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When Helena Morrissey started the in November 2015, she sent handwritten letters to the chairmen of every FTSE 350 company, stating her aim of achieving gender balance on boards and in senior management. The message would be better received this way than in a generic email, she figured.
By the time she had reached ‘H’ for Hanson, the replies started coming in from the As and Bs. They weren’t encouraging. “Even though I said that this had nothing to do with quotas, they said that they hated quotas”, says Morrissey.
One man even told her that she would destroy British business: “He’s still in a very powerful position, in another organisation. I’ve sat next to him at a dinner since then and we didn’t say anything about it, but we both knew.”
Through her stellar career at the top echelons of global ﬁnance, which has seen her move from the bond desks at Schroders in New York and London to slicing through the ranks at Newton Investment Management (where she became chief executive) and her current position as Head of Personal Investing at Legal & General Investment Management, Morrissey is used to being in a minority. But she has never felt that her gender has held her back.
‘The narrative gets stuck on women, women, women, and how bad men are, and that’s not going to help us get results.’
Known for being the mother of nine children as much as for her services to business, she is quietly determined rather than confrontational in her approach. She doesn’t mind talking about her large family, because it’s part of her story, she says, and even if people don’t have nine kids, many “struggle with careers and having children”. She’s currently writing a book on parenting with her husband – a former Buddhist priest who stays at home to look after the younger ones – following the success of her ﬁrst, A Good Time to be a Girl.
Made a Dame in 2017, named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine and twice voted one of the 50 Most Inﬂuential People in Finance, Morrissey says her drive comes from her upbringing – even though she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to achieve growing up. “I felt very protected from the whole gender equality thing,” she says. “I had very strong female role models. My mother was a teacher and both grandmothers were very clever women, but at the time they were born, in the early 1900s, they were of a class and a gender that didn’t go to university. Although they didn’t complain about it, I was conscious that it was unfulﬁlled promise.”
The kernel of the idea for the 30% Club was planted at a diversity event at Goldman Sachs in 2009, where Morrissey met Baroness Mary Goudie. Both were frustrated by the fact that eﬀorts at upping the 10–15% of senior roles being ﬁlled by women were going nowhere, so they decided to do something about it. The 30% target comes from research ﬁndings that suggest this is the point where critical mass is reached: the voices of the minority group become heard in their own right, rather than as a representation of the minority.
Post the ﬁnancial crisis, Morrissey says the 30% Club was the seizing of “a glaring opportunity” that was totally missed by the British Government: “There were all these brilliant women going to places like London Business School and all these homogenous boards. Clearly, as you pored over the details of the crisis, this was one of the factors why it happened.”
She wasn’t militant; she didn’t want to ask for positive discrimination or a quota, because she wanted “a positive approach to how we can ask for better boards, not to just shove more women on there for political correctness.”
One man in particular stands out: “He turned us down at ﬁrst, but then changed his mind because the one woman on his board had spoken up and pointed out some risks on a joint venture that none of the others had seen.” Currently the ﬁgure for women on FTSE 100 boards stands at 31.1%; it is 25.7% on FTSE 350 boards.
But it’s not all about women. Including the perspective of men, particularly those who want to see their children more, needs to start with more inclusive discussions, Morrissey says: “The narrative gets stuck on women, women, women, and how bad men are, and that’s not going to help us get results.”
She is not averse to women’s networks, but doesn’t champion them either: “Sometimes they can be substitutes for positioning yourself for promotion and doing the job. Women can have a tendency to spend too much time wondering about whether they’re coming across as too assertive, too loud, too quiet, even the way we dress.”
‘We all need to express ourselves and bring our whole selves to work. Be feminine, be yourself, don’t act like a man.’
If you want a job or a promotion, she advises getting in front of the people you need to and taking credit for the work you do. “It’s important that you’re perceived to be promotional material”, she says.
Sometimes we might think that, in order to get on, we must act like those who are there already. In the case of women, does this mean that they need to act more like men?
“No, we need to make the most of the diversity,” Morrissey says.
“A very important part of my story was having an enlightened boss who said that the best investment decisions are made by diverse individuals. He encouraged me to deliver based on what I could do diﬀerently.”
She is often pictured in newspapers nailing the smart-yet-feminine look with inimitable panache. It was when she became more conﬁdent in herself, she says, that she stopped dressing in pinstripe trouser suits and changed to colourful dresses. It riles her when she hears that women are still judged on their clothes. Someone told her the other day that her colleagues kept asking her if she was going out because she was wearing a red dress: “It shrinks us, in terms of our persona”, she says. “We all need to express ourselves and bring our whole selves to work. Be feminine, be yourself, don’t act like a man.”