Feeling excluded from all those testosterone-fuelled corporate football matches? Lorraine Cushnie pulled on a netball bib and met some women who have taken matters into their own hands

There’s a familiar hum of industry gossip, team tactics and anticipation among the construction professionals gathered in this chilly south London park as they wait for the umpire’s whistle to blow. The scene could be from any one of the industry’s many informal networking evenings, where people meet to play sport, be it football, rugby, cricket or golf, and make one or two contacts.

What’s different about this event is that the crowd is exclusively female and they’re here to play netball.

The league, which has been going since May 2005, is the brainchild of three QSs, Betsy Jones of Gleeds, Sophie Raniwala of Gardiner & Theobald and Sarah Strickland of Davis Langdon who met while studying for their masters degrees. They wanted to keep in touch and decided to set up an alternative to all the other sports-based networking events, which they felt automatically excluded women. “We got annoyed by all the boys’ things that had been arranged,” says Raniwala.

Word is spreading fast. It is now into season two and thanks to word-of-mouth it has teams from seven companies, including structural engineers Buro Happold and Price Myers, consultant Cyril Sweett and chartered surveyor Gerald Eve. Jones, Raniwala and Strickland spread the word by mentioning the league to friends at other companies and encouraging them to set up teams.

On the Tuesday evening that Building joins the league, about 30 women are limbering up and waiting for their turn to play, even though it’s cold and dark and threatening to rain. Each wears professional-looking kit sponsored by their firms. Most are under 35 and reflect the whole industry, from quantity surveyors to structural engineers to secretaries.

Once play starts, I notice another difference to male sporting events – the emphasis is on having fun rather than winning at all costs. The netballers range from first-timers to veterans and players are happy to swap teams. It’s a league in the loosest sense, as nobody notes scores. That’s not to say the players lack passion. Netball is a fast-moving physical game and for the 30-minute duration 14 women dart around the court as the ball rockets from one end to the other.

Talking to the women on the sideline waiting to play, it is clear the lack of men is a plus. “It’s good to meet other women in the industry and to see so many female consultants,” says Kitty Chan, a project manager at Gleeds. “There are not many girls at work so it’s unusual to do things with so many other women,” adds Raniwala.

It’s not just about inter-company networking. Most work in small teams and don’t often meet colleagues from their own firms. And because there aren’t many sporting events aimed at women, it’s also a welcome chance to work up a bit of a sweat. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s the only form of exercise I do,” says Tina Morgan, health and safety team secretary at Gleeds.

As the matches come to a close and the night draws in, the women retire to a nearby pub for drinks, nachos and a chance to talk.

Happily, each of the firms supplies money for post-match drinks as well as kits. “G&T supports a lot of social events, but they were keen to have something more female-orientated,” says Raniwala.

The event means a lot to the players, but I want to know if they have concerns about excluding male colleagues. The women insist they are not leaving out the men, but are quick to add that there are many events where women are automatically excluded. “The firm’s cricket team was short of one player and I volunteered, but the men weren’t too keen,” one player tells me. “We don’t get invited to the golf days out,” says another.

The girls from Gleeds prepare to do battle – with the ringer from Building second from left …
The girls from Gleeds prepare to do battle – with the ringer from Building second from left …

That has not stopped the men trying to muscle in. The league organisers have had a number of requests from men asking to join but so far they’ve turned them all down. Strickland thinks it is important that women in the industry have something just for them. “There isn’t any other event just for us. Girls can’t join in the rugby sevens.”

To be fair, the men haven’t been excluded altogether – the G&T team held a mixed netball match with male colleagues wearing netball skirts.

Despite gripes about equality on the sports field the women are optimistic about the industry’s attitude toward them. “I’ve only been in the industry three years but in that time the number of female grads has increased and the guys are getting more used to having women on site,” says Raniwala.

Strickland believes things are changing: “I think the industry is moving in the right direction but change takes time.” Perhaps change also needs a few more netball teams.

How to set up your own league

  • Find at least six other women who want to play.
  • Approach colleagues at other companies about setting up their own teams.
  • Ask your managers for the money. The best way to do this is to write a mini business plan with all the various costs and present this to your boss. The more teams you can get signed up the less it will cost each company. The average budget for teams in this league is £700 for 12 weeks including courts, kit and post-match drinks.
  • Once the money is in place you need to track down and book a court. Most local councils will have lists of netball courts in their borough, but with the growing popularity of the sport, it can be hard to find one that’s not already booked – particularly in central London.
  • You’ve got to look the part so getting kit sorted is a must. www.netballuk.co.uk is a large stockist of netball kit. They can also supply, balls, bibs and whistles.
  • Don’t forget a first aid kit in case of injuries.
  • Ask around your teams for people with umpiring experience.
  • Set up a timetable for the league. Make sure you alternate the times so teams play at different times each week – take it in turns to play in the unpopular 6pm slot. This league also has rest weeks allowing players to recover from all their exertions.
  • Get playing!