Helena Morrissey.
Helena Morrissey.
Image: Getty Images / Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

How do you have lunch with Superwoman?

Helena Morrissey has a full-time job running Legal & General’s personal investing business, spearheads a high-profile diversity campaign, sits on the board of Eton and, oh yes, has nine children between the ages of nine and 26. She served as chief executive of Newton Investment Management for 15 years, cranked out a book called A Good Time to be a Girl during her leave between positions, and last year was made a dame of the British empire. And despite all those natural births, and recently becoming a grandmother, the 52-year-old is stick-thin, elegant and wearing cute pumps with gold heels that are to die for.

It’s all very exhausting to think about. I find two kids, a job and a dog more than enough to handle. Arriving at the lunch, I wondered whether I would be intimidated, even faintly resentful of Morrissey as one of those miracle women who makes life hard for the rest of us by making it look so easy to have it all.

Indeed, when the waitress comes, Morrissey oozes efficiency, decisively ordering salmon with sauce vierge. She would have stopped there but adds a haddock soufflé starter when I point out that two courses would give us more time to talk. I opt for the tomato soup and copy her salmon, mostly because I haven’t had time to read the rest of the menu and don’t want to hold her back.

But as we begin chatting, Morrissey’s ramrod-straight posture eases and she starts talking with her hands. She excitedly pulls out her phone to share a graphic she finds illuminating. When she learns I have ordered sparkling water, she laughs: “Let’s live a little.”

We are meeting at The Ned, London’s elegant new members’ club, where 10 restaurants and a five-star hotel are now found in the refurbished Midland Bank building. In the past year this towering marble edifice decked out in 1920s style has become one of the City’s go-to places for flashy parties, important meetings and glamorous fundraisers.

Millie’s Lounge, a buzzy place in the main lobby, is a favourite of hers for breakfast. Not only is it right on her commuting route, but it shares a name with her third daughter. She also really likes the symbolism of a women’s power lunch in a place that was once home largely to men in bowler hats.

We perch on two velvet banquettes at right angles and have to bend forward to hear over the chatter all around us. In our brightly coloured print dresses, we could be two traditional ladies who lunch. Our conversation does touch on catering, managing the schedules of busy children and even briefly on fashion. But this is 2018 and Morrissey is a multitasking high-flyer with a much wider agenda.

Just in the week of our meeting, she was part of the Institute for Public Policy Research panel including trade unionists and the Archbishop of Canterbury that produced a provocative report calling for a radical rethink of the British economy; she helped launch the “Equal Lives” research into barriers that prevent men from being caregivers; she fronted a report from the Financial Reporting Council urging companies to treat diversity as a business strategy; and she spoke at a conference on the use of artificial intelligence and chatbots to give investment advice.

She confidently swats aside the critiques of her panel’s report on rethinking the economy. “If you’re worried about the people you offend then you’d never do anything.” But for all her super-alpha persona, she is, it transpires, as prone to uncertainty as any of us. In particular, she is having doubts about the lasting success of her drive to get companies to appoint more women to top jobs. “There’s a real sense of fatigue,” she says. “I think one of the reasons is because it looks like it’s only about me, me, me, the women, women, women, and that’s not very attractive.”

That’s a remarkable admission coming just as the 30% Club, the campaign to get more women in top corporate jobs that she founded in 2010, finally hit one of its main targets. As she tweeted last month, “FTSE100 boards reached 30% women on boards for the first time — 30.4% to be precise!”

Women lower down the ladder still struggle to advance and balance careers with domestic responsibilities, she worries, and men, with the best will in the world, face barriers at work when they try to be more involved with childcare.

“I think it’s quite tough being a modern man today. What does it mean? And so there’s pressure to be a dad, a great parent and to be hands-on and look after your elderly relatives and do stuff for the community ... and then also to be an alpha male and [make] lots of money and be at the top of your career.”

She was reflecting recently that the impetus for diversity seemed to have stalled, “and my husband said: ‘I don’t know what you’d expect, really.’ He wasn’t having a go but he was saying, if you have a diversity programme on top, but everything else just carrying on the same, how could that ever change anything?”

“You have to change everything,” she tells me. “You have to change the way you recruit, the way you promote, work together.”

When the haddock soufflé arrives, Morrissey is talking too fast and enthusiastically to do more than pick at it. I manage not to spill tomato soup on my dress. Seeing that she is resolutely ignoring the bread basket, I do the same and sit back and listen to her account of her journey through the traditional preserves of masculine authority.

Born into a family of teachers, she survived “merciless teasing” as the only girl in her advanced maths class at school and won a spot at Cambridge, an experience she credits with helping her thrive in the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of 1990s financial services. She met her husband Richard while at university, where she studied philosophy.

It was at the New York office of the venerable UK asset management firm Schroders that she had the then “quite anomalous” experience of working with “two really amazing women who were running all the business development. [They] were calling all the shots.” And then she came crashing down to earth. Back in London, she found herself the only woman in a team of 16 fund managers. “That was a bit of a shock to the system,” she says.

The next few years were frankly difficult as she and her husband tried to balance children with their careers during a recession that left them underwater on their mortgage. Although they had a reliable nanny, there were constant discussions over who would stay at home when the kids were sick, and pressure to make sure everything was done.

Finally, when she was 32 and pregnant with Millie, their fourth, the couple decided it was time for a change. Richard was not enjoying his work as a journalist, while Helena was by then thriving at Newton — a few years later she would be named chief executive. So they made the decision that he would stay at home. “It wasn’t suddenly that my whole world was solved, but because it was a different dynamic, I didn’t have the same anxieties about just functioning,” she explains.

Defying gender norms has not always been easy. Even now, every September or whenever the children change classes, the Morrisseys have to remind schools and parents’ groups that Richard, not Helena, is the first port of call.

Morrissey also receives hate mail — just that morning she had received an angry letter taking issue with an interview she had done with the Guardian that detailed, among other things, her use of a whiteboard to track her children’s activities. And she is regularly tweaked in the tabloids for her full plate.

She was hurt when one news outlet noted that it was glad she “found time” to attend her oldest daughter Florence’s wedding. The jibe particularly rankled because she had organised much of the festivities. Last year, for her oldest son Fitz, she even baked the wedding cake — a multi-tiered tower of meringue and fruit that required a wedding-day assembly line to produce.

Along the way, she concedes, she has not always done as much as she could to help other women emulate her success. At first, she was struggling herself, and later she was so busy that she didn’t have time to respond to all the requests for coffees and heart-to-heart chats.

She also admits she was, as a manager, a product of her time: too focused until recently on traditional measures of output such as having workers present at the office. That has changed, she says. “Now I definitely measure people’s performance on their results ... I now do this agile working in my team so in theory I can be sitting in London on my own while my team are at the digital place down in Cardiff.”

The switched-on City financiers at the tables on either side of us are a bit too close for comfort. I think the woman just off my right shoulder is posturing about her ability to sell derivatives but it’s hard to tell amid all the acronyms.

Women’s progression is not about replacing one form of discrimination with another. I think we lost sight of the fact that gender equality has got two sides to the equation.

At our table, the atmosphere is lighter. Over the salmon, which turns out to be in a delicious tomato and basil sauce, I volunteer stories about my decision to switch from maths to history as an undergraduate, and we compare notes about dropping children off at university. I decide to take Morrissey to task about two things that have recently bothered me and other women I know: the title of her book and the name of the fund she recently started.

The L&G Future World Gender in Leadership fund invests in companies with higher-than-average gender diversity in their top ranks — the logic behind it is that companies that make an effort on such things are likely to have better governance and ultimately better results. The theory is supported by research from McKinsey, among others.

But it bugs me that she chose to make the scheme’s official nickname the “Girl fund” — doesn’t that trivialise the value of diversity? Similarly, it feels Pollyanna-ish to be so positive about being female when women in many countries are still denied access to education and basic necessities. Even in the west, the hearings on US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the #MeToo movement have highlighted the continuing prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

Morrissey acknowledges that there have been complaints about the Girl fund, but argues that it is mainly middle-aged women who find the name reductive, while young people don’t care. As for the book title, she says she chose it because “I feel in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if we don’t celebrate the progress”.

Girls have many more opportunities than they once did, she points out, even if it is not always easy to be a grown woman. What about her three sons, I ask. Is it a good time to be a boy?

That is a tougher question. She believes that one of her sons failed to win a prize at school because the teachers were keen to show that two girls, rather than one student of each gender, could be winners, and statistics do show that the students who do worst in Britain are white, disadvantaged boys.

“I worry about positive discrimination. Women’s progression is not about replacing one form of discrimination with another,” she says. “I think we lost sight of the fact that gender equality has got two sides to the equation.”

The waitress comes to clear the salmon and Morrissey waves hers away, only half-eaten. (It is big, though: I am an inveterate plate-cleaner and only three-quarters of the way through.) I realise that we have been talking for more than 90 minutes without mentioning Brexit. That’s a surprise, because one of the other things for which she is well known is her avid and early support of the UK’s departure from the EU.

We order coffee — espresso for her, decaf latte for me — and I broach the subject. “Brexit. OK. Save the best to last,” she says in a downbeat tone that suggests that it is anything but.

Well before the June 2016 vote, when most in the City of London were either silent or ardent Remainers, Morrissey loudly advocated cutting ties to the EU. She says her support was “predicated on actually wanting to have more decision-making closer to us” and that she spoke out because so few other people did.

“Behind closed doors, a lot more people were progressive but in the public domain [they were silent],” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Isn’t this where we went wrong in the financial crisis, because nobody said what they really thought?’ ”

Now that the leaving negotiations are mired in confusion and finger-pointing, I wonder whether she has changed her position. “We’re all unified: Remainers, Leavers, everyone is wishing it was handled better,” she says. “We keep making this bizarre mistake of agreeing a position amongst ourselves before we’ve checked it out with the other side of the negotiating table.”

Though she is disheartened by the lack of progress and the growing threat of no deal, Morrissey remains adamantly opposed to a second referendum. “What would it clear up?” she asks. “I thought Geoffrey Boycott the cricketer said it really brilliantly: it’s like a cricket captain losing the first toss about who goes out to bat and saying ... can we make it the best of three? And then the best of five?

“We can’t call it the People’s Vote when the people have already voted.”

Instead, she thinks UK negotiators should press ahead and seek a stepping stone deal rather than trying to tie all of the loose ends up at once. “Let’s be pragmatic [and] get through it,” she says. “Because everybody needs to get on with the rest of their lives.”

Now that we are back on policy, Morrissey’s posture has stiffened and she sounds much more assertive. This is the impressive, intimidating woman who commands attention on conference platforms and more than holds her own on radio and television.

Looking around The Ned, the mood seems very upbeat. While Morrissey is pensive about the state of financial services 10 years after the crash, she worries that others are not. “We’ve lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. We know there’s more leverage in the financial system. We know we’ve still got a lack of diverse thinking. We know we still don’t allow people to disagree very easily.”

And then she is off. When you have as much to accomplish as she does, every minute counts.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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