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

Heather Rabbatts ran Lambeth Council and then turned Millwall Football Club around. Now she's facing her biggest challenge yet – as the first female on the board of the FA.

The 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."

She says she doesn't represent women in football, but she does feel a strong sense of injustice on their under-representation, not just in sport. "Obviously more women are working, but you still have that pay gap. You can see more women going into the professions, but at the senior levels – like QCs, or judges – women are still very few and far between." What can be done? "I think you have to keep raising the question. I find it curious that feminism has become such a loaded term, as if it's acting in a negative or detrimental way. And I think the more that it can be seen as about women being 50 per cent of the population, and having huge talents… This is a country with economical challenges, where we should ensure that we have the best people optimised. And to ignore women – I just find it absurd. How can that be controversial?"

As for the women's game, she says the "tide is turning" and points to last summer's Olympics, when 80,000 people watched the Brazil versus England match, but there is still a long way to go. "The women's game is growing all the time. Whether it will ever generate the revenues that the men's game does, well, I won't see it in my lifetime. But who knows what might happen in a hundred years?"

The story of Rabbatts' life is itself proof that change is possible. She is modest about her achievements, yet she is clearly addicted to taking on daunting challenges. Where does this reserve of self-confidence come from? "I don't think I do have endless self-confidence, actually. I suppose what I have is resilience." Her drive to overcome adversity comes, she says, from witnessing her mother's experiences of being a Jamaican immigrant to Britain in the 1960s.

"My mum was Jamaican and my father English. Being mixed race at that time was a very difficult place. And I didn't fit in. I found school quite difficult because of that, and I think what I learnt was to be resilient. My mum – she wasn't an intellectual person. She was a woman who loved her home, Jamaica, and everything that it stood for, and who brought me up with a sense of, 'Don't let other people define you'. Because other people are saying you're a failure, or you're this, or calling you names, that isn't who you are. And I think from a very young age, for all of my life, while she was alive, she kept on saying it. So, I don't feel scared by taking on those roles. If you open yourself to scrutiny, and you are criticised, it doesn't mean that you don't feel upset or hurt. But you have an ability to get over it."

Did her mother also toughen up? "No. I think it crushed my mother. So I think what she was doing was giving me something she didn't have. I think in the end she had a very difficult journey in her life. She was unhappy for a very long time."

Rabbatts left school at 16 with a handful of O-levels, but later took evening classes to complete her A-levels, and got a place at the London School of Economics. She joined the bar and became a barrister, aged 26, a job she loved. So why did she give it up? "I had my son, and as with many women, it was impossible to manage having a young child and trying to get to a court in Portsmouth. And as a barrister, you only get paid when your fees come it. It was difficult, but I always planned to go back." Instead, she went into local government, rising to become chief of Merton then Lambeth councils. When she took over Lambeth, it was famously Britain's most corrupt council. She spent much of her first year sacking people.

Meanwhile, Rabbatts' mother was instrumental in the upbringing of her son, Euan, and she now regrets not having spent more time with him. "You can't have everything," she says. But you have, I suggest. "Well, everything comes at a price. I never picked my son up from the school gate. So I never shared some of his childhood, and that is lost for me for ever." Is that a regret? "Yes. I think it is. There are times when I missed out. He probably doesn't feel he did. But I feel I missed out. I suppose now, as he has got older, I try and support him in a different way."

Rabbatts admits, however, that she would never have had the patience to be a stay-at-home mother. "No, if I had stayed I wouldn't have been a very good mum." So what's the solution to balancing childcare with work? "What I say to most women who are starting out is make it a conscious choice. Don't find yourself slipping into ways of working without feeling you're making an explicit choice. But it is very difficult. I think men are also making sacrifices around not seeing their children. I think we're probably seeing more men now who actually want to see their children. But on the whole, a woman is still the person who is in charge of the organising. It isn't that you don't find men doing the school run, but the person who is organising it – have they gone to the dentist, or whatever – is the woman, and actually I find it's carrying the organising that is the difficult thing."

On Desert Island Discs recently, Rabbatts said she felt guilty about not having the fridge permanently well-stocked. "It is weird," she admits. "Why have women taken that on? I would love to feel that this next generation of women feel differently, but I suspect they don't actually. Whenever I talk to women, they are caught up in, 'How do I have a career and be a mother?'. I think it has a huge impact on all of us."

Rabbatts, aged 57, is married to Mike Lee, a former spokesman for UEFA who runs his own sports PR company. They split their time between London and a home in Kent, where Rabbatts keeps two spaniels and a horse. His son from a previous marriage and her son Euan, now 30 and a lawyer, get on so well that they are "like brothers". In fact, they are about to go travelling round Thailand together for the younger boy's gap year. "I don't want to know what they get up to!" Rabbatts laughs.

There's no question that Rabbatts might reduce her workload any time soon, though she does occasionally think of a time when she could spend more time riding her horse and travelling. Every year, the family goes on a fortnight's adventure holiday, driving across America or thrashing through a jungle. She refuses to work weekends, though this can be difficult where football is concerned. Then again, as she says, going to the FA Cup Final isn't exactly a hardship.

Rabbatts came to the sport chiefly through her son's love of it, though she is now clearly a fan herself. "It's fantastic theatre," she says. "I think it's the sporting DNA of this country. It's about putting on two big live shows every week. I've been in the media and entertainment business for some time, and football is a part of that." The question remains how much one woman can do to change its macho culture. She doesn't claim to have all the answers, or even offer an idea of what she might achieve in her time at the FA. But if anyone is likely to be an agent for change, Heather Rabbatts seems a safe punt.

Heather Rabbatts is Chair of Malaria No More; malarianomore.org.uk/

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