Leading rugby referee was the keynote speakers for Bank of Ireland’s International Women’s Day event on Wednesday. Here’s what she had to say.

Resilience, determination, empowerment, and persistence were the key themes in Joy Neville’s talk at Bank of Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Street branch event in Cork, to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day. As a keynote speaker, Neville, a former Irish international rugby player and leading IRFU referee, stressed the importance of inclusion in the workplace and recounted how adversity and learning from her mistakes made her stronger.

“This is the third year that we roll an event for International Women’s Day here at Workbench, and I really hope you enjoy it and benefit from being here today,” said branch manager,” Maria McKnight, kicking off the event. “International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and to call for more gender balance in the workplace, community, and society. This week, our Bank of Ireland colleagues across the group are celebrating International Women’s Day with more than 40 events both in Ireland and the UK,” she added. McKnight said that reflecting this year’s IWD theme, #BalanceforBetter, BOI “is on track to achieve its gender balance appointments goal, which is to have 50/50 gender balance in senior management and leadership positions by 2021”.

“International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and to call for more gender balance in the workplace, community, and society.”

Addressing a packed room, Neville described how her family has been a source of unconditional support ever since she took her first steps in sports. “All in our lives have support structures and different means and ways, for me obviously it’s my family, my four older brothers, my wife, and my mom and dad,” she said.

Neville always loved sports. As a second grader, she broke her nose during a game with her brother – a week later she “had to be put under anaesthetic to get it straightened”. Later, she dislocated her thumb “trying to save a shot someone took” while playing with the boys at her local park. It was her brother, Gary, who put it back in place. “The boys always took credit for toughening me up, I can’t breathe through my nose, and my thumb isn’t right,” she said jokingly.

She started playing rugby at 18 when the budget for women’s teams was “very low”. “We had to pay for an awful lot, but we loved what we did so much, that we didn’t care,” she said. She never gave up and in 2013, Neville played in the first Ireland women’s team to win the Six Nations Championship, against France. Having spent a decade playing rugby, she decided to retire, wishing to spend time with her family. It was then that she received a phone call from referee Dave McHugh, who asked her to become a referee. Although her initial reaction was to brush him off, she soon realised that McHugh wouldn’t admit defeat.

“Learn and improve. Every day is a school day, and your best teachings are your mistakes.”

“I decided to make one phone call to this guy, really high in rugby circles, I knew he was well respected, I knew that if anyone was going to give me an answer, that it would have been him. I asked him, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a female to referee in the top rugby league in Ireland?’ He said, ‘Joy, not in my lifetime’. And this man is in his 50s. I called Dave McHugh and said ‘I’m in’,” she recalled. In 2017, Joy was named World Rugby Referee of the Year.

“It hasn’t been all easy. Do you ever come across moments when something happens, someone says something to you, and you don’t react the way you want to react? You walk away wondering, ‘Why didn’t I address that? Why didn’t I have more respect for myself?’ But these for me, are the best moments because that’s when you learn,” she said.

“Learn and improve. Every day is a school day, and your best teachings are your mistakes. I love mistakes. I remember when I first started as a referee, I hated it. I know hate is a very strong word, but I really despised it. And I had to be reflective, as to why I didn’t enjoy this. And I realised that I wanted to be as good as the rest of the referees, on my first day out. I had to sit down, and I needed to accept my mistakes, accept them and learn why.”

“For me, (IWD) it’s about the person, it’s about diversity in the job, no matter your sex, sexuality, height or build. It’s about the person in the middle doing their job to a certain standard.””

For Nevile, celebrating International Women’s Day is “not about males versus females. For me, it’s about the person, it’s about diversity in the job, no matter your sex, sexuality, height or build. It’s about the person in the middle doing their job to a certain standard.”

When asked what can be done to get more girls involved in rugby and later refereeing, she replied: “There are a good few startup programmes introduced by the IRFU, there are incentives for clubs to have female teams, and after 2013 there has been a massive increase in girls and women participating, but more needs to be done. I’d personally like to see schools taking more responsibility, and I don’t mean just in rugby but sports in general. I think that in second level physical education should be mandatory. As far as I’m concerned, the benefit of sports, the teamwork, what you learn from each other, is invaluable.”

By Irene Psychari.