The only way to get more women on boards

Global diversity campaign 30% Club has launched in Australia, aiming to lead the nation's most influential company directors in a push to see women make up 30 per cent of ASX200 boards by 2018.

Helena Morrissey is chief executive of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club. She sat down with BlueNotes associate editor Amanda Gome at the launch of the club’s Australian push in Melbourne to talk about quotas, ambition and redefining merit. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

"[Quotas] give the appearance of change, but don’t create sustainable and meaningful change."
Helena Morrissey, CE of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club

The only way to get more women on boards

Amanda Gome: The 30% club is setting a target of 30 per cent women in board rooms by 2018. Patricia Cross, who is leading the charge in Australia, has made the point quotas would change things faster. Why are targets better?

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Helena Morrissey: Quotas are like a shortcut. It gives the appearance of change but, as Patricia says, don’t create sustainable and meaningful change. 

What we’ve seen in countries like Norway, the poster child for successful quotas, is there’s actually very few women in the executive ranks and in the pipeline. 

So they’re now quite worried because there are fewer women in executive management roles than before quotas were introduced. The women in those roles stopped what they were doing and became non-executive directors. 

I’m afraid the only way, however long it takes, to achieve real change for all organisational levels is to do it through a voluntary approach. 

AG: In which countries have the 30% club had the most success and why do you think that is? 

HM: Definitely the UK has achieved the most because it started sooner (we’ve been going for almost five years now). There have been five replicable factors. 

We’ve had a very clear target with a deadline and we’ve had the support of business leaders who are approaching this not as a women’s issue - but as a business issue. 

We’ve had cross-party political support and media attention has been sustained. It’s been interesting seeing how that has kept the momentum going 

It’s been a very collaborative approach. The 30% Club is not about being territorial; it’s about owning the issue and making things happen. We work collaboratively with other people in the space (who are already doing some great things) trying to bring some cohesion to the effort. 

Last, but by no means least, you can’t just wave a magic wand. However keen people are to see the change we need to make sure there are actions behind the ambition. We have a whole series of action in the UK from the schoolroom to the boardroom. 

AG: What’s the most significant thing a company can do to increase the women on their boards? 

HM: To focus on it as a business issue is really important. For a long time it was about women talking to other women. There were some militant overtures around it as well, with women feeling aggrieved about not being in the boardroom and in senior roles. 

Importantly, it’s been recalibrated to be about having a successful modern business. I think the biggest impact companies can make is to get out and lead by example and explain why they are doing it and why it is important to them. 

AG: Across the world we are seeing investors getting serious about female leadership on the boards given research showing companies are better run if there is gender diversity at the top. Is pressure from investors growing? 

HM: The 30% Club has an investor group. We’re trying to make that global. There are 23 institutional investors and asset owners who are individual members of this sub-group and there assets total over $A12 trillion. 

At the moment the effort has been about trying to get constructive engagement to encourage disclosure so we can measure what progress has been made. It certainly hasn’t been about being an activist. Our approach has been about trying to add to the pressure through positive engagement and encouragement. 

One thing I would say is we really need to move this into the mainstream investment agenda and I don’t think that’s quite happened yet. That’s the next stage for the investor group. 

AG: Many women in boardrooms fought hard to get there and don’t want to be closely associated with diversity. How important is that support now? 

HM: In understand there’s been some reticence in the past, where women have felt that if they fly the flag for other women they may not be taken as seriously as if they were encouraging people on merit. 

Diversity can be a contributing factor to merit and it’s about recalibrating what we mean by merit. 

I’m now seeing the same women who were once a little bit reluctant being very supportive of other women, recognising that it’s good for business and seeing it as a mainstream business issue.  

I think we’re getting there, but it’s important that we recognise this is not just about men, it’s about women as well encouraging others. 

AG: ANZ’s Notable Women program is successfully training female leaders to be more visible in new, old and social media. One of the startling results is they have become more ambitious and aspire to higher positions. Do you think lack of visibility might be holding women back? 

HM: I think maybe it is a factor. I think more likely the systems which we are used to are not conducive to women’s attributes coming through. Women find it harder to sell ourselves. 

I think there are a number of quite subtle factors that can contribute to women not quite making the grade even though they have all the capabilities and we need to fix those. 

AG: What do you say to women at mid-career level who have high potential but lose their ambition? Research for the 30% club done by KPMG suggests you should challenge that ambition. 

HM: I think it’s not that we’re less ambitious, but obviously ambition changes. What you want out of life and what you want out of your career can change quite rapidly. 

The thing I would encourage other women to think about is first of all to play the longer-term game. 

Secondly, if you are not comfortable in the culture in which you operate then that’s an important thing to address. It doesn’t mean every company is like that. You could even influence the culture, we shouldn’t just be receivers. 

AG: You’re businesswoman running a global asset management firm worth around $A100 billion. 

You have other board commitments and a busy family life with nine children. What’s your top tip for leaders on how to avoid burning out? 

HM: I’m not a good advertisement for pacing yourself! It’s very energising if you enjoy what you do. Having a fulfilling life can help you do more, as well as feel more capable and less overwhelmed. 

I think we all have those moments sometimes when it all seems too much. I would not say that I’m immune from the feeling. 

Help is important. I’m absolutely delighted that Brenda Trenowden who is head of financial institutions for ANZ in Europe has agreed to take on a bigger role within the 30% Club. She has been with me since the start and I’m really delighted she has taken on that new role.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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