By Becky Thompson and Darren Lewis, CNN
(CNN) — You’re hired! Football executive Lorna Falconer has never been on “The Apprentice,” but the story of how she got a foot in the door of an industry that is notoriously difficult to enter for women, especially Black women, has echoes of the hit UK television show.
Before Alan Sugar moved into TV he was the Tottenham Hotspur chairman and part-owner. Falconer, who at the time was working in insurance in the 1990s, wrote a long and passionate letter to Sugar explaining her desire to switch careers.
Feeling unfulfilled working in insurance, she says she wrote to Sugar after reflecting on what she wanted to do with her life. Her motivation came from watching football matches with her dad. Falconer could see how much joy the sport brought him.
“He [my dad] is such a hardworking man. But he absolutely lived for sport on Saturday and Tottenham, he just loved playing, he loved watching football,” Falconer, who is head of football operations at Brentford FC, told CNN contributor Darren Lewis.
“It just made me think if I’m going to work for the rest of my life, I’m going to do something I am passionate about. And I was passionate about seeing my dad happy so that it transitioned into I’m going to do something at Tottenham,” added Falconer, who is one of the few Black women in a senior role at a men’s English professional football club.
Falconer was thrilled to be invited for an interview and started working in Tottenham’s commercial department in 1995. And so began her career in football, though as a woman she says it hasn’t been easy and all too often she has been the only Black person in the room.
According to an October 2020 survey, two-thirds of the 4,200 members of Women in Football have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace.
Last year the English Football Association launched the Football Leadership Diversity Code, in which clubs agreed that 15% of new executive appointments will be from a Black or underrepresented ethnic background, with 30% of them female
No such code was in place as Falconer took her first steps to climb football’s corporate ladder.
“I knew that I needed to be in power to be able to make a decision or to make a change,” says Falconer, who was shocked at the daily slights she says she’s endured.
“There were so many small things that would happen on a day-to-day basis,” adds Falconer, who worked at Spurs between 1995 and 1998.
“Even when I first started, and I remember going up to the security gates and I wasn’t welcomed at the gate. It was almost: ‘Where are you going? You must be going to the wrong place.’
“I thought, why is this happening to me?”
She remembers a meeting where she suggested widening out the food menu to cater to different tastes and the need to be mindful of people’s religious beliefs.
“When I was in the sales department, I was trying to work out how could we include more people from different backgrounds who were more particular with what they ate and how to include them into the club.
“And I asked if we could just adjust the menu slightly to include halal meat and those that I worked with, it wasn’t so much that they disagreed, it was that they were almost disgusted.
“That was what was most upsetting … how upset the others were at the thought of including others.
In a recent interview with Brentford’s website, Falconer said both Sugar’s son Daniel and the former Spurs chairman saw her point of view in making more food choices available and that “it was a good idea.”
It should be made clear that Falconer here is talking about her experiences 25 years ago under a different regime at Spurs. When contacted by CNN, a spokesman for the club didn’t comment on Falconer’s specific claims, but said the club prides itself on being an inclusive club and that such behavior would not be accepted under any circumstances now.
Falconer has plenty of self-assurance, but at times she says she was left crying in private.
“I thought my career was crumbling … we were all sales associates and we all had to work together. So, I thought if they are against things that I’m thinking and I’m doing, how do I move forward with this?
“And at that time, I thought, okay, they don’t agree with me and they’re not going to support me. I’m going to have to leave. And I’m in my dream job.”
Falconer left Spurs in 1998 to work part-time for the Premier League. Nine years later she began working for what is now known as the English Football League, eventually joining Brentford FC as a Logistics Manager in 2015 and progressing to her current role as Head of Operations two years ago.
The club says it has the ambition to be “the most inclusive in the UK” and businesswoman Monique Choudhuri sits on Brentford’s board.
Falconer’s move has been largely positive although there are still challenges and times when she has felt uncomfortable.
She says decided to consciously make some changes, even including changing her appearance.
Falconer began wearing the Brentford tracksuit to matches instead of a more traditional work outfit to prevent being questioned about whether she was meant to be there with the team — although she says it didn’t stop her from being interrogated as to why she was there at one away cup game.
“The security guard approached me — now, I was pitch-side. I was stood there next to Thomas [Frank], the manager … and all my colleagues were around me … and the security approached me and just in an aggressive manner asked what I was doing there.”
“I replied: ‘My job.'”
Despite having her lanyard on, Falconer says she continued to be questioned as to why she was pitch-side.
“It’s sadly, the stewards are just not used to seeing Black women, Black people in that role with the first team, at a championship club.
Falconer was speaking about other clubs. The English Football League did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Falconer says that she and Brentford have worked hard to change the culture at the club, trying to make it a more open and diverse club.
Historically football has an issue with profanity or “industrial language,” but Falconer says at Brentford, “They watch the language they use, because they see me there and they just behave different because, you know, they see a woman and they see a person of color.
“They don’t say certain words anymore, that they may have said in the past. And that is what’s happened at Brentford. And it’s happened organically by bringing good people in that recognize these things — it’s just become more of an open place to be and welcoming.”
In her current role, Falconer works closely with the club secretary and the chief executive and the directors of football at Brentford. She also works as the first team’s Covid-19 officer, taking care of their safety and protocols during the pandemic.
She’s keen to stress that she feels supported in her role and the work she does.
“They [Brentford] do not think that I’m different because I’m a Black woman, I’m an equal to them and they respect the job that I’m doing and what I’ve got to do. They rely on me and I can rely on them.”
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