Julia Lee is the Founder and Director of Common-sense Initiative (CSI). She was the first female qualified Rugby League Referee in Great Britain and Australia in any code and had fifteen years’ experience as a Match Official, reaching professional and International honours.
To date, no female in the UK has surpassed this achievement as a referee. She worked in Rugby League for over twenty years, beginning as a Development Officer in Leeds to eventually leading the Development Department, securing £29 million from Sport England.
Later, she was appointed to the role as the Director of the 2013 Festival of World Cups where over a fortnight, a total of 25 teams from 11 nations competed in 47 matches at eight different venues.
Julia, why did you choose to become a semi-professional men’s rugby league referee and do what nobody else had done before?
I never intended to referee initially it was a dare for the first year it was a whirl wind with very little support and no referee training. I hated refereeing every game. Then I went to Australia for a year and they trained me on the basics. Once I had the foundations, I decided ‘Why not, see how far you can go.’ I then had to do everything any other match officials did, such as a fitness test exam and assessment.
I progressed based on my ability. Other women were in and amongst. In fact, I formed a women referees association to get more women involved, however, once they had to make a life choice, the majority dropped out. The system is not set up for pregnancy or female menstruation or life choices. It still isn’t. If you miss a season, then you have to start again. If you are on your period, it is not taken into account. Some women came back after babies but never aspired above the community game.
Has anyone else done it since?
There are two women in the UK at the moment, Tara Jones and Caitlin Beavers. They both play Super League, are in the England team and officiate matches. Tara has done a Super League in goal and was voted National Conference Referee of the Year last season. They are both doing really well. There are two female professional match officials in Australia. They have been on the scene for ages and both have officiated in the Australian Super League.
Are there any examples of clubs are especially championing diversity?
All the clubs with a Foundation (all Super League clubs have to have this charity arm) have programmes around diversity. So there are some great examples of inclusive programmes for disability in particular (PDRL) but not so much around ethnicity or LGBT that I am aware of.
The governing body (Rugby Football League – RFL) and the Super League both come down heavily on racist and homophobic behaviour or comments. They do sometimes get it wrong but will hold their hands up to mistakes. There are some female directors on the Super League and RFL boards, not so many in clubs that I am aware of. I am not sure if the culture has changed – when I was there it was a very male culture.
The women’s Super League teams are generally part of the Foundation. I think Leeds has now integrated its women’s team into the club. One of the biggest problems in rugby league is that it is not a cash-rich sport. Most of the professional teams clubs money goes into getting the best male players and staying or progressing into the Super League.
Some of the clubs such as Hull KR, Leeds, Wigan, Featherstone and Bradford have a will to engage women players but do not have the money or resources to do it the way it should be done. Some clubs play lip service because they think they should. It is like going back in time: poor facilities, kit and no support beyond the name of the club.
The Rugby League World Cup 2021 (RLWC2021) is doing diversity really well, with women and wheelchair players on a level playing field. All players are getting the same pay and there is equal PR around each tournament. It is very well done and is the first time that women and wheelchair players have been given this parity.
Do you feel that Rugby League is just paying lip service to diversity? It it any better than rugby union in this regard?
I think they try really hard and as I say have a will. However, they struggle to really understand the problems or have the resources and money to do it effectively. Since the formation of the Women’s Super League in 2017, the profile of the game has been unprecedented and is absolutely fabulous.
The games are being televised and some of the women are now becoming role models and personalities within the sport. This will help grow the game. It’s needed to build a strong sustainable competition because, as yet, the depth is not there. It is hoped that the World Cup will help address some of this and it needs resources to support it.
I am not in a position to comment on the plans for the future. What I do know is that when WARLA (Womens Amateur RL) began in 1985, there were four self-funded international tours between 1996 – 2003 and the women sacrificed a lot so they could play the sport.
The women of this generation have a great platform and have a role to ensure that all women and girls can access the sport equally. There is no room for accepting second best. Internationally, the women’s game has common issues in terms of male coaches coaching women in the same way they do the men, limited female international competition and domestic pathways.
There is very little resources distributed to the women’s game in comparison to the men. Additionally, if budgets are tight then the female game will have its funding withdrawn. There is more money, resources and international opportunity in Rugby Union, however, I believe they face similar challenges.
Women’s sport has grown and developed more in the last five years then ever before. It is a golden time. Women are begin to gain equality of opportunity (which does not mean parity to men). However, they are having the opportunity to be involved in sport at all levels and roles.
Why do you feel so little has changed in terms of female referees and touch judges in superleague?
It is really brilliant to see women commentators and players been given air time. My personal belief is that the last area to become true equality of opportunities is in officiating and coaching. As with many professions, being involved in these roles requires dedication, time and commitment over a long period of time.
It does not take into account having a family, or in some sports, the qualities a women can bring to that role. If a woman takes time off to have a baby, how many sports reinstate them at the level where they finished or do they have to start at a lower level? Do fitness tests take in to account when women are menstruating and that fact that they will not be able to perform at their best?
What would you like see change?
I’d like to see more female role models and decision makers in sport, individual abilities and skills to be embraced in sport, and to change the business of sport to be more inclusive. Difference would be celebrated to create a more diverse workforce. My ultimate dream would be that there is no longer a question as to whether women should be involved in sport, that they just are, and that there would be no mention of male or female they are just a player, official or coach.
More about Julia Lee
Julia set up Common-sense Initiative to inspire and empower young people and women to unlock and achieve their potential. She is a certificated Master Practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), a hypnotherapist and ILM Level 7 coach. She uses her life journey, and sporting experiences to engage with young people and women through coaching and inspirational speaking.
Julia has recently launched a partnership with Janie Frampton, who was one of the first female football referees, delivering a worldwide Diversity in Leadership progamme with World Athletics sponsored by Seb Coe. They want to talk to companies who have a commitment to diversity and want to increase their talent pool.
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