NRL CEO Andrew Abdo concedes the code has a long way to go in closing rugby league's gender equality gap but has vowed to improve female inclusion across all levels of the game.
Abdo was among the special guests who took part in a virtual leadership forum on Tuesday to help celebrate and discuss the 15th year of the Harvey Norman Women in League round.
Hosted by Fox League's Yvonne Sampson, Abdo joined ARL Commissioner Kate Jones, Ampol CEO Matthew Halliday and NRLW star Sam Bremner on a panel to discuss the progression of women in league.
The NRL's 'Play your part' theme for this year presents an opportunity to break down gender stereotypes by including, respecting and engaging women and girls in the game and broader society.
Abdo said the NRL had come a long way in including more women in the game since the themed round was introduced by Harvey Norman CEO Katie Page in 2005 but believed more work was required.
Play your part this Harvey Norman Women in League Round
"Before Women in League round existed rugby league was a very different place for females," Abdo told the forum.
"We had a proud history of the Jillaroos but we didn't have the NRLW, we didn't have State of Origin and there were no live televised games.
"Now we have a thriving State of Origin game that attracts nearly one million viewers a game and we're moving to six NRLW teams this year.
"We're one of the most-watched sports for female sports in Australia.
"We've come a long way in 15 years but if I think about where we're going I need to be honest and say that there are elements of what we're doing that aren't enough.
"The map we need, if we're being honest with ourselves, is to have a tangible way to move forward to a much more level playing field on and off the field.
"We can talk about the growth of the women's game and wonderful female stars that are emerging but the truth is we need to think about our sport much more holistically if we want to in 15 years be having a different conversation about the last 15 years."
Jones said the game's administrators were equally as committed to improving the involvement of women at all levels including in the highest leadership positions.
"The NRL wants to be at the forefront in Australia in promoting that," Jones said.
"It comes down to the opportunity for women to participate fully in their workplace without discrimination and feeling valued, not pitied, condescending but being considered for who they are and being treated that way.
"Creating that pathway to be in that room and be part of the decision-making is such a critical way to support women moving forward.
"We're not there yet. We haven't reached parity. It's still an ongoing process for us but sport touches so many people emotionally we have a unique position to be a leader.
"If you find a mentor that believes in you and doesn't look through you with a gender lens and lets you participate based on your skill and output then that's a huge step to achieving gender equality in the workplace."
Abdo referred to improving statistics within the game that already includes record female participation and representation from players and coaches.
He indicated the COVID-19 pandemic was also a catalyst for change in other areas that required further improvement.
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"COVID-19 has provided a very reactive sense of leading," he said.
"We've had to change the way we do things no matter what industry we're in. Sport is just one.
"This round is a wonderful opportunity to just pause briefly and think about what's really important in the future and how we might use the disruption as a way of accelerating what we want the future to look like.
"We have 35 percent representation of female employees at the NRL and that's not good enough. We need a plan to ensure we're creating a pipeline of talent in all areas of the business.
"We have almost 2000 female coaches in the world from a grassroots level.
"At the Harvey Norman National Championships, we had every position fulfilled by a female, whether it was coaches or match officials or support staff.
"Whether we like it or not rugby league has a rich history having been around for more than 100 years that has been a male-dominated sport so we have to work harder.
"We have to create and be very innovative around opening up those opportunities.
"Our strategy is really simple … we want to be the best sports entertainment business in Australia and we want to be the largest most connected community in Australia.
"In order to achieve that we cannot think about filling that strategy and vision without having that dynamic and personified and empowered group of people working in the coal face of that.
"That's going to be a huge advantage for us moving forward."
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