Women in the front row at 2011 Rugby Union World Cup

Rugby match (l), Kirsten Patterson (r)
Image caption There are a lot more women now in traditionally male-dominated sports

Think of rugby union - and a bunch of muscular men kicking and chasing an oval-shaped ball may well come to mind.

And, with the 2011 Rugby World Cup under way in New Zealand, it is easy to forget that women have also been playing the game since the 19th century.

Indeed, in recent years the fairer sex has been infiltrating this "masculine" game more and more - both on and off the field.

So much so that in March 2011, the International Rugby Board (IRB) announced its first-ever Women's Referee Panel, giving eight women an opportunity to regularly officiate international men's and women's matches.

With women in rugby jerseys rucking and mauling to get the female version of the sport widely accepted, women in business attire have also been working hard to become visible in the world of rugby off the field.

But, as in other sports traditionally perceived as male-dominated, there are still more men than women at the administrative helm of world rugby union - although this culture seems to be slowly changing.

Best for the job

Image caption There are more and more women referees in rugby union - such as Dana Teagarden

As men in shorts collide on the grass at the World Cup, an army of businesswomen is overseeing the action off the field.

More than 60% of staff at the cup organising committee, RNZ 2011, are women, many of whom occupy leadership roles.

The event's Chief Operating Officer is Therese Walsh, who is in charge of the financial, IT, HR, administrative and commercial areas of the tournament.

She says there are many women executives involved in rugby in her home country because New Zealand is such a "sporting nation".

"Many will see involvement in sport as a business career, and I have been involved in rugby for around 10 years now, firstly with the NZ Rugby Union and then with the organising committee for RWC 2011," she says.

Her colleague Julie Christie, one of the eight members of the RNZ 2011 board, the organisation set up partly by the New Zealand government and partly by the country's rugby union, agrees.

"New Zealand is a country where women have always been involved in the game," she says.

"Rugby is no longer just a sport - it's about entertainment in a very competitive world, and for me it's been about a career in entertainment.

"I don't think being female has made any difference - though I am the only female on the [RNZ 2011] board. They just want the best person for the job."

At the same time, Kirsten Patterson, general manager of corporate services at the New Zealand Rugby Union, does admit to some raised eyebrows when she happens to mention her job.

"Occasionally, people outside the organisation are surprised I hold a senior role in rugby, but the reality inside is much more progressive - approximately half the 90-person staff at NZRU headquarters are women, reflecting the growth of rugby administration as a professional career choice," she says.

But even in New Zealand, where this sport is possibly the most popular, women only managed to get to the top of the ladder in rugby administration relatively recently; for instance, in the 1970s men were very much still running the show.

Image caption Sophie Goldschmidt joined England's Rugby Football Union after having worked at the National Basketball Association

Gender issues

The same is true around the globe, says Andrea Wiggins from the International Rugby Board, the world governing and law-making body for rugby union.

The main factor that could explain the growing number of women executives may be the spiking popularity of women's rugby around the world, making people more aware of the sport.

Increased gender equality in Western society today has also played a part, says Ms Wiggins.

"There are certainly more women in rugby now - traditionally it's been perceived as a male-dominated sport but it's certainly changing," she adds.

"I wouldn't say gender issues are no longer relevant; there's always work to do in the promotion of women's rugby."

But Matt Cutler, editor of SportBusiness International magazine, says it is in the interests of organisations to get the best person whether male or female.

"Professional sports clubs are run more and more like businesses these days, which means gender issues that may have prevailed in the past are becoming less and less the case," he says.

"I think the recent move of Sophie Goldschmidt [Chief Commercial Officer of the Rugby Football Union in England] shows that," he says.

"She was a success facilitating the commercial development of the NBA… the RFU recognised that and gave her the job."

Ms Goldschmidt, who oversees the union's commercial business and marketing, joined the rugby world just a few months ago - after having worked as the senior vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at the National Basketball Association (NBA), and before that, as vice-president of marketing and sponsorship at the Women's Professional Tennis Association (WTA).

She says that the best thing about the modern sports world is that "it's growing every year, providing more and more fantastic opportunities for women".

Fresh ideas

And at the end of the day, even men admit that female leaders are important - simply because they do things differently.

"At every level women bring a different perspective and a different way of looking at issues," says Brent Anderson, former general manager of the All Blacks rugby team and New Zealand Rugby Union.

"A lot of males who reach the top of the sport have come through the rugby system, and often have learned a particular way of thinking.

"Women bring a diversity of thought and ideas that can and should make people in rugby stop and think."

And although sometimes this lack of rugby history or credibility may make it hard for businesswomen to get into the rugby world, adds Mr Anderson, it is up to the sport community to realise the value that diversity of thought actually brings.

"Those fresh ideas are likely to lead to good decisions, which will be beneficial for the game."

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites