Helena Morrissey Q&A: How rethinking the City's bravado culture and accepting difference will mean women and men can have it all

Francesca Washtell
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Helena Morrissey

It's been almost five years since Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, which encouraged women to raise their voices and get stuck into their workplaces.

Now, the movement for gender equality has a new manifesto in the form of A Good Time to be a Girl, by the founder of the boardroom campaign The 30% Club, chair of the Diversity Project and Legal & General Investment Management’s head of personal investing, Dame Helena Morrissey. She is optimistic about what is next for women in the City and beyond, but emphasises that changing the landscape for women will, crucially, benefit men too.

City A.M. asks what the key takeaways are from her first book, how it differs from Lean In and what will need to come next.

What is the main message of A Good Time to be a Girl?

That it’s never been a better time to be a girl and I believe for many of us it’s a good time in absolute terms, and not because of just a gradual extension or extrapolation of all the progress that we’ve made in the last 30 years since I’ve been in the City. I believe now that we have a big opportunity to link it in with a number of the other big themes and trends in the world such as technology, changing working practices and also the nature of power and diversity coming of age, so that companies see it as adding something in terms of diversity of thought, not just identity diversity. Last but not least, young people, both men and women, expecting work-life balance.

All of this comes together to create a moment, if we recognise it as such, to really put gender equality right at the heart of modern companies and modern working practices. This is not just a few women at the top, but a much bigger ambition so men have more choices about their life too.

How does the approach in your book differ from that of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and why was it necessary to challenge that?

I think it’s become obvious that if you’re leaning into something that really isn’t the right system for women to thrive and to be comfortable in then it’s not advisable for all sorts of reasons. There’s a lot about Lean In that certainly I agree with, for example we both firmly believe that having a partner who’s a true partner in life is absolutely critical. But I think that the idea that actually we should sort of try harder and lean into the existing system/status quo falls short of what we can do. I think we should contribute to the evolution of better, less hierarchical, less command-and-control or more emotionally intelligent system of work and progression for people.

You see these pretty extreme examples, like Harvey Weinstein and so forth, but arguably those actresses were leaning in at the time and it’s much better to change it if it’s not right.

Read more: 'Not the City I recognise': Morrissey launches Presidents Club rival event

What would you say to critics who disagree with you that men and women are innately different or might say that your anecdotal experience doesn’t fully explain this?

I think what we do is we sort of bend over backwards or tie ourselves a bit in knots to deny it. From my point of view, it would seem to be a shame at this point when diversity is about difference to try to pretend we’re all exactly the same. Obviously I’m not saying that every woman is like this and every man is like that, I’m saying on average we tend to operate somewhat differently and obviously there are a lot of similarities too, so I hope I’m putting balance in the book, as well as looking at the academic literature on the subject.

I know it’s a controversial thing, but it’s going to undersell what women can do in terms of the next phase – whether it’s corporates, politics or society at large – if we just have to be better at emulating men, rather than bringing what we bring to the table.

I just don’t think we should be embarrassed or ashamed by the fact that we produce a tenth of the testosterone than men do and that makes us tend to take less risk in certain situations – that’s great. That doesn’t mean we’re better, doesn’t mean we’re worse, it’s just why would we pretend we’re exactly the same?

You’ve previously been opposed to legal quotas but are now backing legislation regarding companies publishing their gender pay gaps. What future legislative measures do you think would be helpful?

I’m obviously opposed to legislation that makes people do something. The legislation around quotas on boards for example was, I think, almost replacing one form of injustice potentially with another and if you are interested in sort of a re-definition of the best then just putting a few more women there to make some numbers isn’t the answer. The legislation about gender pay I think is welcoming transparency on that issue, so I do think they’re consistent.

I’m very conscious that a lot of these issues seem… I don’t want to say first-world problems, but they’re very much focused often at the top of the tree. I do think there needs to be a very clear legislation about FGM [female genital mutilation] and about modern-day slavery and penalties for anything there. I think that the legislation should be focused more on women who are real victims as long as we have transparency in the data around women in the workplace.

I do also think on shared parental leave it’s pretty obvious in lots of places that men don’t get similar financial benefit and so that would be something that would complete that piece of legislation, really to again make more opportunities for men to take up their shared parental leave.

Read more: Meet Helena Morrissey, the Dame who rose to fame by promoting diversity

What non-legislative, more cultural measures do you think will be necessary?

I do see a real strong appetite for change what we still struggle with a little bit I think is having more white – I’m going to say it! – powerful, straight, middle-aged affluent men getting involved. There are some [already involved], obviously, so I don’t want to sound like I’m criticising everybody, but the thing that made the real difference for The 30% Club is we need those who are in power to be really leading this, not just supporting it and not just kind of executive sponsors and coming to events but mentoring people, holding people to account in their business, linking it with business results and the modernity of the company.

Linking it to policies over everything from flexible working, being something open to everybody and not siloing off to just for women is important too. But I do think we still have this a little bit like the women fighting for the women in the City – at least that’s the default. What we’ve got now with The Diversity Project is… men getting involved day-to-day and I think that really is the key, rather than kind of revisiting the topic every half-year or so and just look at the data and see how much progress was made, but actually getting stuck into it themselves.

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