JULIE PATERSON is easily the Welsh Rugby Union’s longest serving senior figure – having been appointed to its inaugural executive board 12 years ago as Head of Compliance and, since, moving on to a second executive position as Head of Rugby Operations in 2015.
She has walked the corridors of power at Welsh Rugby’s headquarters in a variety of different roles over three decades but, still only 47-years-old, she is as enthusiastic as she has ever been about the future of our national game.
Speaking during a period of rapid modernisation for Welsh Rugby and on International Women’s Day, she is confident the first entirely elected female Board member will be voted in by WRU member clubs within the next two years – joining Aileen Phillips who was appointed as a non-elected director in 2015 – in what will be a ‘watershed moment’ for the game.
“There is wide acceptance from our clubs and the Board that it should be the best person for the job regardless,” says Ms Paterson, who was appointed to the first executive board in 2005.
“I think in the next 18 months to two years we will see our first female board director elected by the clubs. We are not about token gestures when it comes to encouraging women to step forward in our game, but we know that there are great women working out in the clubs.
“We work with them all the time, and it’s just about making sure we encourage them to have the courage to take that one step forward and give it a go.”
Her own story would inspire many to do just that. In the 90s she admits she was very much a ‘woman in a man’s world’, but growing up in rugby-mad Cardiff household with her parents, Cliff and Angela, three brothers, Neil, Gareth and Michael – and a grand-father Ted John, who was an archetypal Arms Park club man – she has never felt out of place.
“I don’t think anybody realised that the WRU was the first Union to have a woman on its executive staff,” she says.
“We were the first Union to take that step, other unions have moved that way now, the RFU and the French, but when I was first on the exec board there were no other women at that level in rugby.
“I was an anomaly, I’d turn up to ERC (European Rugby Cup) meetings and they’d think I was the interpreter. I find it quite entertaining sometimes to see those who have known me for a really long time, watch as someone new, who hasn’t met me before, tries and work out what part I’m going to play in the meeting.
“Then you walk into the room and everyone sits down behind their microphones and I sit down behind ‘Welsh Rugby’ and you see it dawn on the faces that I am not the interpreter or the caterer – I get quite a good laugh out of that and then we all get on with business.”
Ms Paterson makes no apology for a forthright attitude, in the right context, in fact she makes an attribute out of it and would advise and positively encourage any woman wishing to track her footsteps to follow suit.
Personally she puts success down to a sense of self-confidence instilled in her at an early age and whilst she is strident in her view that women should – and will – have equal opportunities to men when it comes to joining a modern, forward thinking Welsh Rugby Union, she is firmly against any kind of positive discrimination as part of the process.
WOMEN IN RUGBY WAITING IN THE WINGS
“I’m not into quotas.” she continued, “What we are saying is that it’s about providing the opportunity to women in equal measure.
“I don’t think anyone is entitled to anything in life, you have to work for it, but the opportunity should be there for everyone.
“We’ve advertised for quite a few staffing roles over the last few years, everyone’s been allowed to apply and it’s about the best people for the job. If that person is a man then there is no issue. If the best person for the job is a woman and a man gets the job then I would have an issue.
“I never applied for promotion, not once, but I would still be doing things the same way if I was still finance manager. Not in a million years did I ever envisage I would be at executive board level. Being the only girl with three brothers, my parents both had the same attitude on day one, ‘she is no different to the boys’.
“I never thought I was going to be doing what I’m doing now, but that is something that has stuck with me and stood me in good stead in the wider world. You can’t be precious, you can’t be getting offended when you turn up to somewhere and they think you’re bringing in the catering, those things can be moved passed quickly.”
YOU CAN EARN YOUR STRIPES IN DIFFERENT WAYS
She has two daughters, Olivia who is 20 and studying law at University in Leicester and Jessica, 24, who is an architect.
Given her own experience and her current knowledge of the WRU’s vision for the future, would she ask her own daughters to get involved with Welsh rugby and what sage advice would she offer?
“Absolutely,” she says, “We have to be careful that we don’t put women off getting involved in the game just because they may not have played.
“We’ve got some really good women working throughout our clubs. Aberdare and Mold are two great examples where women are at the centre of the clubs and they are very much involved in every aspect of managing things.
“There’s two different things, there’s pushing participation – and I agree everyone should be given the same opportunities, boys or girls – but I also think that women getting involved in the game, regardless of whether they played or not, is something we need to concentrate more on and indeed we are, because you can earn your stripes in different ways.
“You have to be in it to change it and don’t ever think that you are not good enough to put yourself forward. It is about backing yourself and just having the courage of your convictions.”
So how did one of the most powerful women in Welsh sport arrive in this position, how has she stayed so long and what are the attributes that will allow others to step out of the shadows they may be in at club level, or elsewhere, and follow?
Ms Paterson has overseen some historic moments in the Welsh rugby in her time, from the implementation of National Dual Contracts to the drawing up, revision and day-to-day working of the Rugby Services Agreement that currently serves as the bedrock of the professional game in Wales.
She represents the Union on a variety of World Rugby committees, Olympic committees, in Europe, on PRO12 matters and sits on our own rugby management board and PRGB which deals with issues at regional level – but has being a women made a difference to her professional working life?
“I think its fine to ask the question, I honestly think that being a woman in rugby or sport, I can work with coaches and players on sensitive matters,” she says, “Because I’m not seen as someone who is directly competing with them. Because I’ve not been an international rugby player or an international coach and because I’ve earned my stripes over time, I would like to think they just accept me and trust me fully.
“The Regions, for example, have never had an issue with me representing their interests, they’ve always very much been about ‘the best person for the job’ whether it’s a woman or a man. I think that is where we are now.”
TRY, TRY, AND TRY AGAIN
Finally then, the WRU has been very public in its ambition to promote women throughout the game and in particular, increase diversity on its Board.
But Paterson, often the champion of clubs – as you might think – has always been an advocate of the good work done by both sexes on and off the field throughout the game, so what is different and does she welcome a new approach?
“Of course it’s welcome, but I’ve always been that way myself,” she added.
“Like I say, you can’t be too precious, because you’ve got to be in it to change it. You can’t change it from the outside. You can sit outside and keep getting frustrated about things that aren’t happening but unless you just step up and say ‘well I may have to swallow my pride on this one, but if it gets us to the end goal then so be it’ – only then over time will you earn people’s respect and start to affect change.
“You might fail on the first time of trying but just keep going. If I’d given up on the first time of trying I wouldn’t have got past 1990.
“Don’t let your own nervousness get in the way of allowing that opportunity at any level. We want our workforce to grow not reduce. We don’t want anyone to be replaced or women to take the place of a man, we just want everyone to have the opportunity to come to the fore, man or woman. That’s all it is.”