South Africa is showing it is capable of “leading the way” in its approach to women in the game, according to World Rugby Council member Vanessa Doble.

In her role as SA Rugby’s Head of Legal and Compliance, Doble has played an active role in the union’s efforts to promote gender diversity within the game in South Africa.

Last month, the country’s member unions accepted two constitutional amendments that will guarantee female representation on both the General and Executive Councils.

That move, which had the full backing of SA Rugby president Mark Alexander and CEO Jurie Roux, comes at a time when the union has made female participation a strategic priority.

Former Ireland captain Lynne Cantwell has been hired as High Performance Manager for Women’s rugby, while Women’s Premier Division 2021 matches have been broadcast live on television by SuperSport.

“I'm incredibly proud of the achievements and the strides that we've made,” Doble told World Rugby.

“Obviously bringing Lynne in, that was a very deliberate, intentional and strategic move to bring somebody with her skill, with her knowledge, with her experience, to come and lead and support us and drive in this programme. 

“The interventions that we're making on the leadership front, and the research that is going into the area, the questions that are beginning to be asked across all our unions [are] around ‘where's women in this?’”

Doble added: “It just feels like we're continuously paying attention to this, focusing on this and in that way we're leading. 

“And, that's what makes me proud about us doing it at SA Rugby. We’re no longer just a follower, but we're actually leading the way in how we're approaching the women's game and how we are putting resources into this. 

“And, we're sticking with the commitment that we have made to South Africans. So, I think that's going to be phenomenal. 

“The research also tells us that we need to see women in these positions so that they can be role models for other women.”

Leadership pipeline

As a result of the constitutional reforms, each of SA Rugby’s member unions will be required to include at least one female in its three-person delegation to General Council meetings.

The 14-person Exco, meanwhile, which currently has one female member, will be served by a minimum of three women between 2021-2025.

“Our commitment to improving the lives of women and offering opportunities for women in leadership positions means that we really needed to look at the constitution, at those leadership structures where the decisions are made and assess why we weren't having sufficient women represented in those structures,” Doble said. 

“So, I think together with Mark and Jurie there was a very clear intent on how we begin to try and ensure that we effect gender balance in all our leadership structures.”

Doble says that SA Rugby is open to bringing in women from other sports and sectors to fill the new roles.

However, alongside the recent reforms, Doble and the union plan to implement a programme of initiatives to identify and up-skill female leaders of the future from within the game.

“We're going to develop a pipeline of women leaders that can take up these roles within their structures,” Doble said. “And, I think there's a dual-pronged strategy. 

“The one is, do we need to have women who understand rugby and who know rugby to be taking up leadership positions? 

“Our position is absolutely on the one hand, but beyond that, we're also looking for women who don't operate in our space but have immense knowledge and experience that can support the work that we're trying to do and the global direction that we're trying to take.”

Scholarship boost

The work being done to unearth those future female leaders from within the game has been informed by Doble’s involvement with the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.

The South African was accepted onto the programme in 2020, and has used the scholarship to study for a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge.

Her dissertation, which is due to be completed next month, was initially focused on gender-based violence but has been broadened to look at how sport can be used as a tool to empower women.

“Thanks to the scholarship that I got through World Rugby and my studies at Cambridge, I developed an initiative around women in sports,” Doble said. 

“How that works is that you actually develop the leadership pipeline from within the organisation by looking at various components. So, you're looking at mentoring, coaching, education, confidence-building, [and] placement opportunities. 

“And, that is a project that was approved by the SA Rugby Executive Council that we're now rolling out within the organisation.”

She added: “How this women in sports initiative works is that we look at the pool of women within the organisation. The intention is to look at it across our various membership bodies and identify what women believe they need in order to advance to the next level. 

“So, if it's issues around confidence-building, that might be one trajectory, another might be mentorship or coaching and then assessing within the organisational structures where those opportunities lie and then providing women with the opportunity to take up those positions so that they can really become a pipeline into the leadership structures. 

“So that by 2025… the additional members that come onto the General Council will come from the unions themselves. So, we will create that pool across the different unions.”

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