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Women in Football Members In Focus: Chris Paouros, Proud Lilywhites

Chris Paouros has a lot going on. When she’s not working her main role as a freelance consultant and advisor on organisational culture, leadership and equity, diversity and inclusion, she can often be found in her capacity as co-chair of Proud Lilywhites, the LGBTQ+ supporters’ group at Tottenham Hotspur FC. When those duties can be put to one side, she picks up as vice-chair of trustees at Kick it Out, Treasurer of Just Like us, Chair of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and a board member at the Football Supporters’ Association. Alongside all these responsibilities, Chris also manages to serve as a member of the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board and the FA Council.

By any reckoning, that’s a lot of plates to keep spinning. “But thankfully, nothing’s smashed yet,” Chris grins.

It’s quite a journey that led her to this position, so let’s go back to the beginning.

Chris has been a Spurs fan all her life. Her uncle moved to north London from Cyprus in 1961 – the year of Tottenham’s first league and cup double. Other family members followed him across Europe, and by the time Chris was born in the following decade, her destiny was fixed. Her first trip to White Hart Lane came at the age of six – “that was it, I was hooked” – and while players have come and gone, and the club has moved to a new home, the intense sensory buzz remains unaltered.

“It still evokes that feeling,” says Chris, “every time I walk up the stairs now, of that very first time – the awe of being in this stadium, seeing how green the grass was, and that crackle of excitement in the air, that kind of anticipation and hope and that sort of togetherness, if you like. I can’t shake that feeling.”

For a time she was uncertain how her love of football could coexist with her value system and identity and the other concerns in her life. “I went to university, I came out, I ran the women’s group, all of those things, and it didn’t seem to fit with what that football culture was,” she recalls.

But during those early visits to the Lane, Chris made herself a promise.

“I’d always promised that six-year-old self, literally from the minute I set foot in that stadium, that when I grew up I’d get a season ticket. So when I got a job in 1996, I went to buy a season ticket.”

It was in 2014 that she joined Women in Football after playing a key role in establishing the Proud Lilywhites. Having been there at the very start and watching the progress made since is particularly meaningful for Chris.

“When we started, there were four LGBTQ+ fan groups,” she recalls, “and now there are more than 50. And that movement is something that is embedded in English football now. Whether you like it or not, you know that there’s a movement of LGBTQ+ fan groups in English football. I wouldn’t have dreamt of that when we started in 2014.”

Within a few months, though, tragedy struck with the unexpected loss of the person who, Chris points out, was “one of the very first Proud Lilywhites” – her wife Monica. “Our very first event was a few weeks after she died. She was a New Zealander – her family were here from New Zealand for the funeral and they came to the first Proud Lilywhites event. That’s another thing that is really important for me.

“I thought at the time I wanted to do something that was for her legacy, really. And I thought I’d start a charity. But I realised you spend your whole time fundraising if you start something like that, and I didn’t want to fundraise. I just wanted to do good work… and all of this work really is for her legacy, from a Proud Lilywhites perspective. If we want to make sure that football is welcoming, that there’s a sense of belonging and community for LGBTQ+ folks, then we know we’ve got a place in the game just like everybody else has – that there’ll always be someone to watch a game with, always going to be someone to chat about Spurs with, and that we’re out. But we’re also going to campaign to make the game better for everybody – not just for LGBTQ+ folks, but for everybody.”

As a child of immigrants, a lesbian and a football fan, Chris has had to negotiate a dense thicket of cultural expectations and stereotypes in establishing her identity.

“If you’re like an immigrant kid, your parents can be kind of desperate to assimilate because they’re in a new country, but also desperate to keep hold of their own culture. There can be quite restrictive gender norms and lots of rules about what it means to be a girl. And I confounded a lot of those because of my love for football. It’s those gender norms that restrict us… and all of it is messed up. Gender norms are based on nothing.

“My parents didn’t want me to leave home because of that restrictive kind of upbringing. My dad was like ‘you’re only leaving home if you go to Oxbridge’. I’m like ‘I don’t want to go to Oxbridge’, and I managed to persuade them. I went to Birmingham, which I absolutely loved, but my mum still blames me going to Birmingham on my being a lesbian!”

For all her readiness to acknowledge the positive steps made towards inclusiveness, in football and in wider society, Chris is quick to point out the dangerous wave of reaction that has swept across Britain in recent times. “We’re very much part of the family and part of the furniture. However, you know, last year, hate crime in the UK in terms of homophobia rose by 42 per cent, and transphobia rose by 56 per cent. So while that’s the backdrop in which we’re operating, we have to keep going.”

New start
It was the loss of Monica that ultimately prompted a big change of direction for Chris. After nearly 20 years leading the consultancy business SHM, which she’d co-founded alongside other directors, she found herself in what she remembers as “the depths of grief”, and a new start was needed.

So began the switch into freelance work, and the spinning of all those plates. In 2015 Chris spent five months running the WEP’s election campaigns for the London mayoralty and Greater London Assembly, which yielded hundreds of thousands of votes. And the breadth of Chris’s experience with SHM stood her in good stead.

“I’ve been a researcher when I first started, a project manager and programme manager and an account director. I’d done training facilitation, et cetera. But then it turns out that I was really good at actually doing the business. Who knew? I’ve got a cultural studies degree! But I was good at business, and so I ran our business for the last 15 or so years.

“And so all of that gave me really good grounding to go and be a consultant and advisor, and so that’s what I did. I took that leap. I did that first project and since then, I’ve spent my time chatting to people, helping people to figure out what the questions are. You know, you think there’s an issue, but you’re not really sure what the question is, so helping them to figure out what the questions are or helping them to answer the questions.

“I do much less implementation, because when you’ve got somebody like me there doing some work with you, actually you’re better off with your team implementing it because you know your business. The majority of my work is really around people, people are at the heart of any organisation, so working with your people is how to ensure your business can thrive.”

Those clients, it turns out, are a mixed bag and not predominantly football-related. One is Multiverse – the apprenticeship-focused tech company set up by Euan Blair MBE and recently valued at £1.4billion. Another is the famous British architecture firm Foster and Partners, responsible for dozens of high-profile projects from San Francisco to Stockholm to Singapore (including the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium). And then there’s the likes of Shift – a small but high-impact charity working to divert at-risk young people away from exploitation and crime.

Her current work with the Premier League, Chris explains, was her first paid-for project in football. “I’ve been very conscious of a lot of my work in football being voluntary because I thought was important to maintain my independence and a lot of my work in football is about change and activism. But this was a really exciting piece of work – I’m helping them to build their gender equality strategy.”

Finally, as a Women in Football member for the best part of a decade, Chris has seen the organisation expand dramatically in terms of both membership and reach, but the basic principles of advocacy have remained a constant.

“I remember going to the first event and going ‘oh, this is really cool!'” she says. “Football is still an industry in which women are a minority. Even though we’re not a minority in demographic terms, in general, the industry is set up for men, so basically it’s important that as women, there’s an organisation in which we can get together, which advocates for us and all the rest of it.

“When we started the Proud Lilywhites, we were very much of the view that we wanted to put ourselves out of business, and I imagine that Women in Football are in the same space. In the end you want to make sure that you’re not even thinking about being a woman in football any more. You know what you want to have in your industry, but until then, there are certain issues that we have to address as women in the industry. And it’s great that there’s an organisation that’s doing that for us – with us and alongside us.”

Find out more at Chris’s website and follow @chrispaouros on Twitter

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