The Current

Forget 'lean in': Topple the system to reach true gender parity, says former CEO

Forget women leaning in, prominent U.K. businessperson Helena Morrissey says it's time to reform the system and work towards a workforce that is truly inclusive for all - men and women of underrepresented groups.

Helena Morrissey says equality in the workforce needs to reflect the modern world

Former CEO and author Helena Morrissey says women need to forget about 'leaning in' and focus on helping to change the system to create a more inclusive modern workplace. (Emily Moya/Getty Images/Harper Collins Canada)

"Lean in" was a message that inspired many women to work toward getting ahead in the workforce. But a prominent U.K. businessperson argues it's not enough if we want to build a truly inclusive modern society.

Instead of leaning in, Helena Morrissey's manifesto is to focus on rebuilding a patriarchal system that encourages a broader equality — women who aren't privileged but have ideas, ambition and a lot to offer. 

Morrissey has held many top jobs in the finance industry, and is the founder of the 30% Club, which advocates for more women on the boards of top businesses. 

"I think leaning into the existing workplace, which frankly probably isn't relevant for many men in today's digital world, isn't enough to really achieve equality for lots of women," Morrissey, author of A Good Time to Be a Girl, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

She sees promise in the latest generation of young men who she said are keen to work quite differently than their fathers.

"I think that gives us a golden opportunity to work with men, not in any way against them, to create different ways of working where we share responsibilities around bring up families."

Dispelling gender roles

Morrissey gives her husband a lot of credit toward the successful career that she has built over the years. He is a stay-at-home father to their nine children.

"Ours is perhaps quite an extreme role reversal and I'm not necessarily saying all the men have to stay home when all the women work," Morrissey said.

"But sharing responsibilities and working it out together, rather than just assuming women do one role and men do another, is a big part of how we can change the system."

Prioritizing partnership with men is an approach that Morrissey believes is important in the workplace too.

She credits the involvement and leadership of senior powerful businessmen working with the 30% Club to increase the number of women on corporate boards in the U.K.

In 2014, Status of Women Canada set a goal of 30% women on Canadian corporate boards. Security regulators applied 'comply or explain' requirements in corporate disclosure requirements. (

Prioritizing diversity

One of the biggest obstacles creating a diverse workforce, according to Morrissey, is whether businesses view gender, ethnic and other categories of diversity as "a special interest issue."

She argued the workforce needs to be more radical in changing how initiatives are set.

"I think we need to place gender equality in the context of these other big changes around us — make it a big part of the sort of centre of businesses," she said.

Morrissey wants companies and organizations to examine not only their recruiting process but also how they manage people.

"The best, most creative teams are likely to be diverse. But once people are in the door they are often encouraged to just fit in with the status quo," she cautioned.

When Morrissey makes the case that empirical evidence shows the best teams are diverse, bringing more innovation and achieving better financial returns, she's been challenged to prove the casualty.

Her answer is simple: a great work culture attracts talent that can be developed to create prosperous results.

"Diversity, to me, means [bringing] lots of perspectives to the table, listening to each other and making decisions, [and] knowing that none of us have a monopoly on great ideas," she said.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.


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