UK Weighs in at 30% More Women on Boards

BY GAYLE JO CARTER January 28, 2019

While campaigning to get Britain’s corporate boards populated with more women — 30% to be exact — financier Helena Morrissey, who runs Legal & General’s personal investing business, had plenty of moments of doubt that it would ever succeed. But after changing her strategies, The 30% Club is no longer a dream but a reality. It’s not just “a rich white women’s issue,” emphasizes Morrissey. Elevating women into these positions can drive the focus onto women’s issues big and small.  “If women can really use their increased power in these roles to help others, we can create a tremendous chain reaction. I do think it’s incumbent on us to help each other.” So what’s her advice for other women in pursuit of equality? How did she make the seemingly impossible 30% happen? And why, even with all the world’s gender inequities, she still believes it’s “a great time to be a girl?” Aspire learned that and more in a recent conversation with Morrissey. Excerpts below:

Q. In 2010, you established the 30% Club in the UK to campaign for greater female representation on company boards. In September you tweeted  “FTSE100 boards reached 30% women on boards for the first time — 30.4% to be precise!” How did you do it?

“In all honesty,  it started really from failure. I’m quite happy to admit that. I had run a women’s network within the company that I had been working for for quite some time and although the events were very  popular and got great feedback it was obvious we weren’t really changing the numbers. In 2009, I was invited to speak at Goldman Sachs as part of their Diversity Week here in London and afterward they held a lunch for 15 people, men and women from different sectors and everyone was comparing notes. I realized everyone was trying really hard and some people were trying a lot longer than I had and we all had very little to show for it. I came away thinking  ‘Well, it can’t be impossible. We just must be doing something wrong here.’

After discussions with others and a lot of reading, I realized we needed to manage it as a business issue. It needed to be much more focused on measurable objectives. There was also a specific opportunity around the boardroom; after the financial crisis there was a lot of soul searching in the U.K, about what led to bank failures and groupthink at the board level was cited as one of the major contributors. So there was this one-off opportunity – to do something in particular about the scarcity of women on boards. We had been stuck around 12% female directors on FTSE100 boards for some time with a really glacial pace of change had been very glacial. It was kind of a moment to seize.

Sometimes in life it’s better to be lucky than have wonderful judgement. This time it was a little bit of luck. I realized early on that we needed to have the people in power really involved. Too many of our gender diversity efforts had ended up being women talking to women about women’s issues; we needed men – powerful men – to be leading or working with us. We also needed to have a measurable goal around gender diversity to track our progress just like any other aspect of our business. Then it sort of snowballed.

Over the Christmas holidays, I was cleaning out a cupboard and I came across a document I had written in April 2010 which was around the time all the thinking was developing, where I wrote ‘This has to be more than a women’s issue, this has to be a business issue,’ that did seem to resonate with the chairs. So it was a bit opportunistic, with the financial crisis, and then very deliberately doing things very differently than the women’s initiatives including the ones I had led myself up until that point.”

Q. Why is the number  30% important?

“The reading I’ve done has not been all about how to effect change but also about how organizations behave and how groups behave because again I was trying to correct this sort of groupthink issue, the lack of challenge that had contributed to the global financial crisis.

I came across something that Deutsch Telecom had done, a male CEO at the time, Rene Obermann, he introduced a goal of 30% female representation in every level of the company because he saw there was  a positive impact on the decision making, on the business. And and other work I read, more general, on organizational effectiveness suggested if you have just a token women, the one, that women who is very much a minority feels quite isolated and not part of the group.  It resonated with me personally because, of course, working in finance I had often been the only woman in the room.

In all honesty and I’m slightly ashamed to admit it but I’ll be frank, I sometimes held back from making a full contribution because I thought ‘As the only woman in the room I better pick my spots’  but when I was one out of three, or three out of ten, I just felt like another person in the room. Apparently that is where minority groups starts behaving like people and less of a group so that is where the 30% came from. Subsequent to that, a lot of research has been done, including by McKinsey [a global management consulting firm] that there is a kind of empirical positive correlation between women on board and financial results. The research showed it was somewhere between 20 and 30% – that is the magic number. Then there were some European studies that came up with the 30%. It was a little bit fortuitous that I came up with that but we got there now.

We’re now at 30.7%. It  took a bit longer than I had hoped. We were at 12 % at launch and some people said to me ‘Well, you should have made it 50%’ but that seemed an awful long way away and I’m not sure that was the point really. I just wanted to get to the critical mass where women could be themselves and hopefully contribute to a better dynamic on the board.”

Too many of our gender diversity efforts had ended up being women talking to women about women’s issues; we needed men – powerful men – to be leading or working with us.

Q. What are the struggles being the only woman in the room?

“Well, besides my reluctance to always speak up, it’s no secret that I’m a mother. I have lots of children (nine!) and certainly I wanted to have work/life balance. When I came back after my first child, I was working for a different company then, I was obviously very junior and recently out of college, I was passed over for a promotion and it was very overtly linked to me having had a child.  I hadn’t expected that at all. I underestimated. I naively thought — this is almost 30 years ago — that my gender, my becoming a mother, wouldn’t have any impact on my promotion prospects, that it would be very much down to my aptitude and how hard I worked and so forth. So that was a very overt signal.

I think that’s somewhat different today. Although I know in the States, you don’t have paid maternity leave at the federal level. It seems to be an area where the U.S. is really far behind. In the U.K., we have  shared parental leave now, although it’s not widely taken up by men, it’s less just about the women and more about the families. It’s a challenge for all people with their careers.”

Q. What can other countries learn from your struggles in achieving your goals with the 30% Club?

“What I learned from the experience was that you have to have a really joined up approach and a sense of real urgency about it as well.  And  although our original deadline had passed without quite getting to 30%, we were close to 27% at the time, it really focused people’s attention to say, ‘Look we’re going to do it by a certain date, we’ve all got a shared  problem.’ Companies are quite defensive about their lack of diversity, there’s a lot of media, adverse publicity about companies that are falling behind on this but actually it’s a shared and global problem. I also saw that it’s so important to have male champions of change.

There’s nothing we should be ashamed of in terms of asking for those in power now to join us and in so doing hopefully improve the companies and the organizations that we are part of. I really learned that that was absolutely critical. We’re really bashing up against a brick wall if we try do it by ourselves. I also learned there was no silver bullet at all. We had to begin to think quite radically about joining all the different groups. We did benefit in the U.K. from having supportive public policies. I know again you don’t necessarily have that in the U.S. I’m trying to be diplomatic here. It’s really important to have a real sense of actually the government wants this, businesses are supposed to implement this, whether they be real converts or whether they be sort of dragged along, or whether they be really enlightened. There needs to be a bandwagon gathering momentum, not thinking you can do it with one initiative or one particular piece of the puzzle. There are now eleven 30% clubs throughout the world, there is one in the U.S., some are in the early stages with a different set of challenges and I do appreciate that every country and every sector has its own challenges. You can’t impose and say ‘This is how it gets done.’”

Q. What were your biggest fears in trying to achieve the 30% and how did you overcome them?

“In all honesty, I took it one step at a time. I was hopeful but because it had been so difficult to achieve progress before, it felt to me that there were a lot of upsides but not necessarily high expectations that others had. What I did realize quickly was that a lot of people expect you to have the answer to everything when you’re trying to achieve anything.

So, I have this motto, now: ‘Think big, start small, but start now.’  I learned during this time that the more I worried every step of the way, the more paralyzing that became. There was this sort of push back, some people thought I was calling for legislation of quotas, which I wasn’t at all. Now, in this country, at least, it feels like so much part of the expectations of any kind of modern business is to have a diverse board. And yet just a short time ago, there really was a lot of resistance. I decided to write to the 350 top listed company’s chairs and I started writing alphabetically starting with A and when I got down to the Hs, I was getting letters back from the As and they were very negative, very hostile. There were a lot of things I had not anticipated, to be honest. There were some  enlightened chairs and they became a powerful group of allies.”

Q. What’s the best advice in your book A Good Time to Be a Girl? And why is it a good time to be a girl?

“The world is crying out for new leadership and this probably is not going to be lost on American audiences. We need leaders who are empathetic and to connect people and realize we don’t live in a forceful, controlled world. With social media, there’s a real need for inspirational leaders and I think that is great for women – if we act and behave as women, not feel we have to copy the men.

Obviously, there’s a lot of noise that can be very off putting to young girls, around the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and so forth, they might be worried that all men are predators and so forth but clearly that’s not the case. I want to make sure that girls can see as well that we’ve made a lot of progress but also now is the time to act like a girl, be feminine, be yourself and not try to fit in with working practices that are no longer relevant for men OR women in a technological error. I do see that on a day to day basis in business that people are thinking we have to change a lot of things that we’ve gotten used to in running big or small businesses.

I know I’ve given various bits of advice,  and some of this is obviously having six daughters myself and seeing that we women have an over-anxious tendency, but I also want us to consider what this all means for men.  Men have higher suicide rates, there’s a lot of male depression: we need to think about what it means to be a man in today’s world. A lot of men don’t want to have the macho alpha male career trajectory that their father’s or other predecessors had. The real answer to this is actually having an approach to families, to men and women who perhaps want a different balance between the different aspirations in their life.”

I want to make sure that girls can see as well that we’ve made a lot of progress but also now is the time to act like a girl, be feminine, be yourself and not try to fit in with working practices that are no longer relevant for men OR women in a technological error.

Q. Besides gender equality, what concerns you most about women globally and how should we get involved?

There’s obviously a lot of different stages in different societies. Clearly, there are real fundamental atrocities committed still against women such as female genital mutilation which is a big problem still, even here in the UK. Domestic violence is still sadly very prevalent. We do have an issue around modern slavery and that does affect more women. But I don’t think we should be ashamed of trying to push up to the top of the pyramid while we also try to address the issues that are really horrific. I know there’s a sense sometimes of women on boards as being a ‘rich white women issue’. But I want women to really use their increased power in these roles to help others and create a tremendous chain reaction. It’s incumbent on us to help each other. We are such a long way from the goal of true gender equality.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and I think we need to always keep reminding ourselves of the importance of this for humanity.”

Q. What are your top 3 tips for women that want to make a difference and see change in the world?

“It’s really important to have allies, again I put a lot of credit in what happened with the 30% Club in having allies who were more powerful than me. And actually, it can be very very difficult for women who are also trying to develop their own careers to get  engaged in gender equality work. I hear that feedback a lot from women, they’re afraid of getting involved and championing gender equality too overtly because it’s potentially a negative for their own careers. I absolutely understand that and that’s why you need male as allies particularly, but any allies who are stronger. Don’t try to do this alone. I am optimist.

I do think there is a growing sense of urgency and whether it’s the Google Walkouts or other adverse publicity about failing to really create the right culture that is inclusive. We are pushing on an open door now, now is the moment to seize the moment. But don’t forget about your own career along the way. It’s really important not to end up feeling like you are doing something but that actually ends up not achieving something you want personally. A lot of advice is given to women developing their careers but sometimes very simple advice is what is needed, like what you need to make sure get on the bench for the next role and get some mentoring for yourself personally. Be a little bit selfish if you have to be.”

Helena Morrissey’s Trailblazing Tips
  • Make allies with people in power.
  • Get people joined up in your cause.
  • Make it urgent. Set a deadline.
  • Provide an incentive: Show your cause’s benefits.
  • Have a measurable goal.
  • Think big, start small in your process.
  • Be a little bit selfish if you have to be.
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Write to Gayle Jo Carter

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