Eleanor Mills is the Founder of Noon.org.uk, a platform for women in mid-life

On July 13, a few thousand of the 16,200 alumni of the 30% Club — a campaign aimed at getting more women into board level positions — will gather at the London Stock Exchange at market close. They will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the club’s mentoring programme: since its creation in 2012 with eight companies (EY took the lead) it is now the biggest scheme of its kind in the world. More than 680 companies have taken part, across 30 sectors and in 50 countries.

When Baroness Helena Morrissey launched the club in 2010 only 12 per cent of directors on the top boards of UK plc were female; now that figure is nearly 40 per cent. Progress was slow but steady — it took until 2019 to hit 30 per cent but less than three years to push female board membership to its current 40 per cent level.

At the time Morrissey was chief executive of Newton Asset Management, part of BNY Mellon bank. “I was at a lunch to discuss diversity at Goldman Sachs in 2009: there were a bunch of us from different sectors, but we all had the same issues with women leaving,” she recalls. “I went and read all the data, and was struck by a scheme run by Deutsche Telekom, which had a target of 30 per cent women at all levels to improve business results.” 

Thirty per cent is the magic number where research shows there is sufficient presence in a group for women not to feel like tokens, which is why Morrissey used it as a target. In her day job she was “forever setting targets” and thought one was needed for diversity. “I focused on the male chairs in the FTSE as I thought they were the key to moving the dial.”

Morrissey says she was lucky because in the aftermath of the 2008 crash greater diversity was seen as the answer to disastrous group think. “It was just when Lord [Mervyn] Davies was chairing his governmental review of women on [FTSE] boards, and he was threatening companies with quotas. The chairmen all said they would prefer a voluntary scheme and signed up to the 30% Club.”

Dame Helena Morrissey, wearing a burgandy dress, photographed at her desk
Dame Helena Morrissey, who launched the 30% Club in 2010, says the mentoring system has also been instructive for male chief executives © Lionel Derimais/Alamy 

It was not all plain sailing. One chair accused Morrissey of being out to “finish off British business”. Luckily others were more receptive, and before long the scheme mushroomed. Mentors agreed to see their mentee five times over a nine-month period, many did more; there were also training and networking sessions. The key aspect was that senior men mentored more junior women from other companies, so they could hear the unvarnished truth.

“From the beginning, male CEOs and chairs acted as mentors to mentees from other companies,” Morrissey says. “This gave them access to first- hand lived experience of what it was like to be a young woman or a person of colour in a large UK business. Many said to begin with that they didn’t understand what women were worried about; then after being mentors they would say, ‘I’m sorry I never knew how bad it is, I never heard about it within my own company’. ” 

This is borne out by the data; over a third of mentors reported being “motivated to create change in their organisations” due to having a mentee, with the majority describing changes to management style and a new commitment to removing bias in their organisations because of the programme.

Nick Owen said when he was chair of Deloitte: “It is such a privilege as a leader to listen to your mentee and not feel judged, because they are from another organisation. I took back so many learnings and an increased motivation to support diverse talent.”

It is not just the mentors who benefited; 47 per cent of mentees in the 2018 scheme — with more than 1,000 participants — were promoted over the subsequent three-year period, compared with several control groups, according to data from Moving Ahead, the company that runs and tracks the mentoring scheme. They also found that 70 per cent of mentees every year said they felt more confident and empowered. Encouragingly, more than half the mentees agreed with the statement: “My career has been affected by far less organisational bias and impenetrable networks since I found a mentor”.

Attempts to improve diversity now go far beyond a focus on women. In 2019 Ann Cairns, vice-chair of Mastercard and the 30% Club’s current global chair, introduced race and ethnicity targets for the campaign. A new “Mission Include” diversity strand was added, led by Rupal Kantaria, a partner at Oliver Wyman, and Liz Dimmock, founder and chief executive of Moving Ahead, which provides mentor and leadership development programmes. Events include online speakers, mini-conferences and a monthly newsletter for diversity, equity and inclusion leaders.

“Parity is a realistic prospect in the UK over the next couple of years but we are not there yet,” Cairns says. “While women now hold more board seats, it is in Neds [non-executive directors] that we have seen the greatest expansion. Of FTSE CEOs and at executive committee level just 25 per cent are women. And when it comes to race, class, disability and wider diversity the numbers are far worse. That’s why we’re not changing our name to 50% Club anytime soon.”

Cairns says this is now a global campaign, adding that the percentage of women on the boards of companies that are part of the scheme in some parts of the world remains in single digits. “We need to keep an achievable goal. This is now the biggest campaign in the world around gender and inclusivity.” 

So why is it so difficult to move the dial on more diverse executive appointments? “We’ve taken all the low-hanging fruit,” says Alison Kay, client lead for the UK and Ireland at professional services firm EY. “To get more women into CEO, COO and CFO jobs we have to break longstanding views. These are difficult decisions which involve breaking strong male friendships and networks to push it forwards.”

Cairns believes in vigorous succession planning, and insisting on balanced longlists and shortlists. She says: “Too often there is a plan that looks balanced but the women are always three years off being job-ready, while the men are always ready to go now and somehow the man always gets chosen. We need enlightened male CEOs to appoint women. They are the dominant group in power, none of this can shift without them.”

Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg waves from the stage at at conference
Sheryl Sandberg, Meta chief operating officer, supports a broad conversation on inclusion © Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Sheryl Sandberg, the outgoing chief operating officer of Meta, which owns Facebook, and author of Lean In, will be speaking at the Stock Exchange launch. “The broken rung on the ladder is that men get promoted on potential whereas women are judged on experience so far,” she tells the FT ahead of the event. “That has to change at all levels, and mentoring and sponsorship is a powerful way to fix that. We all also need to pay careful attention to the experiences of women of colour who experience far more microaggressions and setbacks at all levels. This has to be a broad conversation.”

The final word goes to Morrissey. “I worry that too many women join boards and then feel obliged to fit in,” she says. “Diverse voices on boards need to be exactly that: offer different opinions, speak up and bring their own issues and perspectives. But too often the people who get to board level don’t challenge the status quo; maybe that is why they get picked in the first place! Too often diversity of thought is welcome in theory but not in practice.” 

The article has been amended to clarify that the 30% Club is a campaign that was founded in 2010, and it is the club’s mentoring scheme, started in 2012, that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

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