Helena Morrissey admits that her life “shouldn’t really work”. The CEO of Newton Investment Management, mother of nine children and champion of women in the boardroom through the 30% Club, has long been heralded as the City’s ‘superwoman’. However, she believes that women are often put off management positions in the financial sector because they spend too much time fretting over whether they can do the job, rather than just tackling the task.
“It frustrates me that very talented female fund managers I wanted to encourage into management positions don’t because they feel they can do their job, look after their family, but not take on something else. So the next step becomes much more daunting when they might actually enjoy it,” she said during a talk at Cass Business School today.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that we have more capacity than we think, and women tend to spend a lot of nervous energy worrying about not being able to do something, which might be better spent doing something more productive,” she said.
It helps Morrissey’s situation, of course, that her husband Richard chose to stay at home. Originally a financial journalist, he decided to pull back from working life to become a freelance journalist “after child number four”, said Morrissey, but has since completed training to become a Buddhist priest and meditation teacher.
This reversal of gender roles seems to have rubbed off on her children. Morrisey spoke of how her daughter Beatrice was “surrounded by pink cards” at her sixth birthday party, which “in retrospect may have been over-compensating for the fact she wasn’t overly-feminine”.
“I casually asked my second son when her was around eight years old what he’d like to do when he grows up. He looked at me slightly puzzled and said ‘I thought I’d just stay at home like dad’,” she says.
The whole point of the 30% Club is that this idea shouldn’t matter. Its mantra has been the notion of ‘soft power’ – namely encouraging people to want to shake things up by changing the status quo, rather than by imposing quotas. Eventually, it becomes a natural event that women should be well-represented in the boardroom, as well as any other minority group. “After the 30% Club people were asking me if I’d be forming the 10% Club to ensure that LGBT employees are represented. The point is to blow open the boards and open diversity of thought.”
When talking about her own career, Morrissey says that she “learnt resilience the hard way”, not least by taking maths at A-level in a class where she was the only girl in a subject she wasn’t overly gifted at. “The main thing is that I was open to possibilities, and a lot of women are not during their careers. We tend to over-analyse a situation and talk ourselves out of things, as well as putting our heads down and expecting a tap on the shoulder, rather than promoting ourselves. You need to have a strategy for your career.”
Nonetheless, Morrissey admits that combining a career and raising children in the UK is both logistically challenging and expensive and is still one of the main stumbling blocks to getting more women in the senior ranks. Companies need to be more flexible. “I couldn’t do all the things I do if technology didn’t allow me to work remotely and maintain autonomy,” she says.
The 30% Club expanded from a UK venture into the U.S. last month, and will be launching in Australia, Canada, Ireland and Southern Africa later in 2014.