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Marine Prat
Women in Boards of Directors
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Women in Boards of Directors

A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2008) suggested that at the current rate of change it would take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies.

'I was a manic Brownie," Helena Morrissey tells me, fiddling with the lacy cuffs on her dress. "I collected a lot of badges." She has not let up since, and now has the kind of CV that leaves normal people needing a lie-down just from reading it. At 48, Morrissey oversees £50bn of assets at Newton Investments, and has nine children ranging in age from six to 23. In her spare time, whenever that might be, she set up the 30 PerCent Club to fight for greater female representation on company boards. She is also a trustee at the Eve Appeal, which fundraises for gynaecological cancers, and she chairs the corporate board of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Her day begins at 5am and ends at 11pm, and she lives in the kind of executive whirlwind where taxi journeys are primarily understood as a good opportunity to call the New York office. It's just as well her husband Richard is a Buddhist priest. She tells me that sometimes she sees him sitting on the sofa at home and assumes he's reading, but on closer inspection, he turns out to be meditating. (As the stay-at-home parent to so many children, you couldn't blame him for closing his eyes for the odd micro-nap.) She often finds herself working in the evenings, but the whole family gathers for a movie every Saturday night and gadgets are banned, otherwise "everyone starts texting each other". There are so many children, she says, that sometimes "we text each other from one room to another if you can't remember where you put somebody ... to find out if they're upstairs, we just text them".

I've come to her office in Blackfriars to discuss the results of the fourth annual survey of women on boards, published on 25 March. It revealed that women now account for 23.5% of FTSE 100 board members, up from 12.5% in 2011. The change has been voluntary - albeit undertaken in the shadow of a government threat to impose quotas if female representation did not reach a quarter by the end of this year.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan, who is also minister for women, is ecstatic about Morrissey's contribution. "Women like Helena Morrissey are an absolute inspiration," she says via email. "She is a role model to millions and a shining light of what can be achieved."

As it happens, Morrissey is sanguine about not hitting that government target of 25% before the general election in May - she says it will encourage the next government to continue the monitoring process. And she is very happy that the threat of state intervention has receded: "A quota is bad because you're just solving one injustice with another, really."

On the surface, the success of the initiative is faintly mystifying. It is a fundamental tenet of feminism that its political objectives will not be achieved by approaching people in power and asking nicely. Yet that appears to be exactly what Morrissey has done. She describes setting up the 30 PerCent Club in 2010 and approaching a few FTSE 100 chairmen to raise the issue.

"The usual conversation went along the lines of, 'Yeah, women have made a real difference to the boards I chair'," she says. "And obviously that's the key. It's their board, it's not me telling them that it would be better if the women are there. But they said the women make a huge difference - it's much better, a different dynamic completely; the men behave differently, the whole decision-making process is different. But we can't get enough women. The search community doesn't come up with candidates ... there is gridlock."

Inspired by those early successes, she started writing to every company in the FTSE 350. "I started at A and I got down to HA for Hanson, and by then I was getting very bad responses from many of the people in the early part of the alphabet - quite vitriolic really." A typical response ran: "This is a women's issue. What's it got to do with me?"

From then on, she decided to make a purely business case for diversity, arguing that "it's not a women's issue, it's an economic issue". Look at the bottom line, she argued. See how much better businesses do when they don't exclude great swathes of the potential talent pool.

The debate about women on boards might seem a rarefied concern in the age of austerity - as Laurie Penny put it, it's hard to care about the glass ceiling when the basement is flooded. But it does illuminate three of the great anxieties of contemporary feminism. The first is how radical the movement should be: should we be asking for more women on boards, or for the abolition of boards altogether? The second is the balance between pragmatism and idealism: what do we lose by mincing up the argument for equality to make it more palatable for those in power? The third is a question of priorities. Why, I ask Helena Morrissey, should those of us who will never be asked to join a FTSE 100 board care about their composition?

"You can go back to the financial crisis as evidence that having one type of person running companies didn't necessarily yield the best result," she counters. "There's also the fact that it is, I suppose, unfair." She believes that greater cognitive diversity - bringing in those with different life experiences and styles of thinking - helps prevent the "group-think" that causes companies to ignore warning signs and charge headlong into poor decisions. (The RBS directors whose decisions led to it needing a £45bn bailout in 2008? Seventeen men and one woman.)

Morrissey mentions an acquaintance at a real estate company who initially resisted the arguments of the 30 PerCent Club. A few months later he had changed his mind. "He said: 'We were about to do a big joint venture in China and we were really macho, wanted to sign on the bottom line, you know, give us a pen, this is so fantastic.' Then the one woman on the board at the 11th hour piped up: 'I'm a bit worried about this risk.'" Morrissey's acquaintance and his colleagues were briefly irritated, but later concluded that the woman was right. "She was outside the group, and she brought a different mindset."

It is also very odd, Morrissey says, when companies that market their products to women do not have one on the board. "When I started, Mothercare was an all-male board, which was my great example of how out-of-touch the board must be." Now, she cites the shoe designer Jimmy Choo as one of the 23 remaining FTSE 250 boards without any female representation.

Related: Helena Morrissey: 'The big challenge is below the boardroom'

Still, there are drawbacks to Morrissey's softly-softly approach. After the publication of the latest gender audit, Labour's Stella Creasy pointed out that the apparent gains in female representation are largely down to the appointment of more non-executive directors. There are now 239 of these on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, compared with just 24 female executive directors, and five female CEOs. The non-execs were, Creasy suggested, "making up the numbers and not getting a chance to make the decisions".

I put this to Morrissey. "I'm glad you asked this," she says brightly, giving every impression she actually is glad. "Definitely it was always going to be easier to appoint non-execs. You can have a much broader skillset to be a non-exec, whereas most companies only have two or three executive directors anyway, and so the CEO and the CFO usually take the two slots."

She hopes, she says, for a "trickle-down" effect. She is also conflicted about expanding the 30 Per Cent Club's focus beyond gender. A statement on the website reads: "We greeted the news that Vince Cable is to launch a drive to target 20% ethnic minorities on FTSE 100 boards by 2020 with mixed feelings. Setting more and more targets for companies, however well-intentioned, just leads to gridlock and possibly resentment." Surely, I ask her, if cognitive diversity is a good thing, then why not look for a greater racial and class mix on boards as well as more women?

"I am completely for other types of diversity," she replies. "Women is [sic] just very easy to measure, very easy to manage, and it breaks open the lid of the cosy club. Then the rest [follows]." It comes back to her opposition to quotas: "The idea of having 30% women, 20% ethnic minority, presumably some per cent - I don't know what the number would be - of LGBT. I mean, it ends up ... then you'll have to have a campaign for white men." Perhaps seeing my eyebrows shoot up, she adds in her usual fluent machine-gun delivery: "It's not a boyband. This is about a thoughtful board that comprises lots of different types of people, and the women issue has triggered bigger discussions."

I confess myself to be agnostic on the idea that captains of industry will overlook chaps they bump into in the Garrick in favour of less-obvious candidates without a certain amount of external pressure. But Morrissey does make a good case that liberating women from stereotyped assumptions about their behaviour benefits the workforce as a whole. When she had her fourth child, her husband gave up work.

"He said, 'I would like to go freelance and we would have a happier life if we were not both rushing out the door.' He says to me that the logical extension of all of this is that men have more choice as well." She adds that she recently asked her middle son - she has three sons and six daughters - what he wanted to do when he grew up, and he said: "I thought I'd stay at home like dad."

Related: Major survey plans to study why women's careers stall in their 30s

Of course, to do that he will have to find a woman whose salary can pay the bills - very few families in Britain can now manage on a single income. For her part, Morrissey is well aware of the criticism that her message applies only to a privileged segment of the population. "I'm not really doing it for any kind of popularity contest, obviously," she says. "Otherwise I probably wouldn't say anything."

She argues, however, that the way women suffer in business when they take maternity leave shows up how old-fashioned our working practices are. "Our office can be so much more productive since I came back after my last child, six years ago, than it could after my first, 23 years ago. I mean, the internet didn't exist then, I knew nothing about what had gone on, apart from they'd send me a pack." Morrissey hates being described as a "superwoman", but her conversation is peppered with anecdotes that remind you that the young, manic badge-collecting Brownie is still inside her. On her last maternity leave in 2009, for example, a manager resigned and she had to come into the office with her five-day-old baby in tow. "And then I went home and everyone kind of kept me in the loop," she continues breezily. "I checked through emails and we had telephone calls."

When the interview finishes, the machine clicks into gear again - a child needs collecting from school, and with such a large family, keeping to schedule is vital. Although Morrissey's approach to equality is very different to mine, I respect that she has put her head above the parapet. After she leaves, I find myself wishing I had time to ask her about navigating femininity in a male-dominated world: she had earlier told me that she believes women and men are fundamentally different, and told Harper's Bazaar in 2013 that she always wears high heels.

Then, unprompted, her PR adviser, Louisa, offers an unexpected defence: "I came from another very male-dominated sector, and when I first arrived here, I wore a black trouser suit," she tells me. "I was so surprised when I saw Helena. I thought: she's the CEO, and she dresses ... like a woman." I had never thought of it that way: in a room full of pin-striped suits, a skirt and heels is discreetly defiant - much like Helena Morrissey herself.

International trading is a big part of the enterprise that my business partner and I run.

The universal relevance of our product range, which appeals to audiences across sectors including medical and eco-friendly, meant that from the beginning we saw every reason to give our company an international reach. Our cartons carry five different languages, and we currently ship to 62 countries, working with distributors in 25 different territories.

We have made strong partnerships with distributors all over the world and with our global customer base, both of whom have been instrumental in building the business that Yes Yes Yes has become. UKTI also helped by offering us brilliant coaching in international trade, and organising visits for us to meet distributors in various territories under their Passport to Export scheme.

We then undertook a hugely constructive New York trade mission arranged by Santander's Breakthrough programme, which introduced us to key trade representatives in the US market. Today, I am pleased to say the company has blossomed worldwide.

But did being female affect our chances of success? Such a question seems ridiculous in the 21st century, but when the current social landscape is considered it appears less so. Female board members are still heavily outnumbered by men and in many countries across the world women are encouraged to conform to outdated stereotypes and roles. So with this in mind, did we find establishing a presence globally a tall order?

The short answer, reassuringly, is no.

As professional women growing a business our challenges have not been any different from those that men would encounter. In my experience, in order to succeed in the commercial world you need to have a shared set of values with whoever you are working with. The issue is not one of gender, but of professional integrity, proven competence, sector expertise and depth of experience.

After all, business is driven by money, so a good businessman (or woman) will always appreciate sound investments and enriching partnerships, irrespective of gender. It simply should not be an issue.

My business partner I have been the founders and creators of all aspects of our products and business from day one. We both have a background in pharmaceuticals, and through using this expertise to create a range of innovative products with international patents, gaining visibility through exhibiting at influential trade shows and our drive to be a global business, we have established ourselves on the international stage.

The strategy for growing The Yes Yes Company in international markets was to develop and nurture robust business relationships. To this end, we used no delegates or third parties when meeting potential partners. Everything possible was done face-to-face by us, building associations of trust and mutual advantage.

We think that not only should the business aims of our partners match ours, but our ethical goals should also be aligned. With this in mind, another essential element of successful exporting is researching the cultural, commercial and regulatory environments of a different region.

Our visit to New York was integral in helping us establish contacts we would have otherwise been unable to meet, not only growing our network but our knowledge of the industry. We endeavour to grow contacts in this way across every market we operate in as it not only expands understanding of the region but provides you with friends in the sector who can share advice, tactics and resources for mutual gain.

Observing the fundamental principles of good business practice will lay the foundations for not just women but all those involved in business, to establish them successfully without discrimination.

A sound business proposition and a relationship that inspires confidence are the most important things that can be brought to the table when trading internationally. This is what you will be judged on - not your looks, your ideology or your gender, but your ability.

If this is not the case, then it is safe to say the person on the other side of that table is not a business person and not someone who deserves your time and investment.

Susi Lennox is alchymical director at Sign up to become a member of the Women in Leadership community here for more comment, analysis and best practice direct to your inbox.The Yes Yes Company Ltd

Stephen Crowley / The New York Times

Fewer large companies are run by women than by men named John, a sure indicator that the glass ceiling remains firmly in place in corporate America.

Among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms, for each woman, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James. We're calling this ratio the Glass Ceiling Index, and an index value above one means that Jims, Bobs, Jacks and Bills - combined - outnumber the total number of women, including every women's name, from Abby to Zara. Thus we score chief executive officers of large firms as having an index score of 4.0.

Our Glass Ceiling Index is inspired by a recent Ernst & Young report, which computed analogous numbers for board directors. That report yielded an index score of 1.03 for directors, meaning that for every one woman, there were 1.03 Jameses, Roberts, Johns and Williams - combined - serving on the boards of S.&P. 1500 companies.

Even as this ratio falls short of the score among chief executives, it remains astonishingly high. It also understates the impermeability of the glass ceiling. After all, most companies understand that an all-male board looks bad, and so most of them appoint at least one woman, although only a minority bother to appoint more than one. Far fewer of these large firms - currently one in 25 - are run by a woman serving as C.E.O.

We can also use our index to compare the permeability of the glass ceiling in corporate life to that in the political domain. The United States, which has never had a female president, has had six named James, five named John and four named William. Thus, even if Hillary Clinton were to be elected, the Glass Ceiling Index would be 15.

Turning to Congress, there is a partisan divide in the Glass Ceiling Index. On the Republican side of the Senate, there are as many men named John as there are women. Add in the Senator Roberts, Senator Jameses and Senator Williams, and they outnumber their female colleagues by a ratio of 2.17 to one. The score in the House is slightly less unbalanced, but there are still 1.36 Jims-Bobs-Jacks-Bills for every woman.

By contrast, on the Democratic side, women outnumber the men with these particular names by quite a margin, and by my count, the Glass Ceiling Index suggests a ratio of 0.3 to one in both the House and the Senate. Likewise, within the executive branch, President Obama has appointed Secretary (John) Kerry and (Robert) McDonald, but they're still outnumbered by six women, yielding an index score of 0.33. (Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is a Jacob, not a John, and so not relevant to this index.)

Even the index for Democratic politicians and cabinet members remains more than twice as high as the benchmark for the population as a whole. In 1990 - the last year for which the Census Bureau published data on first names - Jameses made up 1.6 percent of the population, Johns were an additional 1.6 percent, and Roberts and Williams accounted for another 1.5 and 1.2 percent. The other side of our ratio is the share of women, who were 51.2 percent of the population. Putting these numbers together, the ratio of Jims-Bobs-Jacks-Bills to women is 0.12 to 1.

Other institutions are clearly in transition. For instance, Chief Justice John Roberts is the only John on the Supreme Court, and he is outnumbered by three women, which yields a score of 0.33. But this is a more balanced court than it has historically been, and before Justice Elena Kagan took over from Justice John Paul Stevens, there were as many Justice Johns as women.

Emboldened by this new approach to quantifying the glass ceiling, I felt compelled to also track progress within my own field, which is academic economics. I took a quick count of full professors in the "top six" economics departments - typically thought to include Chicago, Harvard, M.I.T., Princeton, Stanford and Yale - and discovered 1.12 Professors James, Robert, John or William for each female economics professor, suggesting that we are still a substantial distance from gender parity. Indeed, this is a setting where the index probably understates the problem, as economics faculty members are an internationally diverse group, and the index is unmoved by Jaimes, Robertos, Juans or Willems.

The Glass Ceiling Index is a fun but quite imperfect way of measuring the permeability of the glass ceiling. (Especially because in a few decades, the millennial Jacobs, Tylers and Zacharys will outnumber baby boomer Bills and Bobs.) But it does point to an important truth - that in many important decision-making areas of American life, women remain vastly outnumbered.