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.