The Future of Gender Equality, from School to Boardroom

Helena Morrissey Talks with Camille Merrells

Helena Morrissey is the unstoppable CEO of Newton, Chair of the Investment Management Association (IMA) and founder of the 30% Club – to name but a few of her many and varied roles. Our editor Camille Merrells met Helena on a rainy Thursday morning to talk about the future of the 30% Club, gender equality from the schoolroom to the boardroom, and the economy.

The 30% Club was officially launched in 2010 with the goal of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by the end of 2015. Since then the proportion of female FTSE-100 directors has risen from 12.5% to 23%.

A rise she attributes in part to having a “measurable goal.” But she says a big reason for their success has been the involvement of established male leaders. “It was a sudden realisation that we women tended to be talking to each other rather a lot and that we needed to have those in power actually saying it’s important as well.”

Slowly but surely the climate for women in business is changing from what Helena herself experienced when she was starting out. “I say this hesitantly because I’m slightly ashamed to admit it but I think I made compromises along the way, I didn’t really feel like I had much choice. I felt that to get a seat at the table I had to fit in with everybody else. Whereas now I think for women to succeed we need women to be themselves.”

Talking about the club’s development Helena says she is excited for the future, but does she think the 30% Club’s goal will be reached by the end of 2015? “Well we’re at 23% now and obviously we’ll have to have quite a sharp pick up in pace to get to 30%. So I’m guessing it might be something like 28%. I was looking yesterday at turnover figures, on average about 14% of the FTSE board positions come up for grabs every year. And if we kept at the same rate of female appointments – roughly a third – then we won’t quite get there but we’ll get somewhere between 25% and 30%.”

But in her own words “I don’t think I’ll be ringing my hands saying ‘oh how terrible we didn’t get there’ I’ll be thinking about how much we managed to achieve.”

“I felt that to get a seat at the table I had to fit in with everybody else. Whereas now I think for women to succeed we need women to be themselves.”
For those of you wondering if that’s it for the 30% Club at the end of 2015, you can be assured that is far from the case, in Helena’s words they have moved away from having “this little focus on women on boards” to much broader initiatives to encourage diversity. To quote from the 30% Club handbook, the focus is on “bringing cohesion and creating new initiatives from schoolroom to boardroom.”

Helena is very passionate about this broader focus. “We have all these new programmes and they’re all in the pipeline. We have a big launch soon of a collaboration with Speakers for Schools. We’re going right back to the early stages, there’s a long way to go before we have true gender equality at every level.

With the 30% club evolving so much I ask Helena if she feels her role has drastically changed as well. “Well this is a passion for me and something that I will always champion. But I’ve made a commitment to my family as well as my business that I’m not going to carry on with the same intensity after the end of this year. It’s been my baby but your children grow up don’t they? And you’d never wash your hands of them but you wouldn’t expect to be sorting out what they’re having for breakfast either. I will always have a role, but there’s a chair or co-chair of every one of the sub groups. So I’m trying to perfect the art of delegation.” She says, laughing, “trying” is the operative word there I imagine.

Going back to Helena’s family I ask her how having children impacted her career. “I think it has at certain stages made it a struggle, I have to be honest and say I haven’t discovered some sort of magic wand that you can wave over everyone and make them sit there quietly and do what they’re told – either at home or at work. I’ve made compromises, felt terrible sometimes but I now feel that, actually, we shouldn’t have to make all of those choices. I started working more than 25 years ago so I would have hoped things have moved on. Maybe they haven’t moved on enough.”

“Do you see things changing soon?” I ask, with flexitime and different working weeks being suggested less and less half-heartedly. “I think the question is, has it still got the stigma attached? Is it still seen as a perk rather than actually people working more ‘smartly’?” At Newton a few years ago when she was being asked to make redundancies, Helena instead introduced a four-day week, she says “to my surprise as many men as well as women took it up and that changed the way it was seen then.”

But there is still stigma around flexible working hours, make no mistake. One of Helena’s many hats is the chair of Opportunity Now, whose 2013 survey of 25,000 people (Project 28-40) revealed that the women who worked flexibly said that they felt resented by their colleagues for doing so and started working longer hours, they also said that it was incompatible with career progression. The survey also revealed that their colleagues who didn’t work flexibly did, in fact, resent them.


On Work and Family

Helena definitely knows a thing or two about how hard it is to work full-time when you have a family, her and her husband have nine children. This seems like a dominant focus for the media I tell her. I wonder if there would be as much of a focus on her family if she were a man.

“I don’t think there would,” she says, “Although I have to say I don’t mind as much as perhaps people think I mind, because it’s a big part of who I am. My life has evolved without this big life plan, and I’m very lucky that my husband’s at home. I don’t really mind that much.”

On the subject of having children she says, “I do think often we, as women, overthink it. There’s never a great time to have a baby. I mean we couldn’t really afford to have a baby when we first had a baby. I didn’t really particularly want to come back to work after the first baby but because I had to, by the time I had more children I was conscious that actually a baby isn’t a baby forever, and you can think more long-term.”

“Would that be your advice for women then?” I ask, “to not overthink it and realise that it is by no means a career-killer?”

“Well a lot of people come up to me with these questions.” She says, people wondering, when they’re planning on getting married and having children, whether they should take a promotion. “I say ‘for goodness’ sake take the promotion!” She says the important thing is to take things one step at a time.

Her biggest piece of advice for women who do want to have children and stay on the corporate ladder is this: “If you really want to have a baby, just make sure that, if you’re also ambitious, you speak up about what you want to your employer and then listen to yourself as well as your views change.” Women shouldn’t have to be passed up for more committed roles because people assume they want to take a step back due to motherhood.

“I would also like to see it not be so linear.” Meaning that it’s currently hard for people to “downshift”, however temporarily after a baby because there’s a certain timeline people have in their heads about the road to success. “If you haven’t made it in twelve years people think you’re never going to make it. But just because you’ve taken some time out in a career that might span 40 or 50 years even, what difference should it make?”

At Newton Helena tries to ensure that the environment is a much more encouraging space for women. “I recently had three round tables with different women from different parts of the business. And it was interesting because some people had absolutely fantastic experiences, and then others recounted things that I would wince at. So I do think that the culture here is great but not perfect, it’s something you have to work at constantly.”

Regular readers will remember my last interview for this feature with Cheryl Giovannoni of Ogilvy & Mather, who felt that part of the problem is that women just aren’t putting themselves out there at work as much as men have been doing for decades. Helena agrees, “You realise that actually certain people strategise, and maybe they take more credit. I’m not saying suddenly women should take on bad habits, but you shouldn’t completely hide your light under a bushel and sometimes women do. Sometimes we have to contribute to the change.”


On The Global Female Leaders Summit and Meaningful Change

Helena is speaking at the Global Female Leaders Summit in Berlin in April of this year. I ask her if she thinks it’s important that women in business have a space of their own to learn from and talk to each other. “I do, I mean for a while I was quite opposed to things which were all women because I feel strongly that the conversation should not be dominated by women talking to women, because it doesn’t achieve anything. But I also do think that women draw confidence from each other. I think as long as it’s not all our hopes and dreams resting on the women’s events then they’re good complementary things to have.”

From talking to her you can see that Helena is extremely optimistic for the future of women in business, and there is no denying that the 30% Club have had unprecedented success in terms of real and measurable change, but I ask her what she thinks the biggest factors are still standing in women’s way.



“I think perseverance is the biggest problem. It takes a decade or longer to become a Chief Financial Officer or a Chief Executive Officer and that’s where a quota could not possibly work because you need the technical skills and the experience. So I think the biggest challenge is trying to get enough change to happen that the environment is conducive to women wanting to stay and wanting to develop their career.”

Like many women I’ve spoken to, Helena thinks mentoring can be a powerful tool in this fight. “Of our mentors, two thirds of them are men and it’s turned out to be quite liberating for women. They’ve said that being able to talk to someone outside of their own organisation about concerns or exciting opportunities they had was different and they could speak more candidly. And the men particularly who were mentors said that it just opened their eyes to these issues, they didn’t realise before that it was quite so tough.”

She doesn’t dwell on the difficulties for long though, before I know it that indefatigable optimism is back: “In five years time I’m absolutely confident that people will say ‘remember all that stuff we had to do about this?’ I mean we won’t have perfection but there will be a shift and it just won’t be normal to sit in a room with only men and maybe one woman.”


On the Future

Lastly, I want to ask Helena about the current financial situation in the UK and Europe, don’t be fooled by all of the work she does, first and foremost finance and fund management are her area of expertise. I ask her about her recent article in the Telegraph about quantitative easing.

“Well I think, unfortunately we’ve done so much quantitative easing that we’ve sort of burned our bridges a little bit in terms of what other policy opportunities we have. The weeks since the start of the new year have been fairly hairy in the markets, and the $50 oil and Greek election are piling on and I am quite nervous about just one thing sparking. We just haven’t got a cushion. I think that we might end up having to take more pain before we can get the gain. We just don’t have the opportunity to do any kind of fiscal easing at this stage. So I definitely feel more nervous than relaxed.”

But what does that mean for fund management? “I think the only thing we can do is to be nimble as investors, one of my hopes is that active management can prove its worth. I mean that’s what we’re paid to do. If we fail that test that’s going to be a problem.”

In case you think she’s succumbing to pessimism here you should know that last bit was said with a chuckle. Helena saves me the inconvenience of writing a conclusion for this article by summing up herself: “I’m excited about the women’s thing, I’m nervous about the economy.” Seems like a very wise place to be where I’m standing, especially with Helena Morrissey spearheading that little matter of the “women’s thing.”


Helena Morrissey will be speaking at the Global Female Leaders Summit in April, 21st and 22nd, 2015. Apply for tickets at:



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