How Helena Morrissey’s fighting to end male dominance in the boardroom

When Helena Morrissey declares “we’re one big happy family here”, you can be certain she knows what she’s talking about, says the Daily Mail. One of the City’s most influential fund managers – she has led Newton Investment Management since 2001 and doubled assets under management to £50.9bn – she is also, famously, the mother of nine children.

The concept of the City superwoman is nothing new: Nicola Horlick and others have blazed that trail. But Morrissey is a team player who doesn’t believe in “stars”, and she is reluctant to take on the mantle.

Her great contribution, says The Guardian, has been to champion the cause of getting more women on company boards through the formation of the 30% Club, which she launched in 2010.

The aim was to achieve 30% representation on FTSE-100 boards by 2015. It’s touch and go whether that target will be met (see below), but Morrissey, who secured support from a bevy of influential corporate chieftains, has proved to be a real catalyst for change.

She was prompted to establish the club when she returned home one day with a gong for being “Europe’s most influential female asset manager”. Her five-year-old son asked if there was a “most influential man” award too. “I thought, that’s a good question.” Why should there need to be a separate category for women?

In her early days in the City, Morrissey, 48, struggled to progress, says Bloomberg. After leaving Cambridge, where she just missed out on a first in philosophy (“it still rankles”), she joined Schroders, finding herself the only woman in a team of 16. All went well until she had her first child.

Returning from maternity leave, she was passed over for promotion because of doubts about her “commitment”. She quit in 1994 to join Newton. Seven years later she became CEO when the firm was bought by Mellon (now Bank of New York Mellon).

Morrissey, whose children are now aged from five to 22, has been underpinned by strong support at home. Her husband, a former financial journalist and ordained Buddhist priest, looks after the children, aided by a nanny.

But she’s been fortunate with work colleagues too. In particular, she found a mentor in Newton founder Stewart Newton – “a phenomenal investor who taught me a lot about lateral thinking” – and who never let the fact that she was a mother cloud his judgment of her abilities. Her performance spoke for itself.

When a colleague expressed disquiet “over the news that I was pregnant ‘yet again’”, she relates in her Sunday Telegraph column, Newton countered that he shouldn’t worry, because “I returned better each time”.

Having quashed so many preconceptions, Morrissey is now a role model herself, says Investment Week. What’s her advice for aspirational women? Stop worrying about what could go wrong and “speak up for yourself”, she says – adding wryly that this is an easier feat “when there’s more than one woman in the room”.

How close are we to equality?

When Glencore ended its “pariah-status” as the last all-male boardroom of the FTSE 100 in June, it was a landmark event, say Neil Hume and John Aglionby in the FT. But with the clock ticking down to the “end of 2015 deadline”, how close is the 30% Club to realising its goal?

According to the club’s website, the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 12% in 2010 to 22.2% at the latest tally – so there’s still some way to go. However, progress has been steady, and the 30% Club is now expanding its sphere of influence.

Having already opened branches in New York and Hong Kong, there are further clubs planned in southern Africa, Canada, Australia and Ireland. There’s an argument that too much emphasis is placed on these headline numbers, when companies should really be focusing on championing women further down the ranks – creating a pipeline for tomorrow’s leaders, says Stephanie Baker on Bloomberg.

At present, there simply aren’t enough women with the relevant experience. But, as Susan Vinnicombe, professor of Women and Leadership at Cranfield, observes: the 30% campaign has been an important crystaliser of ambition. “The number of women on corporate boards has become a measure for how well women are doing in society.”

One reason why Morrissey is keen to make her target is that she’s opposed to quotas – on grounds that they are “demeaning to women”, says Tom Bawden in The Guardian. “The hope is that as more women join boards without the threat of quotas, the more they can demonstrate the value they can add,” she told the paper in 2011. But the threat hasn’t gone away.

With Norway, France, and Spain already signed up, Germany succumbed in January – despite the opposition of Angela Merkel, says Tony Barber in the FT. Others may follow suit.

Merryn

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