Business

The mother of nine pushing for boardroom equality

Helena Morrissey
Image caption Helena Morrissey says she has to manage her time very carefully

It's hard not to put Helena Morrissey on a pedestal.

Chief executive at Newton Fund Management, the 48-year-old has made her way to the top in a notoriously male-dominated industry.

This level of seniority is still relatively rare for a woman, with the latest statistics showing that women make up just 22.8% of FTSE 100 company boards, while in the FTSE 250 index of smaller firms women make up just 17.4% of boards.

Reaching chief executive level is even more unusual, with just five female bosses in the top 100 companies.

Yet as well as being at the helm of the firm, ultimately responsible for the over £50bn worth of funds the firm manages, Mrs Morrissey is also the mother to nine, yes nine, children.

So how on earth does she do it?

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Media captionLeadership expert Steve Tappin says executives are waking up to the benefits that female leaders can bring

"I have to ruthlessly prioritise, but I also have to be very, very controlled with my time," she says.

Mrs Morrissey also has a nanny and a husband who stays at home, but credits her seniority at work for making both a big job and a big family possible.

She says she constantly "dips in and out of work and home", and that being a chief executive has given her more freedom to juggle her responsibilities.

Mrs Morrissey is not the only high-flying female to advocate promotion as the route to being able to better balance family responsibilities and work.

Yahoo's chief executive Marissa Mayer's seniority meant that when she gave birth to her son just months after taking the helm at the tech giant she was able to build a personal nursery right next door to her office.

Similarly, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book advising women to "Lean In", suggesting that if women took on more responsibilities at work it would create more female leaders, leading to fairer treatment for all women.


Female chief executives in the FTSE 100

  • Veronique Laury, Kingfisher (owner of B&Q) - since January 2015
  • Alison Cooper, Imperial Tobacco - since 2010
  • Liv Garfield, Severn Trent - since 2014
  • Carolyn McCall, Easyjet - since 2006
  • Moya Greene, Royal Mail - since 2010

"I want to encourage other women who might be looking and thinking, 'How can I do all of that?' to keep going until you get to that point where you do have a little bit more control," says Ms Morrissey.

While she's strongly anti-quotas (making a certain percentage of senior female staff at board level mandatory), Ms Morrissey is pushing hard to get more women into the boardroom.

In November 2010, when female directors accounted for just 12.5% of board members, she set up the 30% Club to campaign for more women on UK boards, with a target of women making up 30% of FTSE 100 directors by the end of 2015.

She's confident the campaign, which has involved persuading chairmen of the merits of having more women on the board and providing practical help to firms trying to improve their levels of diversity, is having an impact. "I do think it's helped move it from a sort of special niche area to more of a mainstream business issue," she says.

She is also chair of Opportunity Now, a campaign group that's been working on gender equality at work and aiming to increase women's success, for more than 20 years.

These campaigns, on top of an already demanding day job, are time consuming, but she says clients have been supportive and that the theme fits in with Newton's investment approach.

"We're not just passively buying a company, we're thinking a bit more laterally. It's important to me that we connect those two because those companies that get the issue of the importance of diversity are generally smart in other ways," she says.

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Image caption Studies show that firms with more senior women tend to perform better

There's already a whole host of research to support this view. Newswire Thomson Reuters found a strong link between mixed gender boards and a better performance for shareholders when it analysed boardroom diversity at 4,100 listed firms and measured their performance between 2008 and 2013.

And Swiss bank Credit Suisse, which looked at the performance of 3,000 companies around the world, concluded that those businesses with at least one woman on the board outperformed those with no women by an average of 2% a year between 2012 and 2014.

While these types of study show the importance of increasing the numbers of senior women in the workplace, the practicalities aren't as straightforward, Ms Morrissey acknowledges. She notes that research has shown that women felt role models in the media were "very unrealistic" but says she struggles with how much of her juggling to reveal.

"The question is: how honest should you be? Because if people had visions of me dragging baskets of laundry across the floor, that wouldn't probably encourage people to persevere in their careers," she admits.

But within her own firm, she makes it clear when she has other demands, saying that when a meeting in the US was planned for the same day as two of her daughters' birthdays, she said she couldn't make it.

"I just felt I had to speak up rather than agonise over it when the date came through, defined and carved in stone in the diary," she says.

And while she never thought of herself as a natural leader, she says she's realised that she enjoys it. "I've always listened to my own inner voice or inner compass. I've never really felt that I wanted or needed to belong to a group."

This of course reflects in the work she does to improve diversity.

"When I see something that's not quite right, my tendency would be to try to change it. I believe in being fair and equal. I recognise that not everybody is given every opportunity on a plate, and that's an important part of what makes me think and tick. That's an important part of who I am."

This feature is based on interviews by leadership expert Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig.

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