Clare Connor: ‘There were lots of sexist jokes … that isn’t without damage’

MCC’s first female president on putting up with sexism, why Lord’s belongs to all and diamond pendant protocol

Clare Connor has been in cricket ever since she was a little kid on the boundary, watching her dad play at Preston Nomads CC near Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs. The game got under her skin, in that way it does. She wanted to learn how to oil and sand his bat, would have tantrums on the odd weekends she wasn’t allowed to go with him. “I just completely fell in love with cricket.” So she gave her life to it, she played more than a hundred games for England, captained them for six years, then moved into administration at the England and Wales Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council, and now she is the first female president of MCC.

For a lot of that time Connor was the only woman in the room. She played with boys right through her childhood, from eight to 18, when she was the only girl in Brighton College’s first team. She was the first woman to play in The Cricketer Cup and the first woman to play for Lashings CC. As an administrator she was the only woman on the leadership team at the ECB and the only woman on the global cricket committee at the ICC. I have an idea it can’t always have been easy, I only begin to understand just how difficult it was when I ask her about her experiences of sexism.

“In the early days at the ECB, being the only woman in the boardroom, there were lots of sexist jokes,” Connor says. (Those “early days” really weren’t so very long ago. Connor joined the ECB as head of women’s cricket in 2007.) I ask how she handled it. “In the main I’ve absorbed it, and that …” she pauses, and her voice cracks. “That isn’t without damage. Yeah. It does get me a bit emotional, actually, because over time those experiences do build up. It’s like a sponge can only absorb so much, I guess.” It feels to me like it wasn’t the jokes that hurt – she is tough enough – so much as the way she felt compelled to laugh along with them.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not surprising, is it? You hear those kinds of jokes in any heavily male workplace, it’s part of everyday sexism. And actually what I did then was laugh too, because I had good relationships with the men saying those things, I liked them. I can remember one of the people I’m talking about really well, he is a really good friend, and his whole life has been in men’s cricket, and, well, we’re all products of our times, and our environments, and the experiences we’ve had, aren’t we?” She is too. “I’d been exposed to all sorts of terrible boys’ conversations as a teenager. That was what I’d come from. So when I was met with that sort of ‘banter’, if you like, in the workplace, I did laugh along with it.”

Clare Connor
Clare Connor in her playing days, appealing for a run out against South Africa in Hyderabad in the 1997 World Cup. Photograph: Craig Prentis/Getty Images

Back then, Connor says, they always called her “one of the boys”. She says it felt like a privilege, “because it gave me a sense of acceptance and belonging”. But did she have any choice if she wanted to stay in cricket? Could she have succeeded, would she be in the position she is now, by being “one of the girls” instead?

Connor does not laugh at those jokes any more. Her perspective has changed, partly because she has more female colleagues who didn’t have that same “privilege”. She has personally overseen the transformation of women’s cricket in this country, the introduction of the first full-time professional international contracts in 2014, the first full-time domestic contracts in 2020, the launch of the Hundred in 2021. “I succeed as a player through all those boys teams in spite of a system, not because of it,” she says. “The system now is giving more girls the chance to be on a pathway that is set up for them, so girls should be able to thrive in the game by design, not by complete chance, which is what my situation was.”

A “complete chance” that has ended up bringing her here, to the MCC. People who say the club has a diversity problem cannot have studied the list of former presidents – lords, barons, viscounts, marquis, earls, and dukes, three field marshals, two prime ministers, and one prince. And now, after 236 years, a woman. MCC, owner of Lord’s and custodian of the Laws, bastion of the English establishment, has taken another leap forward into the 20th century.

Clare Connor
Clare Connor joins a girls’ game in Birmingham earlier this year. ‘The system now is giving more girls the chance to be on a pathway,’ she says. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images for Birmingham 2022

Connor first came to Lord’s when she was nine, on a school trip to watch Eton play Harrow. “I remember the size of it,” she says, “when you’re small everything seems so much bigger”. It wasn’t much less intimidating when she came back as a player, for a one-day game against South Africa in 1997. At the time, women were not allowed in the pavilion on matchdays, unless they were the Queen, or working on the cleaning or catering staff. Connor and her teammates were only allowed to pass through the Long Room on their way to and from the changing room.

That changed in September 1998, when MCC finally voted to admit female members. The vote was pushed through by her predecessor, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, which gives an idea of the influence the president can wield. “I’ve tried to work out what I can and can’t do and what’s within the scope of the role,” Connor says, “but what I don’t want to do is finish my year, which I know will fly by, and think, ‘you should have had that conversation a bit more often.’ Because obviously what I would love to see in a year’s time is some change in lots of the areas we’re talking about.”

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That conversation” still has a long way to go. England’s women have not played at Lord’s since they won the World Cup final against India in 2017. Only a few weeks ago their star bowler, Sophie Ecclestone, sent a tweet congratulating her brother, Jimmy, for becoming the first person in their family to play at the ground when his team made the final of the Village Cup. Sophie is the world’s No 1-ranked Twenty20 bowler and has played 86 games for England. Jimmy opens the bowling for Alvanley, from Division Two of the Cheshire League. They call it the home of cricket but it has only ever been a home for half England’s cricketers.

Connor “absolutely” wants to see more women’s matches “at all levels” at Lord’s, including the Varsity match. “I think it’s really important at every level of the game, and this being the home of cricket, that girls and women feel included on and off the pitch, in the dressing rooms, in the Long Room, in meeting rooms, in decision-making, that they feel represented.” There’s progress to be made among the membership too. About 1,000 of the club’s 18,000 members are female. The obstacle is a 29‑year‑long waiting list but Connor hopes the club can find “creative ways” around it. She mentions family memberships for Hundred fans and playing memberships for people who have come through the MCC Foundations Hub program for state schoolchildren.

In the late 1970s, EW Swanton wrote that MCC “has a significant and important role to play in times of stress, when the old values and standards are so clearly and dangerously at risk.” These are times of stress, too, as Connor says, “around the future of Test cricket, around the environment, around governance, and around the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion agenda”. But the club can’t respond by retreating from the problem. There is a delicate line to tread, she says, but “it can’t stay with both feet in the past”. The club’s recent decision to change the wording of the Laws to make them gender neutral, suggest that the executive team agrees with her, that the culture of the club is finally changing.

One of the traditional perks of being MCC president is that your partner gets to wear a diamond-encrusted pendant, which was bequeathed to the club way back in the day. It’s so expensive that a security guard locks it away after the close of play each evening. Connor isn’t sure what she will do with it. No one at the club is. There’s no protocol, so far as she knows, for who gets to wear it when the president is a woman. “Perhaps I could myself,” she says, “but to be honest I don’t think I will. It’s not really my style.”

Contributor

Andy Bull

The GuardianTramp

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