‘The 30% Club prised open the lid on the cosy coterie of board candidates’

Now coming to Ireland, the aim is to increase the number of women at senior corporate level

Helena Morrissey: “We want sustainable change in business culture – not the appearance of change.” photograph: brenda fitzsimons

Helena Morrissey: “We want sustainable change in business culture – not the appearance of change.” photograph: brenda fitzsimons

 

If Sheryl Sandberg’s treatise to women is to Lean In to their careers, Helena Morrissey has a somewhat different piece of advice for women looking to move up the corporate ladder.

“Sometimes you have to get out if it’s too uphill a struggle, You can stay there and single-handedly push a boulder up a hill, or you can go to a culture where you will fit in more.”

And Morrissey should know.

The founder of the 30% Club, a UK initiative to increase female participation on FTSE 100 boards to 30 per cent by 2015, found herself being passed over for promotion in the early 1990s, having just returned to her job as a bond analyst with Schroders Investment Management after maternity leave for her first child.

So she left the company, joined Newton, the global investment management subsidiary of BNY Mellon, and within seven years, she had become its chief executive.

“I don’t encourage people to quit, but by yourself you can’t change everything” is her message, which is why, by encouraging both men and women to join forces, she is hoping to have a greater impact on changing corporate culture through her 30% Club.

Launched in 2010, the club has already seen female board participation in FTSE 100 companies rise from about 12.5 per cent at the time, to more than 20 per cent now.

Morrissey herself (the Morrissey comes from her Irish-born husband) is an ideal candidate to front the initiative.

A working mother of nine – yes nine – children, she accepts that there are moments when it can be difficult to juggle the two.

“There are moments when I feel that I can’t do it. It’s part of being a human being, but any moment – whether in work or at home – is never forever. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Now she is bringing the club to Ireland, with the mission of increasing female board participation in Ireland’s top 25 companies to 30 per cent by 2020.

“The 30% Club prised open the lid on the cosy coterie of board candidates,” she says. “Now people want to mix it up.”

When it was first launched in the UK, the 30% Club was noted by one newspaper as being a worthy ambition but very vague.

Now, however, Morrissey says that this “openness to adapting quickly” and not having any pre-conceived notion of what’s expected, has stood the club in good stead.

One of its philosophies is that it’s not about just women; Morrissey has shown herself to be very adept at bringing men on board, “those in power to change things”.

Globally, Blackrock’s Larry Fink and renowned investor Warren Buffett are just two of the club’s members and, in this respect, it differs somewhat from Sandberg’s Lean In movement, which very firmly places the emphasis on women.

“I would hate there to be an onus on women to fix things,” she says.

Indeed, the newly launched Irish chapter has already signed up some easily recognisable names in Ireland’s corporate culture, including Lochlann Quinn, chairman and board member of ESB and former chairman of AIB, Nicky Hartery, chairman of CRH, who will work alongside the chair, and Marie O’Connor, partner with PwC.

Morrissey is firm that the 30% Club is “not about quotas”.

“They can be interpreted as a mandatory must-do. We favour a softer approach – we encourage them to get involved because they want to do it themselves.”

Citing the experience of Norway, which has had mixed results since introducing quotas, Morrissey is trying to ensure that people really want the change.

“We want sustainable change in business culture – not the appearance of change.”

Indeed she is looking to create a continuum of change from the school room to the board room.

“It’s about creating a paradigm shift and getting early adopters to encourage their peers to get on board and do something about it,” she says.

It’s also about addressing the pipeline of future executives.

The goal of the 30% Club is not to just have this proportion of female board members – it is also about trying to achieve 30 per cent in executive committees and two levels below. “But it will take longer at executive level. You can’t create a CFO or CEO from jumping up and down about it. It takes a good decade or two, but we have to start somewhere.”

Another initiative on the agenda is in the area of “returnships”, which would help to support women whose careers have lapsed for one reason or another, but who wish to return to the workforce.

“Five years out should be neither here nor there.”

Another area of focus is the challenges women face in progressing to the top in professional services, with Morrissey noting that it can be difficult to work flexibly in a business which earns its money from so-called “billable hours”. So she is hoping to pilot an audit where a company would pay a fixed fee for a piece of work.

Cross-company mentoring has also proved very successful.

“It can be very liberating, because they can do it without fear of their comments coming back to their manager. And for mentors, it has opened their eyes to issues that might also be in their own companies.”

Now Morrissey is waiting for that last bastion of the all-male FTSE 100 boardroom to fall – the board of commodities giant Glencore. And after that?

“I’m hoping ultimately that the 30% Club will self-destruct!”

For more coverage see our new site World of Work

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