Dame Helena Morrissey: Why it's a good time to be a girl

The City high-flyer, mother of nine and founder of the 30% Club on 'unashamedly feminine leadership' and breaking the mould.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 08 Feb 2018

On being optimistic:

It's a good time to be a girl. I think we’re on the brink of a new era, where women will be working with men to solve problems, to bring up families, to develop their careers - as partners. It will be a model of collaboration, rather than hierarchy and patriarchy. And of course if we create more opportunities for women, we also create more choices for men who, in many ways, have been straitjacketed by society's expectations, too.

On gender equality initiatives:

Too many gender equality initiatives, while well-intentioned, are still been about training women to be more assertive, to negotiate better, to speak up - in other words, to behave more like men. Most women don’t want to become honorary men. And quite frankly, we’ll never be as good at behaving like men as men.

On the Presidents Club:

That kind of behaviour has been going on for years. The difference now is that it's being exposed, called out and shut down. My worry with these scandals is that they are being misinterpreted as examples of widespread behaviour. We mustn't go back to the ‘gender war’ mentality. Anger doesn't achieve anything.

On her early career:

I started working in the City in the late 1980s, when there was real hostility towards women in the workplace and when sexual harassment wasn’t reserved for the after-work dinners. Discrimination was rife.

When I returned to work after having my first child, I was passed over for promotion. It was a huge disappointment and I genuinely thought that it must be something to do with my performance. I asked my boss what I needed to do better and he replied: ‘There’s nothing wrong with your performance, but there is some doubt over your commitment to the company after having a baby.’

Perhaps I should have seen that coming; I was the only woman in a team of 16. But that made me rethink my career and I moved to Newton Asset Management which was smaller, more entrepreneurial and more meritocratic. Within seven years of joining the firm, I was made chief executive.

On standing out:

I remember being in the running for a Fund Manager of the Year award. My competition wasn’t just all-male, but they were all men called Paul. The Pauls and I were invited to go to all the investment conferences and sit on all the panels. To this day, I’ll never know if I won because I was the only one who could be easily identified! But it did teach me that there are advantages to standing out.

On leadership:

I’ve always taken an unashamedly feminine approach to leadership and I’ve certainly never fitted the mould of a typical City boss. I like dresses, I like pink, I like collaboration and I want to listen to other people’s opinions. I’m not about command and control.

On starting the 30% Club:

When we launched in 2010, there were just 12.5% of women on FTSE 100 boards. In the City, women were still ‘tolerated’. We wanted to do something to speed up the glacial rate of progress. But not everyone was gung-ho about the idea. When I started writing to FTSE chairmen, the responses I got back were overtly hostile.

I discovered two methods that worked. The first was to involve really powerful men. I formed an advisory council and Sir Roger Carr, then of Centrica, and Sir Win Bischoff, then of Lloyds Bank, immediately pledged their support. They led the charge and acted as a high-octane recruitment company for other chairman. Having those traditional captains of industry on board changed the conversation from a women’s issue to a business issue.

The second method was to position myself as an enabler; I wasn’t there to interfere, I was there to solve a problem and help create more balanced boards.

On gender differences:

There are gender differences. As a mother of six girls and three boys, I see that every day! We should stop trying to deny those differences. You shouldn’t have to be the same as a man to be as valuable.

On advice to young women:

1. Leap before you look: We tend to hold ourselves back, over-analyse and worry about what might go wrong. Just go for it.

2. Think big, start small but start now: That's the motto that drove the 30% Club. We didn’t have all the answers, we didn’t have a map – we had to write one ourselves. Don’t let fear of what might go wrong stop you from trying.

3. Play to your strengths, work your differences: When I was my authentic self, I was more highly valued.

4. Act confidently: Most people don’t feel confident; some are just better at faking it than others. Watch the TED Talk by Amy Cuddy onPower Poses.

5. See you career as a labyrinth not a ladder: No career goes in a straight line. There will be hurdles and bumps and sideway moves. If you have a set-back, don’t take it personally.

6. Get a mentor (or two!): Find allies and people you can talk to when the going gets tough.

7. Help others where you can: It’s empowering to pay it forward.

8. If you want to be a CEO, go for it!

9. Remember there is no single ‘right’ path: People always ask me: 'When’s the right time to have children?' 'What’s the right work/life balance?' There’s no right answer. It’s your life; think about what makes you happy.

10. It's a good time to be a girl - but it’s not all sorted just yet.

A Good Time to be a Girl, by Dame Helena Morrissey, is published this week. William Collins, £14.99.

Dame Helena was a guest speaker at a Women Ahead event for 500 mentors and mentees on the 30% Club cross-company mentoring scheme. 

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