From the way Heather Rabbatts is described in the media, I imagine I’ll find her behind a huge desk, dressed in a power suit with jangling jewellery and those “see-through shoes” that have made such an impression on other journalists. Instead, she’s wearing white linen, hunched over her laptop in the open-plan office of Smuggler, a production company near Oxford Street in the West End of London.
A former barrister, she is the first female (and the first nonwhite) board member of the Football Association. She is also the head of an advertising startup, as well as the chair of the health charity Malaria No More UK. “People find comfort in being able to say, ‘I recognise you; you’re this kind of person,’ ” she says. “I am who I am. I will not be put in a box at all.”
It’s an understandable reaction from someone who has often found herself an outsider. Growing up in the 1960s, Rabbatts, who was born in Jamaica, was bullied at her primary school in London for being mixed race. “I felt after that experience it wasn’t really going to happen again,” she says.
Her unhappiness at school almost cut short her career before it even began. Rabbatts failed her eleven-plus – “At that time, if you failed your eleven-plus, you were pretty much cast into the darkness” – and then she failed her O-levels, too.
It was only when she signed up for evening classes at a local college that she discovered her academic potential and her ambition. “I had my first set of great teachers and my first black teacher, who was one of those rare people who believed in kids who have perhaps lost their way,” she tells me.
Rabbatts started to make her name as a local authority chief, running the London boroughs of Lambeth, Merton and Hammersmith and Fulham. From there, she went to work for Millwall Football Club in 2006, first as its executive deputy chair and later as the chairman.
Early in her career, some of her colleagues’ reactions were hardly more subtle than those of her playground bullies. “There was very much a sense of: ‘We don’t think this is a place for you.’ And people would say that to you without apology. That wouldn’t be said now.” Yet this is not entirely good news. “If someone says something to your face, it’s easier to respond. When you know it [discrimination] is there but you can’t quite put your finger on it, that’s much harder to navigate.”
Sometimes Rabbatts feels weighed down by the expectations placed on her as the only woman and mixedrace person at the FA board table. “My race is as important as my gender here,” she says.
When I ask her how football should tackle racism on the pitch, she replies: “My first response in a way is to reject the question. You wouldn’t ask that question to another independent director, would you?” She sounds defensive but her tone remains friendly enough. “Part of the challenge of being a mixed-race female is that everybody always assumes that those are the issues you are just going to be embedded in. I think that’s a real danger – that you let everyone else off the hook and everyone expects you to deal with it.”
Rabbatts’s feelings about being a role model are similarly complex. On several occasions, she mentions with passion the young people she’s mentored throughout her career but she finds it can be a strain, too. “I don’t want to be a role model. I find that quite burdensome but I feel it’s important that any one of us who’s achieved these roles does offer to others a sense of: ‘You can do it, too.’”
Can young people growing up in disadvantaged circumstances today achieve what she has done? Rabbatts is pessimistic. “Many young people just feel hopeless. And I don’t think I ever felt that.”
Heather Rabbatts is chair of the charity Malaria No More UK