Feature

Not just for the boys

Chelsea FC IT director Elaine Clarke is the only woman on the team. She talks to Karl Cushing about her daily ups and downs

The IT industry is a notoriously male-dominated environment and, although the situation has improved in recent years, there is still a noticeable dearth of women in the top management roles. But there are some notable exceptions.

A good example is Elaine Clarke. Not content with forcing her way into the IT boys' club, Clarke has broken into the male bastion of football as well.

Clarke became the IT director of Chelsea football club and the Chelsea Village leisure complex three years ago and clearly loves the role. "No two days are the same," she says. "There's so much going on." Clarke says it took her 18 months just to get to grips with it all. When she first arrived only a few people were using e-mail, the club was still using an AS400 network and staff were storing information on their C: drives. Clarke wanted to tie everything together and institute some safer computing practices. She began by getting everyone on e-mail, installing an NT server and setting up a proper network.

Clarke began her IT career as a punch operator. She then spent a number of years as a programmer at financial firm Lombard, moving through the various divisions, before getting into programme management. She later took on more of a consultancy role after she was chosen to conduct a corporate identity project for the company.

Having taken it "about as far as she could" at Lombard, Clarke took voluntary redundancy with the intention of forming her own business, although she quickly found herself in the role of IT manager for a recruitment agency. Clarke wasn't particularly happy with the job, however, so when someone at the company's recruitment software provider, Software for Sport, told Clarke about the group IT manager position at Chelsea Football Club she was immediately interested.

Initially, Clarke was reluctant to apply as she didn't think her chances of getting the job were very high. "I was quite nervous about it," she says. "I wasn't feeling intimidated about being interviewed for the job, I just felt it would be very male-dominated, and it is to a certain extent. You still tend to find that in a lot of the meetings I'll be the only woman." Clarke is also the only woman who attends the Software for Sport user group meetings.

At first the men were not sure how to behave in her presence and would treat her with kid gloves, apologising for their language and their behaviour. But things are different now. "I've got used to it I suppose," she says. "It's been inherent to my career in IT. In any male-dominated area you definitely get the really fiery people and you get the bad language and the backlashing. People used to apologise for themselves, but I just ignore it and join in with it. You've got to be like that. I don't think about it anymore: it doesn't even occur to me. I'll fight along with the rest of them."

But she is quick to counter the idea that women need to be stronger and more aggressive than their male counterparts. "You have to be tough, but you don't have to be tougher," she says. "You just have to be the same."

Clarke was "absolutely thrilled" when she got the job. "It seemed a huge challenge and I love a challenge," she says. "I can't work without one. I grabbed it with both hands." She was the only woman to apply for the job and, even now, she is the only female IT director in Premiership football.

She still occasionally encounters the attitude that she's not up to the job. "People try to undermine you and trick you because they think you don't know your stuff, but this has never unnerved me because I do," she says. And she doesn't believe this is because she is a woman. "I've never looked at it that way," she says, and is quick to point out she has never encountered this attitude at Chelsea.

Clarke says that she has always been surrounded by men, and having two sons - both Chelsea fans - helps. She also believes that attitudes are changing and not just with the men.

"Women also have a different attitude towards what they do," she says. "They're tougher and go for higher things and try to get better jobs in management."

Has her experience in IT management changed her? She says that making the move from programming into management was the hardest part - especially as the finance company was very old fashioned and male-dominated. "Your qualifications were the same [as the men] but you had to push harder," she says. But she doesn't think it has changed her as a person, although business-wise she can be "as tough as a man and sometimes even more difficult". She says the nature of management itself has changed, however, and not attitudes to gender.

"You have to be mentally tough to get anywhere and forceful with your case these days," she says. Management is a tough business and its tough to stay at this level."

Clarke has no plans to move on from Chelsea as "there's still lots to do", which helps keep the job interesting. She has even become a bit of a Chelsea fan. What she would like to do now is get a seat on the board, although she thinks this is unlikely. "I think I could bring a lot to the board," she says. "I would like to be at the hub. I think I could be more efficient if I was there."

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This was first published in November 2001

 

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