Belfast Telegraph

How financial ace and mother of nine became perfect role model for women in the boardroom

Feminist figurehead: Helena Morrissey is behind the 30% Club
Feminist figurehead: Helena Morrissey is behind the 30% Club

By Mary Kenny

Feminist icons are often unmarried or childless or both - Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem - but now there is an influential feminist role model who is a married mother of nine children.

Yes, Helena Morrissey, who launched the successful '30% Club' - an initiative to ensure that business boards are at least 30% female - has nine children, aged from 26 to 12. As head of personal investment in British investment bank Legal & General she manages global funds worth £951bn, but what most interviewers ask her - or want to ask - is: "Why do you have nine children?"

A big family is considered such a preposterous exception these days, especially for a woman with a high-flying job - and, it is noted, she's not even a Catholic!

Helena, 52 next month, answers that she and her husband Richard (alumnus in philosophy from Trinity College Dublin) both came from small families and "we shared a romantic vision of the happy chaos of a large number of children".

They met and married in their 20s and thought they'd like five children. But they seemed to enjoy family life so much that the family just kept expanding. There are six girls and three boys. The eldest, Fitz, is now a fellow of All Souls at Oxford and the youngest, Theo, wants to be a stay-at-home dad like his father.

Because that's the key to Helena Morrissey's apparently serene achievement of a family of nine alongside a stellar career in the City of London (and for a time in New York). After baby number four arrived, Richard, a financial journalist, decided to be the parent who stayed at home. He has since become a Buddhist teacher.

In her book about her life and career, A Good Time to be a Girl, Helena writes that working life became frantic while they both had jobs, even though rotas were well organised and they had a terrific nanny.

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Richard didn't like office politics, but he did like cooking, sports with the kids, and even chauffeuring them around, so he gradually became a full-time dad.

Helena Morrissey is very keen on encouraging younger women in the workplace - but her agenda is also to change the workplace. It has been too masculine and women often bring different gifts and vision to the boardroom, office and industry.

She doesn't take the hard-line gender-politics view that men and women are the same. She's observed from experience in her career, and as a mother, that there are, on average, differences.

Women are more emotionally intuitive. Men are keener on 'systems'. Women are more conscientious. Men take more risks. That's why diversity benefits everyone. Don't try to make women into men by sending them on 'assertiveness courses', she says. Let women use their own gifts - what's wrong with being feminine? She's effective at being feminine herself, wearing a lot of pink.

Obviously, the area of most problematic differences - in working terms - can be pregnancy and motherhood. Though the law does not permit discrimination against a pregnant employee, Helena knows from experience that there will be some concern.

She lost promotion in her first job when she fell pregnant; the boss felt that her work commitment would suffer. But while she was crestfallen, she also learned from that experience.

By the time she was announcing her seventh pregnancy, she had become adept at reassuring colleagues that her commitment was undiminished. In a way, it got easier as the children multiplied - her work-life management skills were demonstrable.

Not that all her pregnancies were easy. There was a threatened miscarriage at 14 weeks during one pregnancy. She also had two actual miscarriages - one at 12 weeks, at the office, which she found very distressing and lonely.

The '30% Club' is a voluntary, business-led initiative which has been her special project and, so far, 28% of British businesses are 30% female, which is real progress. She started with the target of 30% because she believes in "thinking big, but starting small", and she reckoned that 30% would mark a realistic goal and a cultural change. But she'd aim at 50% now.

She's faced some unpopularity in financial circles for favouring Brexit. But that goes with her philosophy that "the moments of disruption are the moments of greatest opportunity". She also thinks Trump and Brexit show that leaders now have to be "connected" with grass roots - in a digital age people won't be bossed by an elite.

Younger women often ask her when is a good time to have a baby. There's no ideal time, she says, though she's grateful she started at 25 (her 23-year-old daughter Flo has just had a baby with her partner Benjamin Clementine).

And sometimes you have to be prepared to struggle at first. When she and Richard were young parents they didn't have much money, had high mortgage costs, couldn't afford holidays. But once pregnant, be confident about your ability to be a mother and stay committed to your work (And find a husband like Richard Morrissey!).

And don't fear failing - girls often fear failure more than boys, she's found. She likes Winston Churchill's maxim: "Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

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