encounter with Christine Kendrick while picking hops. Emboldened by tales of women playing rugby union, she returned to Leeds University and set up a team.
“I wanted to play rugby,” the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee added. “I wanted to play this brilliant game.
Women's teams on the rise
“I don’t see why the guys should have it all to themselves because it is the best, for me, the best game in the world. And so, if you want to do something that hard you make it happen, and that’s what we did.”
One of the most influential careers in women’s rugby had been set in motion, and within two years Isherwood was elected as the first chairperson of the Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) following its foundation in London in 1983.
Her initial duties in the voluntary role included producing a booklet that explained how players could set up their own team once they left university.
The advice was simple – knock on the door of the local men’s rugby club and tell them that their bar takings would go up on a Sunday if they started a women’s side. It was an effective pitch.
“We went from 12 sides to about 70 sides in three years or something like that,” Isherwood said.
“There was a lot of work done in the early days about how to connect with a men’s club, how to sell (that) a women’s team might help them.”
Pioneer of women's game
Women’s rugby gained a foothold in the UK in the mid-80s as players left university, heeded the WRFU’s advice and set up their own teams.
International competition soon followed with Isherwood again at the forefront. She captained Great Britain and then England, leading the latter to the final of the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991.
Injury curtailed her test career in 1992 but she remained involved with the game. She served as a “semi-assistant coach” as England won the next Women’s Rugby World Cup and held various performance roles at the WRFU and subsequently, the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW).
Isherwood swapped codes to join the Football Association (FA) nine years ago but has been working with World Rugby more recently, on a project concerned with women in high-performance coaching.
Just one head coach at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 was female – Hong Kong's Jo Hull – and alongside World Rugby's General Manager of Women's Rugby Katie Sadleir she has made recommendations about how that number can be improved.
In early December, Isherwood attended the Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association’s Women in Rugby Conference in Charlotte, where she discussed the subject on a panel with USA Rugby’s General Manager of Women's High Performance Emilie Bydwell.
Women in leadership roles
“The bigger issue is around the way decisions are made within our structures and systems,” she said.
“I think you see it across a range of women’s sports whereby now there are jobs that are paid jobs in the women’s game a lot of guys come in and take those roles.
“Now, often the guys are really competent as well and people look at it and go ‘Well, it’s the best person for the job’. But it feels like there’s not a value placed on the fact you’ve coached in the women’s game.
“It’s almost like if you’ve coached in the men’s game, you’ve got to be a better coach. So it’s quite interesting to look at those unconscious biases that decision-makers have and as we know, what often happens is you appoint people who look like you.
“And as most decision-makers are white males that’s what happens with the system.”
It is imperative, therefore, according to Isherwood, that more women are promoted to leadership roles within the game.
Diversity the way forward
“Diverse teams and groups tend to make better decisions,” she said.
“You’re better off when you’ve got women who may have different skills and capacities that help you take your coaching team to be different and get away from that group-think where you all think the same because that’s your context.
“So, you widen the context around it. We’ve got a lot of research around women on boards, or diverse boards and the benefits, and those are the same within a coaching team as well I think.”
In England, the Tyrrells Premier 15s is providing a platform for several female head coaches to cut their teeth in a club environment. It is a development that Isherwood, herself a player-coach at Richmond in the mid-90s, welcomes.
“Good for the clubs that have taken those women on because if you look at competences and you didn’t have the name at the top and couldn’t tell which gender then you’d be going ‘Oh my god, they look great’.
“But you just have that bias that you don’t even think about. And I think what we want is for more women to be coaching in the men’s game as well but first steps first, let’s make sure we’re represented all the way through the system.”