Why women SHOULD rule the world (or at least run more businesses)

Why women really SHOULD rule the world (or at least run more businesses), according to City superwoman DAME HELENA MORRISSEY

Dame Helena Morrissey explains why women really should rule the world, or at least run more small businesses

As the mother of six girls and three boys, I sometimes say, only half-jokingly, that the Morrissey family offers a big enough sample size for me to be quite confident that there are clear behavioural differences between the sexes.

My nine span a wide spectrum of academic abilities, personalities, creativity and very many other characteristics. But when it comes to emotions and relationships, there are certain aspects of how the girls usually behave that differ from their brothers.

The girls are emotionally attuned, quick to pick up on one family member feeling upset or not quite themselves, and keen to talk about their feelings. Our sons are generally more matter-of-fact; they wouldn’t necessarily pick up on someone’s downbeat mood or voluntarily discuss their emotions.

There are significant variations, of course, but a gender pattern exists nonetheless.

So it is very obvious to me, both as a parent and a businesswoman, why, according to a new study, companies with greater numbers of female executives bring in ten times greater profits.

The ‘Woman Count 2020’ research found that senior management teams with at least a third of women have a net profit margin of 15.2 per cent, while those with none make just 1.5. This performance gap is costing the UK economy a potential £47 billion pre-tax profit.

The sad thing is this isn’t new; there are reports dating back a decade all saying the same thing and yet it hasn’t galvanised the action you’d expect.

Why aren’t businesses more insistent on this matter? I think it’s because most still think of gender equality as merely a women’s or equalities issue, not a business issue.

This theory that it is a business issue — i.e that more women equals greater profits — was the central argument of The 30% Club, a campaign I founded ten years ago to increase gender diversity at senior management level. So it’s an issue I’m passionate about.

It frustrates me that all these years on we’re still having to prove the so-called ‘business case’ for employing more women at a high level. It seems common sense to me.

I once asked a male chairman if he would join The 30% Club but he declined, thinking it was merely a women’s issue. Six months later, he said he did want to join after all.

When I asked why, he told me how it had been the one woman on his board who had recently stopped them from making a potentially ruinous deal. As the only woman, she had almost said nothing — and yet she had been right. Her different perspective had saved them millions, and he realised he needed more women on the board.

It proved a penny-drop moment for the chairman. And a bittersweet reminder of my early career in finance. I, too, have been that lone woman, wary of giving my true opinion simply because I didn’t want to be the ‘annoying woman’.

The ‘Woman Count 2020’ research found that senior management teams with at least a third of women have a net profit margin of 15.2 per cent, while those with none make just 1.5. (File image of Canary Wharf)

When there were three topics on the agenda I disagreed with, I’d choose only one, possibly two, to speak about. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, but it’s the truth. If the room had been more equally split, I would have felt more able to speak up.

It was a hangover from the fact that when I first started in the City more than three decades ago women were encouraged to ape male behaviour. I even dressed like a man, wearing a sombre pin-striped suit. There wasn’t any recognition — far from it — that women might bring something new and valuable to the table.

It wasn’t until I encountered my boss Stewart Newton at Newton Investment that I realised I needed to be more me to really succeed. His view was that we are all different and our different perspectives are what creates success.

Over time I learned it’s women’s powers of empathy, compassion and our more collaborative approach that companies really need.

When I became CEO of Newton, I felt like I was the first among equals rather than top dog. I knew I had to take the decisions, but they could not be unilateral decisions.

Over time I learned it’s women’s powers of empathy, compassion and our more collaborative approach that companies really need (stock image)

The company was going through a lot of changes and didn’t need a macho ‘we’re going to beat this’ attitude. It was more about reconnecting with customers, collaborating with the team, and the approach worked: in the next 15 years, the company’s assets grew from £20 bn to £50 bn.

Credit Suisse Research Institute has done a number of studies looking at companies with more female executives, and has discovered that when women contribute at the highest level, there’s less tendency for firms to take big risks, for example by doing aggressive deals.

The science backs up the fact that female powers of empathy and collaboration are so beneficial. For example, Harvard Business Review ran a piece as long ago as 2011 entitled ‘What Makes a Team Smarter?’ The answer: more women.

Two academics (a man and a woman) conducted experiments to see if it’s possible to increase the collective intelligence of a group. It turns out that the best groups, that can perform tasks well, tended to have more women in them.

In my experience there’s a gap between companies’ intent to encourage women and their solution, which effectively is to train women to behave as men.

That is missing the point. You are not going to be able to contribute as a woman if you are having to pretend you’re an honorary man. I remember hearing Alison Brittain, CEO of Whitbread, talking at a conference about different management styles.

She recalled early on in her role when one day her team had been in to see her. As they left, she overheard one say: ‘Oh she doesn’t seem to like it. Maybe something is wrong?’ They assumed her thoughtfulness meant she wasn’t pleased with their work. She stopped them and said: ‘Oh no, sorry! It’s just my daughter has asked me to help with her quadratic equations tonight and I can’t remember how to do them!’

It was a lovely moment of humanity that bonded the group. In my experience, a male boss would never have let the mask slip like that.

When I started The 30% Club, I compiled a list of boards without women. There was one striking example. In its near 60-year history, this company has never had a female CEO. The results have been disastrous, with the company going into administration last year and now undergoing a restructuring.

The real shock? The company in question is Mothercare.

And here the Mail’s Business Editor Ruth Sunderland picks her inspiring queens of commerce 

Dame Stephanie, First Lady of tech

Dame Stephanie, First Lady of tech

The most inspiring businesswoman I have encountered, bar none, is Dame Stephanie Shirley, a tech pioneer, philanthropist and champion of women at work.

Now 86, she arrived in Britain as a five-year-old in 1939 in the Kindertransport of Jewish children fleeing the Nazis.

She battled sexism barely imaginable to modern women, even calling herself ‘Steve’ and pretending to be a man to be taken seriously when she set up her company in 1962, employing women as freelance computer programers.

She made £150 million when her firm, FI Group, floated on the stock market in the Nineties, and gave away £69 million to good causes.

Opticians chain Specsavers was the brainchild of Dame Mary Perkins (pictured)

A clear vision for Specsavers

The opticians chain Specsavers was the brainchild of Dame Mary Perkins, 76, and her husband, Doug, who came up with the idea 35 years ago.

It is now an international empire with 2,000 stores in ten countries, including 900 in the UK and Ireland, global revenues of £2.7billion and more than 32,000 employees.

Back in the Sixties, Dame Mary broke with conventional feminine roles to become an optometrist, and was only one of five female students on her university degree course.

Now she has seven grandchildren, still works nine-to-five and supports Everywoman, an organisation backing women in business.

Clare Gilmartin runs ticketing app Trainline

In the driving seat at Trainline

At the age of just 44, Clare Gilmartin is already a multi-millionaire. When the company she runs, the online ticketing app Trainline, floated on the stock market last year for £2billion, she cashed in a £16 million stake.

She held on to a large chunk which is worth millions more, even though the share price has fallen during the Covid-19 crisis. A modest, but steely Irishwoman, she was given the job of chief executive of Trainline when she was pregnant with her third child.

‘I believe strongly the world needs more women in leadership,’ she told me last year.

Dame Sharon White, new chairman of department store John Lewis

Taking the reins at John Lewis

Middle Britain’s favourite department store John Lewis is going through tough times, with falling sales and profits and several stores being closed, but its new chairman, Dame Sharon White, is one of the most formidable operators in business and in Whitehall.

She became the first female and the first BAME chairman when she took over at the retailer in February.

The 53-year-old Cambridge graduate, who is married with two children, won the respect of the City in her previous role as chief executive of telecoms regulator Ofcom.

Alison Rose, the first female chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland since it was founded in 1727

Banker bailing out families

Her career would make her the envy of any banker, male or female. But when I spoke to Alison Rose, the first female chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland since it was founded in 1727, she claimed to be ‘nothing special’.

If she can do it, she insisted, then any woman can reach the top, too. The 51-year-old mother of two is determined to break with the toxic legacy of predecessor Fred Goodwin. Under her direction, the Bank has led the way in handing out loans to help firms and families survive the pandemic. 

She has also set up a £1 bn fund to support female entrepreneurs after leading a research project that found businesswomen faced unfair barriers.

Emma Walmsley has run GSK, one of the world’s largest drugs companies, since 2017

On the hunt for a Covid cure 

The coolly intelligent and poised Emma Walmsley, 51, is one of the most formidable executives on the FTSE 100. 

Since 2017 she has been running GSK, one of the largest drugs companies in the world, with revenues of nearly £34 bn last year. 

A mother of four, she is living proof of what can be achieved by a woman boss who is unencumbered by male ego. 

She set up a partnership with Sanofi of France to produce a Covid-19 vaccine — a highly unusual move for two rival firms of this size. If it works, it will be an example of how co-operative female leadership style could pay dividends for us all. 

Dame Carolyn McCall who enjoyed a successful seven-year tenure as easyJet chief executive

High flier whose career took off

At a dinner just after she had been made chief executive of easyJet, Carolyn McCall was taunted by male guests with cries of ‘Doors to manual.’ 

She had the last laugh, though, as her seven-year tenure at the airline was a huge success. Passenger numbers rose to record highs and the share price almost quadrupled.

Dame Carolyn. 58, even won the admiration of Michael O’ Leary, head of rival Ryanair, who initially labelled her a media luvvie, referring to her previous job at The Guardian, but later admitted he had underestimated her.

The going is tough at her new berth, ITV, where advertising has been hammered by the pandemic.  

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