The last few decades have seen a massive cultural shift in what might loosely be called diversity and inclusion in the workplace – and it isn’t only about equal and fair representation; there is a strong business case for it too. The diversity of thinking brought to the table by people of different backgrounds, education and experience, observing the world through different lenses, is thought to lead to better decision-making, innovation and very often better bottom line results. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is about understanding and valuing people of different races, ethnicities, ages, religions, disabilities and sexual orientation. But here we look at one very large group comprising half the world’s population that, in a number of arenas, still falls under the ‘diversity’ headline: women. One woman who has single-handedly had a huge impact on the inclusion of women in the traditionally male-dominated world of British company boards is financier and campaigner Dame Helena Morrissey, appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to business, and promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to diversity in financial services.
While it may be difficult to understand how anything other than equal opportunity makes sense in the workplace and the world in general, not many of us have dedicated our lives to achieving this – yet Dame Helena Morrissey has made it her life’s work. She quotes Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘Take one idea. Make that one idea your life, think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.’
Morrissey’s ‘idea’ – which, she says, has made the difference between having a successful business career in the eyes of others and actually feeling confident that she is making a valuable contribution – is the big rebalance between men and women, something she says has ramifications for her family, for her roles in business, for the commentary and analysis and speeches she makes, and which is indeed the motivation for the writing of her recent book, A Good Time to be a Girl. She acknowledges that the idea is far from new, but nonetheless feels people don’t fully understand just how powerful genuine balancing would be, and that her contribution is to try and change that.
Inspiration / motivation for addressing gender imbalance
Three fundamental factors have shaped her passion. The first was her early childhood. ‘I was motivated to a large degree by my grandmothers,’ she says. ‘Both highly intelligent women who were top of their class at school and yet didn’t go to university, because of the class they were born into and the time that it was. They had amazing talent and weren’t fulfilled in the way they should have been, for their own sake as well as for society – and that made me sad.’
Then Morrissey was shocked to find her own career progression curtailed, as late as the early 1990s. She was 26 years old at the time, working as a fund manager at a prestigious City firm in London, and was passed over for promotion after returning to work from maternity leave, the reason given, ‘there’s just some doubt over your commitment with a baby’. Her first child is now 27 but she still visibly struggles with the injustice of it, not blaming her employers but the attitude that prevailed in the City at the time. Morrissey’s two male counterparts received promotion and she assumed she had been denied this because of a failing in her performance, but no, ‘your work is great’, she was told. It was just the commitment thing – though clearly this is something Morrissey has in spades.
The third reason was – and continues to be – young women approaching her and asking how she manages to combine career and family. And no wonder: she is famously the mother of nine children, her husband opting mid-career to stay at home and look after their growing brood. ‘I wanted to help them [women] avoid some of the things that I recognize I had done myself,’ she says. ‘I had tried to lean in to the status quo and work harder and be like the men, but then realized I was much better at my job when I could just be myself,’ she says.
When Morrissey was passed over for promotion, she was at first confused and disappointed – but then she says she had a moment of clarity: she couldn’t change the existing environment, so she made it her job to find a new one…
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