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Series Ten, Episode One: Reflections on a decade of diversity and inclusion: Baroness Helena Morrissey reflects on progress and considers the road ahead

What better way to launch the 10th series of DiverCity Podcast, than for host Julia Streets to welcome guest Baroness Helena Morrissey DBE. In this far reaching discussion, they reflect on the 30% Club, which Helena founded in 2010, and discuss her role as Chair of the Diversity Project. Helena shares her insights and learning as an industry leader, considers the progression of women on boards worldwide, and expands on the requirements for organisational change. Together they explore Helena’s perspectives on new hybrid working models, the importance of mentoring and the role of male champions. Finally, as she reflects on the past decade, Helena explains why financial firms must authentically prioritise diversity and inclusion in order to reap the rewards and harness the commercial and investment opportunities on offer.

Baroness Helena Morrissey DBE

Helena has over three decades’ experience in financial services, including 15 years as CEO of Newton Investment Management. She is a non-executive director at FTSE100 company St. James’s Place Wealth Managements. Helena is well known for her work on inclusion and diversity. In 2010, she founded the 30% Club, a campaign for better genView Postder-balanced boards. Since then, the representation of women on FTSE350 boards has risen from less than 10% to over 30%. There are now fourteen 30% Clubs throughout the world. Helena chairs the Diversity Project, aimed at improving diversity across all dimensions in the investment industry. Helena has recently been appointed the lead non-executive director at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. She entered the House of Lords in September 2020 and was appointed a Dame in 2017. Her first book, A Good Time to be a Girl, was described by Forbes magazine as one of the five most empowering books for women in 2018. She posts daily career dressing advice on Instagram. Helena is married with nine children. You can follow Helena Morrissey on Twitter: @MorrisseyHelena and on Instagram: @helenamorrissey

Series Ten, Episode One Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets, and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equality, inclusion, and diversity in financial services. On the podcast we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus and offer lots of ideas to help drive change.

Today, I am delighted to be joined by Baroness Morrissey, DBE.

Baroness Helena Morrissey has over three decades of experience in financial services, which include a 15 year tenure as CEO of Newton Investment Management. She is a non-executive Director at the FTSE 100 company, St. James’s Place Wealth Management.

Helena is particularly well-known for her work on inclusion and diversity. In 2010, she founded the 30% Club, a campaign for better gender balanced boards. Since then, the representation of women on FTSE 350 boards has risen from less than 10% to over 30%. There are now fourteen 30% Clubs throughout the world. And Helena also chairs the Diversity Project, aimed at improving diversity across all dimensions in the investment industry.

She has recently been appointed the lead non-executive Director of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, and she entered the House of Lords in September 2020. Appointed a Dame in 2017.

Her first book, A Good Time to be a Girl, was described by Forbes Magazine as one of the five most empowering books for women in 2018. She posts daily career dressing advice on Instagram. As if that is not enough, Helena is married with nine children, and we’re delighted that she has taken time to be with us today. Helena, welcome to the show.

Helena: Thank you for having me, Julia. Pleasure to be here.

Julia: I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation. It’s the 10th series of DiverCity Podcast, and what a way to kick us off. There’s a question I’m asking all our guests. As we sit here at the beginning of 2021, what’s your main area of focus for the moment?

Helena: I think clearly, our lives have all been thrown into disarray and disruption by the pandemic. I think that’s as much true around diversity, inclusion, and inequalities as in other areas. I think that’s become all-consuming, frankly. And thinking, what can we learn, obviously, ways of working have been completely thrown up in the air. And then also there are concerns that actually maybe women have been set backwards particularly, and other inequalities have widened. So plenty to get our teeth stuck into around that.

Julia: I think it’s going to be a fascinating debate this year, as we Build Back Better, thinking about organisational structures and thinking about leadership and culture. Of course, where it  matters at the moment as well. It’s a fascinating year ahead of us for sure.

I wonder whether we could reflect on this around last year. I mentioned in my opening remarks, it’s the 10th anniversary of the 30% Club as well. I guess my main things are what are your observations in the context of 2020? And then we’ll go on to talk about the 30% Club later.

Helena: Well, I think we have come a long way in many senses, if we’re talking about diversity and inclusion specifically. I think a decade ago, it was still very much a special interest issue. I think people didn’t even pay lip service to it then. I think some of that, I’m afraid, still goes on. It just was quite an uphill struggle to get 30% Club off the ground, if I’m honest.

Now of course, I mean, it would be bizarre to hear a CEO say anything other than they were truly supportive of diversity and inclusion, and that it was a top priority for them in a business context. I still think there’s, I’m afraid, a gap between the talk and the walk often. I have to say, we have to think of it as progress that we have moved. This is everybody’s issue. This is a business issue. This is all about diversity of thought, not just about identity politics. I think that’s something to celebrate.

Julia: Most definitely. Thinking through also, I know leadership and structures and organisational change, it feels to me that this is such a pivotal time, the argument, for example, about flexible working. Historically, that will never happen, kind of shirk sort of response to working at home. But of course in one year, in a matter of days overnight, the world pivoted as well. I’d love to hear your thoughts about as we build back stronger, are there some very specific things that organisations should be thinking about?

Helena: Well, I think every organisation is thinking now about what it’s going to look like, and nobody, obviously, has a crystal ball completely. I was involved in the launch of some recent research that came out from the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership, which is hosted at King’s College London. This was all research that suggested that both men and women want to have more flexibility of their lives going forward. I think it was only 7% of men and 3% of women wanted to go back into the office full time. It was around 80% of women and 70% of men that wanted some flexibility to choose.

Organisations, whether they’re ready for it or not, are thinking about what’s being called hybrid work. I think that title, that name sounds rather clinical and not quite what we’re talking about here, which is really making sure that finally after decades, centuries even of trying, work and the rest of lives are treated as two halves of the same coin, rather than squeezing the rest of life into what you’ve got left over after work or the other way around.

I think this is a huge breakthrough potentially. I mean, in theory, we could never prove that working from home worked. But as you say, suddenly overnight, we all demonstrated that it could and did. I mean, all host of things. It’s not just around women having more flexibility around children, but so many men have said that they have realised just how productive they could be at home. Perhaps because they’re not doing quite so many of the other tasks. I shouldn’t say that, really. But there might be a little bit of that going on. It’s true that it really has changed the lens through which we look at this issue. Now people are thinking, “Well, how do we make sure that we can communicate well, that we can be efficient, that we can actually have that way of sparking great ideas off each other that sometimes only comes from those random interactions that we have when we’re physically together?”

So now companies… I don’t think anyone’s got the answers, as I say, but they’re thinking, “How do we get there?” I love the fact that people now, companies are now collaborating around these things. They’re not being competitive about it. They’re not saying, “This is a competitive advantage of ours.” They’re reaching out and asking. We’re certainly seeing that through the Diversity Project.

Julia: Certainly when we’re thinking about not only attracting talent, but retaining and motivating talent, all of this comes into play incredibly importantly. I think you do raise an interesting point, one particularly that I picked up on was the burden of care naturally does tend to fall more to women in households. Of course, we have to be very careful about what is the definition of a household. However, this is an interesting observation to be made. But equally we’re hearing more men saying, “Actually, I’m loving being more involved at home. I’m absolutely enjoying being part of that.” So it’s fascinating to see. I wonder if there’s anything we’re at risk of overlooking in our appetite for change.

Helena: I’m absolutely sure that there are things that we’re at risk of overlooking. It’s one of those things, the great unknown unknown. At the moment, I think what’s happening, people are looking at different age groups of people. Clearly there’s pressure on young people, terrible pressure on even just finding work. Also, they’re getting started and missing out on the real practical experience of being mentored physically by somebody in the office and just seeing how things operate and understanding how to interact. That’s a huge problem. But I think that one’s been one that’s being thought about.

One thing I don’t think has got enough attention at the moment is I think we do miss out on a lot of the creative spark that comes from actually physical interacting. See, I’m not someone who’s sceptical about home working at all, but recently was on a two-day board meeting. You might think, “Well, that’s quite tortuous in itself.” We had 15 minutes break for lunch one day.

Of course what’s interesting is that not only is that exhausting and people’s sort of attention span inevitably sags or just goes off, but also people in this very formalised conversations, and it’s all done through the chair. People put up their hand. You do this very sort of back and forth with the presenter and so forth. And you don’t have that real getting down to the bottom of the problem sometimes, or going off on a side alley discussion, or taking something just new. When someone says something and it sparks an idea, reading the room. I think that is something that’s not getting enough attention at present.

Julia: As organisations are thinking about physical spaces and also about how they bring people back into work, hybrid working models, it’s important to bake that in to allow the time for the creativities. I’m hearing some really fascinating discussion also about wouldn’t it be fun if you could create some virtual reality. That actually you can have people around a boardroom, always kind of creating that spark. I was thinking, imagine its application in the world of trading or in the world of the boardroom. I mean, it would be fascinating.

But not for today. That is another sort of direction we could go off into. But thank you for your thoughts on that, because I do think there’s a risk that we can overlook some very key areas as well. I always describe the young talent as learning by osmosis, which is of course how we learned in our careers.

Helena: Exactly.

Julia: And they’re not necessarily getting that today. So worth paying attention to for sure. Thank you for your thoughts on that.

I now would love to talk about the 30% Club, because I’m a massive supporter and a massive champion. I mentioned in my opening remarks about the shift in really a relatively short period of time on the FTSE 350 boards as well. You’ve witnessed and you’ve paid such a guiding hand in driving these changes as well. I’d love to hear, what are your proudest milestones and successes?

Helena: Well, actually, I think a lot of people would assume that it is the jump that you’ve mentioned in the proportion of women on company boards, and now we’re seeing that a bit more overseas as well. I think to be honest, I’m much more interested in affecting, even though I’m proud of that and frankly, I’m amazed because it wasn’t, as I said earlier, plain sailing. We call it the zeitgeist. And there was such a team effort around it.

But I think the thing I’m proudest of is that we run a big cross-company mentoring scheme. Which thousands, I think we’re up to something like six and a half thousand mentors and mentees have already gone through the scheme in its latest, I think the ninth or eighth year. Lost count lately. It’s very much the largest cross-company scheme like this in the world. What’s interesting about it is that women are much more candid about the experiences that they actually are going through when they’re talking to somebody who’s a mentor outside their own firm and usually in another industry. And then we have roughly half of the mentors are men. They say it’s opened their eyes as to the issues really women are experiencing that perhaps wouldn’t come out, just because they might be afraid of speaking up in their own organisation.

What I like about it and why I’m so proud of it is because it really genuinely changes the trajectory of women’s careers. And it’s very much targeted at mid-career women who we often describe as in the danger zone. It’s even at the beginning of careers. And then if people battle through, as it often has been seen, in the middle stage, then they might get promoted and certainly get to be in a senior role. But it’s that middle stage often coinciding when women have children or bring up families. So many men and women have contacted me to say that because of the scheme, it changed what they did next. Hopefully for the better in the long run. Actually influencing people’s actual lives. The women on board thing, that’s just a few hundred extra women, frankly, appointed to these very senior roles that aren’t available to most women, but this is affecting many thousands. I’m proud about that.

Julia: I love the fact you mentioned that men are coming forward. We know that the power of mentorship has enormous influence. There’s another shining example, and we also know that the power of role models, we’re going to talk about that a little bit later as well. Male champions really, really matter, and this mutual benefit that flows from mentoring as well, which is amazing to hear as well.

I know the motto of the 30% Club is growth through diversity. I’m really interested, as our listeners are very engaged right the way across the diversity and inclusion spectrum as well. I’d love to hear your thoughts about where do we require further focus. The concept of intersectionality and also reaching out right the way across the spectrum, seeing more diversity on boards.

Helena: Well, it’s a critical question, because I mean, I’m very conscious that the 30% Club was only about women and only about the boardroom, at least to start with. That’s just obviously in my view, a starting place, not the be-all and end-all.

Just to say we chose the slogan, growth through diversity, because we wanted this to be very much about improving business results and to be seen as such, rather than something. Obviously I care hugely about equality, but that’s not in itself enough to get people to actually buy into diversity and inclusion, unfortunately. We wanted it not to include the word gender, because obviously, I don’t think it’s everything, it’s a start. Women, obviously, are half the population. It seems the most obvious thing to start with.

Right now in the 30% Club, which I don’t run anymore. I’m an ambassador for it. I mentor people and so forth. But Ann Cairns, who was vice chair of Mastercard, she is now the Global Chair of the 30% Club. I’m taking it very firmly in the direction of intersectionality, and we’ve discussed that recently, and obviously, I completely support that and applaud that.

When we started, if I’m honest, it seemed it wasn’t even the question of, “Well, shouldn’t we be looking at other types of women and other types of diversity?” Just because it was so difficult for women. That was only 10 years ago. I’m thrilled that now the focus is very much on particularly ethnic minority women and working very hard and using some of the same techniques that we did around sort of getting more women on boards to start with in other areas. That also is what I’m doing in some areas like the Diversity Project, which is very much about every dimension of diversity and just trying to revolutionise who are the drivers of businesses, who are the leaders, and not just to have one type of person who’s historically been in charge continuing to rule over the rest of us.

Julia: It is lovely. I just always enjoy looking at the work of the Diversity Project. I encourage all our listeners, not only within the sector, but also around the world to look to the Diversity Project, because there are many chapters within that then look at the networks in very specific areas, but also commitment to the intersectionality as well. It is fascinating to see how structures can be put in place and really drive change as well, which is phenomenal as well.

Can we return to the question of role models and leaders, if we may? As I mentioned, it is proven time and time again that role models really matter. You’re a shining example, as indeed are so many of our guests as well, who do take the time to be on the show. What advice do you give male and female leaders about how best to engage with the diversity and inclusion conversation? Because I think right now, it’s a tough time. We have to return performance, particularly as we go into a tough economic climate as well. But it’s so important they stay engaged with the discussion.

Helena: Exactly. I do feel it’s quite a risk that it’s deprioritised, particularly, as you say right now, when there’s real business failures and urgent economic priorities. But I think it needs to be thought of as a bit like being nice. You don’t say, “Well, now times are tough. I’m going to be nasty.” It’s part of how you conduct yourself, or generosity of spirit or whatever it is that you think is absolutely core as a value.

I think diversity, I was literally once asked… It was at a conference and it was many years ago. But I was asked by a gentleman who said, “Nobody’s got time for diversity and inclusion. Do you recommend setting sort of an hour a week aside or something?” And I said, “Well, that’s not how to think of it at all. It very much should be part of.” It’s like one of those candy canes that’s got writing through it and you cut through it and it’s exactly the same way wherever you cut it. This needs to be seen as something that’s very much part of one’s behaviours and thought processes and is firmly embedded.

Sadly, my honest reflection at this stage is that’s not where we’re at. Some people are obviously. Some business leaders, absolutely authentic about it. But others, they have learned it. They are not quite living and breathing it. They kind of forget from time to time, and often at precisely the moment when you need it most. That just shows that we haven’t solved this problem, we’re still at a relatively immature stage, and that there is a lot of work to be done. But it’s got to be natural. It’s got to be absolutely part of how you think.

Julia: As we start navigating, I mentioned about the tough road ahead, it’ll be very interesting to see how we navigate through the next crisis. And those who do embed diversity and inclusion into their true DNA as leaders, see how they outperform others as well. Because all the data will support that for sure. McKinsey and Bain and everybody’s producing really compelling reasons, but it has to be embedded in who you are as well.

Another area that comes up a lot, again returning to the question of intersectionality plus also leadership, but also the importance and the value of allies as well. I know the Diversity Project looks at this very, very keenly as well. I’d love to hear some examples, some real best practice, if you like, where you’ve seen great role models and allies, not only championing gender, but also other areas as well.

Helena: Well, actually, I think it’s absolutely critical, shifting the dial on this issue. I learned through my own experiences. When I started at Newton Investment Management, I was a very junior person. I had a terrible, I suppose, failure at my first job where I was passed over for the initial promotion. And yet within seven years of joining Newton, I became the CEO. The reason was because I had a tremendous mentor, tremendous ally in the form of the founder. He was obviously much more powerful than I was, particularly when I joined, when I had no power at all. But actually, he provided with air cover. And then when I was needing more responsibility to be able to progress and so forth, and that was where he could do much more in terms of arguing my case, looking out for me when people were doubting and so forth. I just saw firsthand, it just made all the difference between a, say, failure in my first job and then success in my second.

Similarly, the 30% Club, I mean, we would have never ever have got anywhere if it had been women talking to women about women’s issues. The members are the Chairmen. When we started, 99 of the top hundred company chairs were men. So Alison Carnwath, who was the only woman Chairman at the time, was a fantastic supporter, but we needed more than just her. These Chairs became not just allies in the form of sort of patting us on the back and saying, “Yeah, we’re very supportive,” but genuinely binding their success to ours. That’s apparently the etymology of the word ally, that it means to be bound to something. It’s not just friendship. It is going beyond. It is saying, “Yes, my success depends on your success.” I just think it’s absolutely critical to affecting change, to have the people in power inviting those who are outside it to join them and to championing their cause.

Julia: Well, I think this is a great moment to turn to Cynthia Akinsanya for some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming. A 2019 World Economic Forum article states that by the year 2025, 75% of the global workforce will be made up of millennials, which means this group will occupy the majority of leadership roles over the coming decade. They will be responsible for making important decisions that affect workplace cultures and people’s lives.

This group has a unique perspective on diversity. While older generations tend to see diversity through lenses of race, demographics, equality, and representation, millennials see diversity as a melding of varying experiences, different backgrounds, and individual perspectives. They view the ideal workplace as a supportive environment that gives space to varying perspectives on a given issue. This demographic is sure to keep diversity and inclusion high on the business agenda.

Julia: Thank you very much for that, Cynthia. Just before the break, we were talking about the importance of allies, mentors, leaders. We’ve very much framed this around the discussion of Building Back Better and why now it’s so critical to really think about this stuff very carefully. But I wonder if we are, in some areas, are we seeing an overswing? Has it become the popular topic that everyone’s hanging on to? What should we be mindful of?

Helena: I am worried that there are pockets of resentment, I’m going to call it, give it a strong a word as that. But I think that initially, we’re having some success over the last few years, I think, about this argument that diversity of thought is critical to business success and results. And of course we saw the evidence after the financial crisis that groupthink is a real danger. Then of course, this has got back to usual and a lot of work was done around diversity and inclusion. Now I think there is fatigue in some areas about it and resentment that this is being hijacked perhaps as a sort of “woke agenda”, as people like to call it. Political correctness. That actually this isn’t about equality and fairness. This is about cancel culture and so forth.

I do think we need to be on our guard for that, because it’s very disruptive. If we ended up with in one corner of the boxing ring, as it were, people who genuinely want inclusion and diversity. And then another group who started off a little bit sceptically, who were kind of coming around to it, but then now see that this is not really about encouraging freedom of speech, actually opinion sharing and so forth. That’s going to undermine our efforts, and I think we do have to be very careful about that.

I just think that individually, any of us involved in this agenda need to keep reminding those who are working alongside us, those who are challenging us and so forth, that this is not about imposing some worldview. This is actually quite the opposite. This is about allowing more people to come into the conversation to express their views, and not to have a fear that there’s only one set of criterion that will help them to succeed.


As you were saying before, many of the arguments about why diversity and inclusion matters are very much commercial as well. Just to wrap up this amazing discussion, we’ve covered an enormous amount as well, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question I’m asking everybody. I’m quite deeply concerned as we go into the next economic cycle, which could be deep and it could be long, is there’s a risk this could fall down the corporate agenda. And it builds on your previous comments, actually. So I’d love to hear your compelling reasons why diversity and inclusion must remain high on the corporate agenda.

Helena: I do believe that as companies are looking for the next phase, obviously, not the companies that are going under. That’s an existential or the ones with the threat of that, that they are focused firmly on existing and surviving. But many companies actually could use this as an excuse, not to prioritise diversity and inclusion as much as they have been doing.

I want to make the argument again that this is all about being modern, about being forward-looking. The world has been changing dramatically and quickly before coronavirus. And that many of the trends that we’ve seen before have just been accelerated and intensified since. Use of technology, for example. The reality is that what made you successful in the past is not necessarily going to make you successful in the future. You need all the brains, you need all the dialogue, you need all the innovation, and you’re only going to get that if you have diverse people who feel truly included and can speak their minds.

I actually think the case has been reinforced by what’s happened. I do feel it’s up to us all to ensure that that continues to be the central case, that we actually go forwards and don’t go backwards from this. So I’m relatively optimistic, not complacent. But I do want to sort of end with the call to action, actually. I think that each of us can play a part in what happens next. We can be a bit defeatist and say, “It’s all got too difficult. There are bigger problems to solve,” etc. Or we can say, “This is an integral part of building out of what’s happened. Building from the ruins, perhaps, of 2020.” And to make sure that individually we play our part to ensure our workplaces are inclusive.

Julia: Inspiring words to see us on our way. Wherever our listeners are around the world, whatever time of day it is, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the show. Helena Morrissey, thank you so much for being with us.

Helena: Julia, it’s been just a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me on your show.

Julia: Wonderful. And as always, to all our listeners on DiverCity Podcast, thank you for tuning in.

Kieron: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya for her insights.

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