Monday 7 October 2019 4:26 am

How we proved to the world that a woman’s place is in a FTSE 350 boardroom

Dame Helena Morrissey DBE is founder of the 30% Club. She is a financier and gender equality campaigner, and a judge for this year's City A.M. Awards.

With Brexit dominating the news, you may have missed an even-longer-in-the-making development last week: women now make up 30 per cent of the boards of the average FTSE 350 company – a “first” after 450 years of listings on the London Stock Exchange. 

It took 350 years to reach 10 per cent women on UK boards, but just nine to treble that number.

The most compelling evidence that a different mindset has been created lies in the collapse in all-male boards. In 2010, half the FTSE 350 had no female directors at all, and now we’re down to three.  

I was am happy to admit that the campaign has exceeded expectations and given me far greater confidence that we can effect faster change in other areas. Gloomy projections such as the World Economic Forum’s pronouncement that it will take “over 200 years to create gender equality in the workplace” are based on extrapolating the past. 

Reaching the 30 per cent milestone less than a decade after centuries of glacial progress shows that it’s possible to change the trajectory, without legislation, regulation or militancy. 

Of course, while we take a moment to celebrate, it’s clear that this is unfinished business. There are still only 13 female FTSE 350 chief executives, and wide gender pay gaps and poor representation of other “diverse” talent at senior levels persist. 

In an email to early supporters in May 2010, I wrote that the 30% Club’s ultimate goal was “that companies and institutions can be better run with broader and more diverse management teams”. On that measure, we still have a long way to go. 

But there are lessons learned from reaching the first milestone that can help. With hindsight, five factors made the difference. 

First, the 30% Club had a simple, measurable goal, and we managed against it just like any other business issue. Although these days people suggest that it should be the 50% Club, at the time we were thinking big; the aim was to create a step change. 

Second, we reached out to those in power – mostly men, of course – and we brought them a solution to an existing problem. The financial crisis had exposed the risk of collective blindness of homogeneous boards; the 30% Club offered a way for chairmen to signal commitment to change and then make it happen – a win-win.

Third, we experimented. No country had reached the 30 per cent goal without legislation, so there was no blueprint to follow. We learned to fail quickly (a database for search firms was unpopular), or ramp up what worked (the cross-company mentoring scheme is now the largest in the world, kicking off its seventh year tomorrow – so many women tell me that it has rebooted their career). 

Fourth, we didn’t waste time on pointless debates, for example on quotas versus targets.  We spent our time actually doing, helping women, partnering with experts, creating positive momentum. 

And fifth, we took it one step at a time, celebrating (and talking up) the wins, building an aura of confidence that became self-fulfilling. Yes, we faked it till we made it. 

There was a sixth aspect that I believe holds the key to women’s ongoing progress. The 30% Club’s premise is that women are equal to but typically different from men – and that’s why we can help create more diverse thinking in the boardroom and beyond. So the 30% Club didn’t try to tell people what to do. 

Instead, we built a network, listened, encouraged, and used emotional intelligence to work the crowd.

Main image credit: Getty

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