Heather Rabbatts may not have the instant name recognition of Karren Brady, West Ham vice-chair and star of The Apprentice but few women have been so successful in breaking football’s glass ceiling.
In December 2011, Rabbatts became the first woman to join the Football Association board — and the first black board member in the FA’s 150 years. But, when I suggest that her next step must surely be to chair the organisation, she bursts out laughing.
“No,” she says. “I have no plans for the future at this stage. I’m very content.” The words will reassure Greg Dyke who had to take evasive action last October after Rabbatts’s public criticism of his all-white English football commission. It led to a quick call to Rio Ferdinand.
The 58-year-old now wants to address another imbalance. “Sport is still predominantly a middle-aged white male society,” she says. “Whenever I go and talk to young girls, I tell them there are opportunities in the world of sport and not just on the fields of play. ‘You can,’ I tell them ‘be head of finance, law, marketing, even chief executive of a club. Or the operations director running a sports stadium.’ The sport industry is growing and we want young girls to feel that it is open to them.
“We have still very high drop-out rates of young women participating in sport. In mixed schools, there’s still a sense of girls not wanting to do their best and overshadow the boys. I am particularly aware, when talking to the 14-plus young girls, that they are bombarded with images around what they should look like. The frightening statistics on the increase in anorexia and self-harm are indications that young girls are given such difficult images about what they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to look. That makes it really very challenging for a young girl to hold on to herself and be confident.
“Which is why it is important having women role models as a footballer or a cricketer. The more that young girls see that others of their gender are making these choices successfully, the more they will be encouraged in their own journeys.”
While role models will help, Rabbatts knows football needs to adjust to the needs of different religions. “Muslim women in football have further problems with issues such as headscarves. We’ve just been making changes to enable headscarves to be worn in matches and deciding the colour of these headscarves. UEFA have agreed and it then goes to FIFA. I see no reason why it should not be approved. These are small changes but it’s about encouraging participation.”
Just as important, emphasises Rabbatts, is to make sure people already in the game are not put off from participating by racist or homophobic abuse. Last week saw the launch of animated films by the FA’s Inclusion Board, which Rabbatts chairs, to encourage the reporting of such abuse.
“In previous years there’s been under reporting. We want people to know that it is simple to report abuse. And that the authorities will take action.”
But can there be much faith in the FA’s actions? Nicolas Anelka received only a five-game ban, the most lenient the FA could have imposed under their new anti-discrimination rules, for performing the anti-Semitic quenelle gesture.
“I appreciate some people will feel those sanctions weren’t tough enough. We did ask for a greater sanction but it’s an independent commission. When you go to a court, you don’t always get the sentence or outcome you desire. But it was a significant sanction. And, by taking these actions against some of our highest-profile players, we have tried to demonstrate this was unacceptable.”
Rabbatts, an Arsenal fan, then assesses Sol Campbell’s allegation that his skin colour prevented him from being England captain. “I have great respect for him as a player and he played for Arsenal. Sol was baring his soul but I’m not sure how helpful words like institutional racism are. None of us can change the past. What we have to focus on is how we change the future.”
Rabbatts accepts part of this change means making sure there are more black coaches. However, she says: “Yes, we face a catch-22 situation: you don’t have many black coaches and therefore the black players who want to be coaches feel there isn’t much opportunity.
“This is a very competitive environment and, as you get closer to the top of the pyramid, there are fewer opportunities. We need to ensure there’s a supply of talented black coaches who’ve got experience and can go for those [managerial] roles. It will take time, we’re not going to see a massive change overnight. But there is renewed energy across football that this is a matter that we can’t let slip off the agenda.”
The former BBC governor is more circumspect when dealing with another issue that will also not slip off the agenda — the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. This received renewed prominence last week following yet more reports of possible FIFA corruption over the vote. The Qataris deny there was any wrongdoing and Rabbatts confines herself to the official FA line. “There is an investigation into the running of the 2022 campaign and we are fully cooperating with that.”
But she is keen to emphasise that, whatever the world may think of the boardroom ethics of FIFA, sitting round the FA boardroom feels very different. “There is no corruption. We’re a long way away from practices seen in other countries. Generally, when you look across the sport in this country, it is conducted in a way that meets high ethical standards. It hasn’t always been the most professionally run. There is need for diversity of governance but that sense of people behaving ethically is very strong within our culture. I’m not saying you don’t have some individuals who don’t behave well but those are isolated incidents.”
However, while this is a great comfort, she confesses that, as the only woman in the FA boardroom, she “feels slightly weary”.
“You’d like just to sit back in the corner of the room. But you can’t. You always have to sit up and make sure that you’re behaving in every way, that you’re not letting down your community. You are burdened with the responsibility of representing your community. Because there are so few women in all walks of life, I am seen as holding the flag.”
What makes this flag carrying more difficult is her race. “My father was English and my mum was Jamaican. I remember being bullied, called half caste and all sorts of names when I was a kid on the playground. But, while the blood that runs through my veins represents both races, I get much more support actually in the African and Caribbean community than the white. I am lionised by the non-white community. When I go and do talks to groups of women or conferences of black and ethnic minority people, I get a sort of level of respect and admiration that always makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Because we are still very few, we’re the people’s life raft.”