It's Different for Girls

Media Coverage for Women's Sport

Heather Rabbatts: ‘Many women would love a role in sport, but our culture stops them’

Heather-Rabbatts-007The businesswoman Heather Rabbatts has so many jobs that, when one of her people instructs me to present myself at something called Smuggler, off Oxford Street, I have to double-check her Wikipedia entry. Nope, no mention that, as well as being the only woman on the board of the Football Association, a director of the Royal Opera House, a board-member of Crossrail, and the Film Council, not to mention a former barrister, trustee of Channel 4 and the Bank of England, the former chief executive of Millwall Football Club and before that, Lambeth Council, who squeezes in charity work in the minutes when most people go to the loo, she also works for an advertising production company.

This is what Smuggler turns out to be. You can tell from the scrubbed pine floor and kids in T-shirts staring at Macs. Rabbatts isn’t wearing a T-shirt. Her look is more traditional power-broker – black dress, black jacket, a lot of bangles. Well, not that traditional, in that she is a woman who leads in industries run by men – like football, of which more in a moment. But first: why so many jobs?

“Ha! Well, if you look at the new chairman of the premier league [Anthony Fry], he’s got lots of titles,” she counters. More than you? “Oh definitely. Sometimes it gets a bit challenging. But I find that by being involved in lots of areas that you’re really interested in, it enriches your experience, and enables you, hopefully, to do all those roles better. Some of the chairmen of the FTSE 100 – you’ll see they often have six to 10 directorships.”

Rabbatts’ story is inspirational. She is charming and modest. But she can also be defensive. Often, she narrows her eyes when I ask a question, and though known forf being a no-nonsense kind of operator, her answers have a whiff of managerese. She talks about “skill sets” and metaphorical “journeys”. Well, she does work in football.

In fact, she is in the business Premier League. In February, Radio 4 included her in a list of the top 100 most powerful women in Britain, and William Hague recently asked her on to the Supervisory Board of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But it’s in her role as the only woman ever to have joined the board of the FA – which celebrates its 150th birthday in October – that Rabbatts has made history.

Two years ago, the sports minister Hugh Robertson said football was the worst governed sport in Britain. This came after a six-month select committee inquiry into the FA, which concluded that the governing body needed a radical overhaul. Apart from having an arcane structure, it was too white, middle-class and male. Two new non-executive directors were created to complete a board of 12, of which Rabbatts became one.

Being half-Jamaican and female, Rabbatts was clearly a neat answer to the FA’s critics. It seems a terrible question, but did she feel that was why she was appointed? “I felt very strongly and clearly that the skills that they were seeking, I pretty much ticked every box they had,” she says. “Now, were the FA conscious that they needed a woman’s voice? I think some of them were. But more importantly, it was about what I brought to the table – a skill set and experiences that the board were in need of.”

Certainly, she has a record of getting things done. Immediately before the FA, she spent five years at Millwall, the south-London football club so synonymous with racism and hooliganism that the fans once chanted “Nobody likes us, we don’t care”. During her time there, first as Executive Deputy Chairman, then Chairman, she was credited with softening the club’s image, and securing much-needed finance from a new backer. She sacked two managers, and saw off an aggressive take-over bid from the shareholder and asset stripper Graham Ferguson Lacey, who was thought to want to sell off the Bermondsey site for development.

Her move to Millwall from running Lambeth Council in 2006 had caused as much eyebrow-raising – wouldn’t the Lions tear her apart? Rabbatts’ approach was to disarm them by calling a meeting, getting to know the skinheads face to face. It worked, and, like any manager, her popularity rose as long as the club was winning. The Millwall fans’ forum – not a place for the faint-hearted – gives an idea of how she is regarded. Where one fan posts disgusting comments about her looks, others rush to defend her: “Heather is a brilliantly minded and very charming woman,” says one. “Never talks us down, and done a decent job here,” adds another.

So what has she done at the FA in the past two years? “I’m still trying to understand it all,” she admits. “But one of my areas of interest is ensuring that women have opportunities to work in football.” Not just playing the sport, but also working in the infrastructure of the men’s game. “Many women would love a professional role in sport,” she says. “As doctors, physios, and so on.”

Why are there so few women working in football? “Part of it is cultural. You don’t usually open the appointments page and see ‘Director of finance for Chelsea or Wigan’ advertised. Those roles still tend to get filled by informal networks. So what used to happen is someone would say, ‘You’d be good at that job’, and that was that. It’s getting better, partly because clubs are becoming more professional organisations. They have been clubs, which operate in a very particular way.”

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2013 by in Inequality, Soccer.
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