Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management in… (Tom Wagner/Bloomberg Magazine…)
Helena Morrissey remembers her worst moment as a woman in the City, London’s financial district. It was almost 20 years ago, when she was the only female on a team with 16 male bond fund traders at Schroders Investment Management. Her young family’s breadwinner, she’d just returned from her first maternity leave and her boss passed her over for a promotion, saying he doubted her job commitment.
“I wanted to know if I’d done something wrong or I wasn’t ready,” says Morrissey, sipping water in a conference room overlooking the London Eye. “The answer came back, ‘Well, you’ve just had your first child, and we’re not sure whether you can make it through.’ The sense was that I was on a different path.”
Morrissey proved him wrong. She quit, joined Newton Investment Management and, seven years later, became chief executive at age 35 when Mellon Financial, now Bank of New York Mellon, took over.
Now 45, Morrissey remains one of the City’s few female CEOs. She oversees $76 billion and almost 400 employees after boosting Newton’s business in Britain and expanding in the United States.
As to her previous manager’s contention that child rearing might sap her work commitment, Morrissey has gone on to have eight more children. They range from age 2 to 19, and seven of them still live at home. Schroders declined to comment.
For years, Morrissey has quietly supported the drive to increase the number of female managers in the workplace. These days, she’s making more noise, and many of Britain’s top bosses are listening. She says she got tired of hearing about diversity and never seeing progress, with women in Britain’s top jobs stuck at about 10 percent.
She decided to focus on the boardroom, where women can shape corporate decision making, help companies boost profits and show other women that they can compete at the highest levels. In November, she formed the 30 Percent Club to press British companies to employ that many female directors, up from 12 percent in 2010. She has persuaded more than 20 chairmen, about half from the FTSE 100 — including Win Bischoff at Lloyds Banking Group and Douglas Flint at HSBC Holdings — to reach for that target.
Her timing is good. European countries are adopting quotas to put women in directors’ seats. Norway started the push in 2002 and is on the cusp of its 40 percent mandate. Spain set a 40 percent goal in 2007 with a target year of 2015. France has required 40-percent-female boards by 2016. Italian legislators are drafting a law with a 30 percent female requirement at listed and state-run companies. Quotas may be coming in Germany, too, unless companies tap more women.
“When I started talking about women on boards, people would either be dismissive or say, ‘Oh, we’ll get there anyway,’ ” Morrissey says. “Now there’s a whole groundswell of focus around it.”
Former British trade minister Mervyn Davies led a government-sponsored review, released in February, that concluded that women should make up 25 percent of FTSE 100 boards by 2015. Davies, a former chairman of Standard Chartered, said he’ll back legislation for quotas if things don’t change in two years.
“It’s not just about gender equality,” he said. “It’s about improving the performance and productivity of companies.”
‘Passionately against quotas’
Morrissey’s 30 percent goal may stave off quotas. She has met with search firms and worked with the Professional Boards Forum to develop a trove of qualified women.
“I personally am passionately against quotas,” she says. “They undermine women with the sense that you can’t get there on merit.”
Some female executives say the board battle is misplaced. The real issue isn’t the dearth of female directors, says Barbara Judge, a dual British-U.S. citizen — it’s the lack of women with experience.
Judge, 64, is chairman of the British government’s Pension Protection Fund and sits on four boards, including that of Norway’s Statoil. She was the youngest commissioner appointed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“If you don’t give a woman a chance to be an executive, she’ll never get a board seat,” Judge says. “It’s a perfect Catch-22.”
Morrissey says boards can be a starting point for lifting women into senior management. The financial meltdown further convinced her that women have a role as directors. Lehman Brothers, which filed the world’s biggest bankruptcy, had one female director, as did the 18-member board of Royal Bank of Scotland Group, which took a British government bailout in 2008. Investors criticized both boards for failing to challenge management.
“The financial crisis has called into question a lot of the status quo, including how decisions are made, composition of company management teams, and boards,” she says.
Norway started the female-director push in 2002 and is within half a percentage point of its 40 percent mandate.