How Flying Rabbits Ultimate Brussels implemented gender equity in the club
how to convince the club members to invest in female players
gender equity as a core principle in the club
lesson learnt from the introduction of gender equity principles
The Flying Rabbits Ultimate Club (FRUC) was created during the winter of 2012-2013 by a group of friends. Despite some female friends, partners and girlfriends tagging along, the club remained predominantly male for a few years. The club’s players have always referred to themselves as "rabbits" and this will be the term used in the rest of this document to describe them.
The years of single-gender training gave more room for women to develop their skills and self-confidence
The female contingent participated in their first national women’s indoor championship (BUWIC) in 2015, and their first national women's outdoor championship (BUWOC) during the 2016-2017 season. Preparing for these championships consisted of a single training session per team, once a month. Happy with these experiences, the female players wanted to repeat them the following year, but this time with more intensive training.
The club's Coaching Committee, therefore, decided that starting in autumn 2017, there would be two single-gender practice sessions a month, throughout the year.
The 2017-2018 season represented a year of increasing awareness of gender equality issues in the club.
This began with the launch of gender-segregated training sessions and female players reporting an ability to “try their hand at different positions on the field when they were playing without men”.
At that time, the women also explained that they liked to be amongst themselves simply “to have fun”, for the “friendly atmosphere”, and to improve.
The issue became a hot topic at the club at the time as some rabbits, both male and female simply did not understand why training sessions had become gender-specific. They said that they had signed up for a mixed sport, so why were the training sessions being separated by gender? Others were afraid that gender-segregated training would take precedence over mixed training.
Gender-segregated training was implemented and the results were very positive for women. The smaller sized group allowed players to develop specific skills thanks to the almost one-on-one coaching. Men, on the other hand, had a harder time getting into the groove. An opinion poll taken in September 2017 revealed that a third of men wanted separate training sessions for men and women, a third were against the idea, and the remaining third had no preference either way. In the end, the men found that training sessions geared towards physical effort worked for them.
Given the stir caused by this issue of gender diversity and equality, a small group came together in the winter of 2017 to discuss gender diversity issues at FRUC. They agreed on the different elements of "rabbit gender diversity", though these could also refer to the different components of equal opportunities in general.
The group also discussed how they were feeling and touched on certain issues that the female players (and to a lesser extent the men) had noticed in the club: that women’s self-confidence builds up little by little, whereas for men, self-confidence tends to be there from the get-go; that the latter takes charge when deciding on tactics, making the long passes, making the pulls at the start of play, recovering the disc after a turnover; and that in the wider context, they’re the ones starting chants, giving the spirit speeches, etc. The role of the female players, according to the female players themselves, is limited to “catching the disc in the end zone”, to dishy plays, and cup defence (defensive zone play). According to the group, it seemed that the predominant role of men both on and off the pitch was leaving little room for women to develop their game – that was until they discovered gender-segregated training.
The World Championship in Cincinnati, as the awareness of gender inequity within the team, became clear and the change started
The Cincinnati adventure (2017 - 2018) left its mark on the female players as the differences between men and women were felt quite harshly on the field: four beginner female players had to wait until the end of pre-tournament training before being integrated into gameplay, whereas the male beginners were included in tactical play straight off the bat; plays were focused on male players; the set of handlers (the game builders) only included three women out of nine (two of them were injured before the competition so that by the time the preparation tournaments were over, the team only had one female handler); and game statistics revealed that 80% of disc possession was made by men. During the championship, most of the women said that they felt out of place on the field and also undervalued.
However, the Cincinnati adventure was also marked by some good advances, such as a Sociocratic election process (an election where everyone is considered a candidate) leading to a mixed-gendered pair of both spirit and sports captains being elected.
In the spring of 2018, in parallel with the preparations for Cincinnati, a member of the Coaching Committee who was also involved in the reflection group on gender diversity proposed that the club hold its first "Gender Diversity Month", where rules of positive discrimination would be tested during training sessions (see below).
On their return from Cincinnati (summer 2018) – with a magnificent Spirit of the Game trophy in tow – a small number of male and female rabbits encouraged the club to take on several new female players, to have as many female members as male members. After much discussion about the merits of such a strategy, the club agreed. However, the arrival of a new cohort of female recruits raised questions in terms of how things would work for the championships: men had previously complained about not having enough women to create enough mixed-gender teams in the championship, and now some were complaining about having to play with very beginner women players in mixed teams. It would indeed be a matter of time before women and men would be on equal footing for the level of play in the club.
For the 2018-2019 season, the Coaching Committee decided to roadmap several priorities, one of these priorities focussing on the question of gender diversity. The committee appointed someone responsible for this priority, who in turn put together a reflection group of volunteers to further delve into the matter. Thus came to be an official diversity committee – the CoMix – whose role was to provide input to the Coaching Committee and the club's managers. This new committee decided to take charge of a series of actions, both at the club level and at the level of the Belgian federation. The work on gender equality, gender discrimination, equal opportunities and inclusion, thus took on a new dimension with initial changes to the mentality of the rabbits being observed.
The CoMix continued to work during the 2019-2020 season and below is a summary of work undertaken, a description of the tools built, and the lessons learnt in recent years.
The Rabbit Toolbox
Each year, a mixed-gender group of rabbits volunteer to keep the subject of gender diversity and equal opportunities alive and kicking in the club. To do this, the group reviews the issue, raises awareness amongst other rabbits, and offers tools to coaches. These rabbits set themselves the task of continuously observing the dynamics on and off the pitch through a gender diversity lens to identify gender discrimination.
Gender Diversity Month
The Gender Diversity Month comprises one month of the year during which all training focuses on the issue of gender equality. The Gender Diversity Month is wholly organised by CoMix, with its members taking charge of training sessions. These are punctuated by exercises aimed at the one hand at making the rabbits aware of the gender discrimination that exists in our sports practice, and on the other hand at reducing this discrimination. A description of the proposed exercises is given below.
The purpose and organising of the Gender Diversity Month have evolved over time. After two years of work with the rabbits, the CoMix decided to focus its 2019-2020 work on preparing for the
2020 National Outdoor Mixed Championship (known as BUMOC). The COVID-19 health crisis of course thwarted these efforts.
Rules of positive discrimination
Throughout the year and particularly during the Gender Diversity Month, the Coaching Committee and the CoMix can use rules of positive discrimination to reinforce equal opportunities and the mixed-gender nature of our game. Depending on the rabbits' level of awareness, these rules are to be used with varying degrees of intensity.
Examples of rules that are now used all year round at the Flyings Rabbits :
When demonstrating drills, insist that mixed pairs demonstrate the exercise. Before this rule was introduced, only men volunteered to demonstrate the exercises. Today, things are more balanced.
When setting up the teams, no longer ask the rabbits to rank themselves by level, as women systematically tended to undersell themselves; the coaches, therefore, form the teams themselves. In the past, it was also customary to separate women and men into two lines when setting up teams; this approach was also done away with considering rabbits according to their skills, regardless of their gender.
Invite both women and men to lead the physical warm-up before training.
Systematically set up mixed pairs of captains for tournaments and championships.
Examples of rules that have been implemented during the Gender Diversity Month:
Only women can make the pulls during matches,
There must be an equal ratio of male and female handlers,
Women direct the choice of strategy on the line,
The assist must be made by a woman,
There must always be a man and a woman who "cut" whilst a second pair (also a man and a woman) wait in the stack,
Passes must alternate between men and women,
Single-gender training sessions
During Women's training, the coaches developed sessions aimed at improving players’ physical strength so that they can come back stronger in mixed-gender play (what we call "empowerment"). Thus, these training sessions focus on aspects the female players are less used to working on or areas that they aren’t as confident about or don’t feel able to do.
During the first year, training sessions included work on:
Long pass throws
Handling (building the game)
To date (December 2020), the situation has changed considerably. The rabbits now have seven female players in the national team and one female national competition gold medal (BUWIC 2019). Many of them have made progress in handling, have become coaches, and are naturally involved in defining game strategies (e.g. talking on the line). It is important to always remember that this has been the subject of long-term empowerment work. This work must be continued with the new players!
To date, Men's training sessions have not focussed on any elements in particular. There are several ideas to consider:
developing listening skills and respect for instructions on the line;
managing space on the field and taking into account where other rabbits (women or men) are positioned when male players are moving across the field;
the ability to evaluate one’s own level of play compared to that of one’s opponent, and in turn the ability to recognise physical/technical inferiority, therefore allowing another rabbit to lead a play; and
becoming aware of the dominance hierarchies that may exist within the group of men themselves.
Gender Diversity Workshops
The first edition of the Gender Diversity Month in 2018 got mixed reviews.
On the one hand, we received positive feedback:
Women who said that they had been given their first opportunity to make a spirit speech or had been chosen as a handler. This gave them a taster of the extraordinary nature of handling, the skills required to feel comfortable in the role, but also the pleasure that could be derived from it.
Men who were able to identify with what women were going through as they too found that they were victims of a form of discrimination on the field, and this occurring (un)consciously at the hands of other “dominant” men.
We also received negative feedback:
From women who had felt uncomfortable during the training sessions because of comments made by men (e.g. "here, why don’t you pull given that it’s vagina month").
From men who were very frustrated with having to follow rules of positive discrimination, complaining that doing so prevented seamless play. They also pointed out that putting quotas on pulls, passes or handling prevented them from being able to do what they felt was most effective in scoring points. They didn't care that purposely sharing these types of plays could contribute to the development of another rabbit. They found it a shame that equal opportunities were being given priority over common sense, tactical rationality and fluidity (e.g. “if a girl can’t play handler, why put her in that position, she's inexperienced and it ruins the whole game”). This obligation came therefore at the detriment of immediate effectiveness according to these men.
Many of the rabbits also felt that there was no gender discrimination on the field and that the differences in implications between women and men only reflected a difference in level, without however seeing how gender, self-confidence, or the gendered attitudes of coaches could help or hinder the development of a player (and thus impact their level of play).
Some men said that they "were here for the sport, not politics".
Some men and women said that they had never heard anyone complain, so there was no problem and that these approaches could actually create divisions.
For these reasons, it was deemed necessary that the following year’s edition of Gender Diversity Month be accompanied by:
A time for explanations, giving meaning to the exercise;
A time for sharing feelings, allowing everyone to develop empathy for the experiences of their male and female teammates;
A time for demonstrating facts, statistics and scientific concepts; and
A time for each and every member of the club to commit to behavioural resolutions to achieve the month's objectives.
As such, the following year’s Gender Diversity Month was both kicked off and wrapped up with “Gender Diversity Workshops”.
General structure of the workshops
Breakout group discussions allowing rabbits to talk about their feelings, impressions, frustrations and questions. This time was necessary to give players peace of mind and also laid the foundations following the workshop, contributing to developing empathy and the ability to listen to others.
Information sessions with the CoMix during which statistics from American matches were shared and compared with our own statistics, in order to bring an evidence base to the discussions.
Individual reflection with each participant coming up with two specific resolutions that they could implement straight away, on an individual basis, to contribute to gender equality in the club. Everyone shared their resolutions with the rest of the group.
Debriefing on the Gender Diversity Month in breakout groups.
Reflection in breakout groups and then in a plenary session, looking at commitments to be made by the club for the following year in terms of equal opportunities.
As mentioned above, as part of its efforts to raise awareness of gender diversity, the CoMix compiled statistics of the rabbits’ matches. We were interested in the breakdown of the number of touches by men and women and by the team as a whole; what kind of throws were preferred by different players, etc. The data allowed us to substantiate how players were feeling and to have a snapshot of what was happening on the field of play at any given moment in time, thus enabling us to evaluate progress made in mixed-gender play.
We also reviewed statistics from the United States and presented these to the participants of the gender diversity workshops, to make them realise that the trends observed in the United States were largely similar to those observed elsewhere.
It is worth mentioning the two references below, which analyse the players' touches at the American mixed national championships:
Kathy Frantz's study (2018) illustrates, among other things, that men on mixed teams had roughly 74% of their team’s touches, compared to 26% for women, and that passes are 55.5% from man to man, 31.2% from man to woman, 9.7% from woman to man, and 3.6% from woman to woman.
The study by Charlie Enders and Steve Sullivan (2019) reports the same orders of magnitude in terms of the distribution of touches between men and women.
We would advise anyone wanting to promote gender equality and a truly mixed game in their Ultimate club to consider the following success factors:
Get the coaches onboard
Coaches are essential allies because they’re the ones organising training sessions, in charge of team composition, thinking about match strategies etc. Often, they are also role models for players and their opinions are respected. Keep in mind, however, that they also have their own perspectives on gender and their views on gender equality may differ from yours. You will therefore need to communicate, explain, and demonstrate with them as well.
Every social circle has a certain number of "influencers", people who are respected by their peers, listened to, and recognised for their experience and/or sympathy – do not hesitate to capitalise on these individuals’ influence to spread the word and lead by example.
Dare to use rules of positive discrimination
Positive discrimination is a temporary tool that helps to raise awareness of an imbalance and encourages rebalancing until a new balance is achieved "naturally". Though this approach can be frustrating at first, remember that the gender gap that you’re trying to bridge is even more frustrating for many individuals.
Arm yourself with data and statistics specific to your club (film yourself and count!)
As Lauren Bastide, feminist activist and author of the book Présentes, recommends, there’s nothing like counting if you want to take stock of gender parity within a given environment! Establish match statistics early on that illustrate the issue, and which can rebut the first counterarguments that deny the existence of gender inequality. If the exercise is repeated every year, these statistics are also indicators of progress over time.
Let people express themselves and create conditions for listening and empathy
Tackling the issue of gender diversity in your sports team means changing a well-established system and psychological paradigms that are deeply rooted in our society. Instances of gender inequality generate anger and frustration (and much more) for those who are victims of said inequality. On the other hand, the voices of victims are likely met with many questions, misunderstandings, and even opposition. In any case, the members of a team must create conditions so that these different emotions, expectations and thoughts may be expressed. Real efforts must be made to listen to these voices and take them into account. Do not hesitate to seek the support of professionals and use collective intelligence tools to facilitate these discussions, which can be very intense.
Build a solid and informative case
there are no two ways about it, you will come up against opposition in your endeavours. Be sure to have clear points, facts and testimonies to overcome such opposition. You may need to take a step back, temporarily take a back seat, and let others take up the torch (be this during a discussion, during a few training sessions, or even take time out for an entire season).
Follow up (long-term approach)
Improving gender equality in your team is a long-term process. Each year you will have to start from scratch by raising awareness amongst recruits. You will have to continue to work over time, moving from awareness-raising to implementing initial solutions, establishing new structuring practices, to reaping the visible benefits of these practices, before reaching a team playing a truly mixed game and a non-discriminatory club.
To follow up on progress, take stock of the situation with the team on a regular basis, compile new match statistics every year, report on developments and, if successful, pat yourselves on the back!