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Gendered Perceptions of College Rugby Options

By Karen Fong Donoghue

Owner, The Rugger's Edge

Photo Credit: Jackie Finlan
Photo Credit: Jackie Finlan

As the owner of The Rugger's Edge, a college advisory company focused on the unique needs of rugby players, I’ve worked with many young men and women who are trying to unravel the college process. Something I have found rather interesting, or disconcerting, is the difference between the ways young men and young women approach the college athletic pathway. Often I find that young men are more apt to raise their hands and confidently announce their plans to play for the most competitive, high-performance program out there, regardless of their current abilities, whereas young women are more likely to be cautious about their plans to play college rugby - even programs that are more social in nature.

When pressed young women tend to relay two primary reasons for not wanting to play in college:

They doubt in their athletic abilities to play at the next level (e.g., don't think they are fast enough, tall enough, athletic enough)

They hadn't considered college rugby as an option. (In many cases, no one encouraged them to play in college).

This is in stark contrast to the men's side of the coin where many young men often share with me they are willing to and even striving to play for programs where they will be at the "bottom of the totem pole," that joining a team where they are "the best" isn't what they want. They want the programs that are essentially "better than they are" so they will be pushed well past their limits.

These gendered reactions to college rugby are explained in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. In the article, the author explores why women commonly don't apply for jobs unless they are “100% qualified.” Men on the other hand are more likely to apply for jobs even if they only meet 60% of the requirements. The author notes:

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… People who weren’t applying believed they needed the qualifications not to do the job well, but to be hired in the first place. They thought that the required qualifications were … well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.

Often in my line of work, I meet with girls who are only 15 or 16 and don't feel they possess the necessary “qualifications” to play at a top college program or even a mid-level program. Sadly, they lose any motivation to even try to play at the next level.

So, what does it mean for the future of women’s rugby? As coaches, administrators and referees of young women, it is in our best interest to do what we can to address girls’ belief that they are incapable or unqualified to play.

One of the reasons so many young boys aspire to play rugby in college is that their coaches, parents, friends, mentors and contemporary culture have normalized that expectation. People in their lives discuss college sports with them – coaches talk about their college athletic experiences – the fun stories, the great friends they gained, the value of sport beyond their playing days.

Coaches of young women should have similar expectations of their players and include conversations about college sport in their interactions with athletes. In an effort to normalize college athletic participation we should encourage other adult mentors to openly discuss opportunities for playing rugby in college, do a team tour of a college or attend a local college rugby game each season.

A lot of high school girls I have worked have been pleasantly surprised when watching a college women's game, often declaring, "I can do that!"

The best part is, we all know they can do it. It is up to us to help support and encourage young women to risk failure and reach for the challenge – to pursue dreams they didn't know they had.

Karen Fong Donoghue

Karen Fong Donoghue is the CEO and founder of The Rugger's Edge, a college advisory company focused on the unique needs of rugby players. She is also a member of WRCRA.

The Rugger's Edge also produces an annual College Playbook, now in its fourth edition. The comprehensive guidebook walks families through every step of the college planning process.

For more information, visit or e-mail

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