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Gender Equality in Banking - the Good, the Bad, and What We Need to Do

Our first instalment of the Spotlight on Diversity Champions blog series is with Dame Helena Morrissey. She shares her insight into the banking and finance industry's culture, diversity and inclusion, and what we can do to improve the situation.

Spotlight on Dame Helena Morrissey, Chair of The Diversity Project and Head of Personal Investing, Legal and General

We are delighted that in this first instalment of the Spotlight on Diversity Champions blog series, Dame Helena Morrissey was able to share her insight into the banking and finance industry’s culture, diversity and inclusion with us. Helena discusses the good, the bad, and what we can do to improve the situation.

Who is Dame Helena Morrissey?

Helena Morrissey is one of the UK’s most successful business executives. Under her role as CEO at Newton Investment Management, where she has worked for almost all of her working life, the company’s assets more than doubled to £50 billion. She currently works as Head of Personal Investing for Legal and General, a role that was created just for her. Helena is Chair of industry body the Investment Association, set up the 30% Club in 2010 to get more women on to boards and she also chairs the Diversity Project to name just a few of her roles. And she’s only 51. When she is not changing the world, she is raising nine children (yes, nine!), with a little help from her Buddhist-monk husband.



Image Source: Getty Images.

See the Q&A below with Dame Helena Morrissey, sharing her views on the current state of the banking and finance industry and where it looks to be heading in terms of diversity and culture.

There seems to be a real issue with attracting and then retaining female talent within the banking and finance sector, what initially made you decide to join such a male-dominated industry and consequently remain for 30 years?

To be perfectly honest, I fell into fund management – I wasn’t sure what to do after my Philosophy degree and (male) friends encouraged me to apply to the City (at that point, firms didn’t require applicants to state a particular area of interest).

I got offered a job at Schroder Investment Management – slightly awkwardly, some of my friends weren’t so lucky! I had no hesitation in accepting; the people who’d interviewed me were really interesting and quite diverse – perhaps, as it turned out, unrepresentatively. I then had a very exciting start to my career when I was selected from Schroder’s graduate intake to go to New York for two years to learn about fixed income.

There were two men running most of the money in the small New York office at the time and two women heading up the business development area. Since the business was rapidly growing those women were feted - again I was under the impression that things were quite balanced – until I came back to London in 1990 and found myself the only woman in a team of sixteen bond fund managers. That was quite a shock – and the culture was not just male-dominated but very hierarchical and regimental.

Quitting was not an option for me – my husband and I started our family quite young and we both needed to work full time. With hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t have a choice but to make a success of things. I left to join a smaller firm, Newton, which was ahead of the curve in being very meritocratic, and I thrived in that environment. The industry itself was still a man’s world, of course – my competition was not just all men but all men named Paul! I became CEO of Newton in 2001, when I was 35 years old and the mother of five, the youngest three had just had their first, second and third birthdays respectively.

"I believe that my style of leadership, which might be described as a ‘feminine’ approach, collaborative, building consensus, rather than command-and-control, influenced the way I was able to progress at a firm where teamwork and difference was valued."

When I left 15 years later, in search of a new challenge, my number one criteria when considering any opportunity was whether the prospective firm’s culture was inclusive, whether various opinions and styles were welcome. So, I guess I have sought out the firms within what remains a male-dominated industry where women could thrive.

At every stage along the way I can see now that I rather leaped before I looked, that I said ‘yes’ when perhaps the more sensible option would have been to say ‘no’ – but I learned along the way that we are often capable of much more than we might think possible.

"I am genuinely excited about the future for women and girls – I believe that we have the opportunity today to influence the modernisation of the workplace – to change the rules, not just learn to live within them."

What do you think of the culture within banking and finance and what advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

As my own experience shows, there’s not just one culture, it’s very mixed. It’s vital to differentiate. It would be hard to find a CEO these days who doesn’t say that diversity and inclusion are important – the key is what they actually do and whether their views are shared by others at the firm.

I do think that we are behind many other industries – not just when it comes to diversity but also around management practices, using technology to work in a more efficient (more agile) way, and connecting with society. The world is changing rapidly and I see a new sense of urgency about addressing these issues, which is really welcome.

I would encourage anyone who wants to be judged on results, on output rather than hours at the desk, to consider fund management. It’s less well-known than, say, banking or professional services – but actually as my own story illustrates, a great career for anyone who wants to be valued for the decisions they make rather than working ridiculously long days. It’s a sustainable career.

What do you think is holding back the advancement of gender diversity?

I think we need to be both bolder and more nuanced in our approach. After centuries of patriarchy, the old top-down approach to leadership is rapidly giving way to more democratic, more shared power – and leaders need to connect to earn the right to lead. We can see that in all the political ‘shocks’ – people simply won’t be told what to do.

That makes for instability but also creates an unprecedented opportunity - very different to the approach to date which has mostly been about adding a few more women at the top, or into working environments that don’t really work for anyone in a digital age. We were never going to do more than just see marginal improvements through those well-intentioned (and at the time, appropriate) efforts.

"I see myself and other women of my age (I’m 51) as a transition generation; we had to fit in enough to get a seat at the table. Now our daughters can be themselves – companies want diversity of thought."

How we create more inclusion also needs reconsidering.

The wave of efforts following the global financial crisis – surely the loudest wake-up call imaginable about the dangers of insufficient diversity – was intense but not very subtle. Mandatory unconscious bias training, for example, has been shown to cause resentment, to make managers feel part of the problem not the solution, and create a backlash.

We can’t legislate or mandate how people think. Instead we need to encourage them to see that rebalancing, towards a more gender-equal society and workplaces, has benefits for everyone.

"This is no longer a battle of the sexes, it’s about working with men towards a shared goal."

The narrative needs to change to make it clear that this is everyone’s issue, not just a women’s issue – and that it’s not about being politically correct, but about improving organisations.

Finally, what can our readers, as individuals, do to push for gender diversity?

We can all play a part in seizing the moment, the moment of upheaval, the moment where new leadership skills are needed, to push for the big breakthrough in gender equality.

I’ve seen through the 30% Club that if everyone steps forward together, even in small steps, that can create a powerful momentum. Think carefully about your levers of influence – can you mentor someone? Help a young woman get work experience? Address a cultural problem within your company or team? Work to improve your daughter’s lack of confidence?

It’s important not to wring our hands over every sign that this issue is unfinished business – we can easily forget how much progress has already been made if we only focus on what remains to be done.

"Celebrate success. And involve the men in your lives – the drive towards greater opportunity for women at work should mean more choices for men too."

If you would like to share yours or someone else’s story for the Spotlight on Diversity Champions blog series, please email lucy@maddoxevents.com