Helena Morrissey Extends Equality Fight to Women’s Rowing

Helena Morrissey, chief executive officer of Newton Asset Management, is helping to extend the fight for gender equality from the boardroom to the banks of the Thames.

Newton is putting money behind a move to bring equality for men’s and women’s rowing in the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, one of the world’s oldest collegiate sport events dating back to 1829.

The women’s event in 2015 will be held for the first time on the same 6.8-kilometer (4.2-mile) course on the Thames in West London as the men’s race. The female crews, who will stage this year’s race on Dorney Lake in Eton in three days, have been receiving the same funding as the men since September.

“I realized from talking to them that the women didn’t even have a gym,” Morrissey said in an interview in London. “I couldn’t believe it. They had to pay for their own things. I said this is crazy, so let’s at least try.”

In 2010, Morrissey formed the 30 Percent Club to press companies to hire that many female directors, up from 12 percent at the time. Morrissey became CEO of Newton Investment Management at age 35 when Mellon Financial Corp., now Bank of New York Mellon Corp., took over. Morrissey, who turns 47 tomorrow, remains one of London’s few female CEOs.

It made sense to sponsor the women’s Boat Race beginning in 2011, when the event was “ a very poor relation” to the bigger men’s race, Morrissey said.

Promote Diversity

“It would tie with the idea that diversity is good, and that one should focus one’s energy on getting different types of people involved,” she said. “At the time, it wasn’t the only one we could afford, and there were other things that were bigger and more established, but I liked the idea of doing something that could possibly chance the shape of that race.”

Morrissey declined to detail how much the company spent to sponsor the race, saying “for relatively little money to start with, we got a huge return.” SportsBusiness.com said BNY Mellon’s commitment is worth as much as 2 million pounds ($3 million) a year.

A women’s race on the same course and over the same distance as the men had been talked about for years. Newton’s involvement was a key to making it happen, according to four-time Olympic rowing champion Matthew Pinsent.

“The men’s race has established itself as a fixture on the sporting calendar, has a huge amount of history, and somewhere along the line the women’s race got slightly left behind,” Pinsent said at the first joint weigh-in for men’s and women’s crews two weeks ago at the London offices of BNY Mellon, which sponsors the men’s March 31 race.

“At present, they’re on a different bit of water, they race on a different day in front of a different crowd, and it’s only been through Newton predominantly saying, ‘We want to sponsor the women and we want to bring them to London in 2015’ that now we can start to say they’re converging at a rate that we’ve never seen before,” Pinsent said.

Equal Funding

Female crews have raced on the Thames at Henley just outside of London since 1927. This year, the race will be moved to Eton College’s Dorney Lake because of the weather, the organizers said yesterday. They decided last year to give the men and women’s races equal funding and billing.

Instead of competing on a 2,000-meter (1.2 mile) course in front of a few thousand rowing fans a week before the main men’s event, the 2015 women’s race will be staged within an hour of the men’s event on the Thames in front of a quarter-million people and broadcast to 200 countries. Equal funding started last year to give the women time to build up their teams.

Getting funding for the first time has made “an incredible difference,” to the women rowers, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club President Helena Schofield said. The women now have two full-time coaches, better equipment and no longer have to fit their training around the men’s schedule. More importantly, the athletes no longer have to pay for transportation or their own uniforms.

‘More Accessible’

“We were paying hundreds of pounds to catch the train to training, and to go away and to race,” said Schofield. “Now it’s more accessible.”

Better funding and a more prominent race “will attract stronger oarswomen to Oxford as well as inspiring people all over the country,” Oxford rower Maxie Scheske said.

“It will revolutionize the way that the students train, the results that they’re capable of and the way that the race is being viewed by the public,” said British Rowing chairman Annamarie Phelps, a former Olympian who rowed for Cambridge in the 1987 Reserve Women’s Boat Race. “Now that that huge financial burden has disappeared, that in it will be a game-changer. It will help broaden the base of elite women’s rowing in this country.”

Morrissey, who occasionally coxed while at Cambridge, said she’s glad she picked rowing instead of rugby or soccer when Newton was looking for sponsorship opportunities.

“It’s a completely different scenario,” she said.

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