Helena Morrissey remembers her worst moment as a woman in the City, London's financial district.

It was almost 20 years ago, when she was the only female on a team with 16 male bond-fund traders at Schroders Investment Management.

Her young family's breadwinner, she'd just returned from her first maternity leave and her boss passed her over for a promotion, saying he doubted her job commitment.

"I wanted to know if I'd done something wrong or I wasn't ready," says Morrissey in a conference room overlooking the London Eye.

"The answer came back, 'Well, you've just had your first child, and we're not sure whether you can make it through.' The sense was that I was on a different path."

Morrissey wound up proving him wrong.

She quit, joined Newton Investment Management and, seven years later, became chief executive officer at age 35 when Mellon Financial Corp took over.

Now 45, Morrissey remains one of the City's few female CEOs. She oversees £47.2 billion ($94.7 billion) and almost 400 employees after boosting Newton's business in the UK and expanding in the US.

As to her previous manager's contention that child rearing might sap her work commitment, Morrissey has gone on to have eight more children, for a total of nine. They range from age 2 to 19, and seven of them still live at home. Schroders declined to comment.

For years, Morrissey has quietly supported the drive to increase female managers in the workplace. These days, she's making more noise, and many of Britain's top bosses are listening. She says she got tired of hearing about diversity and never seeing progress, with women in Britain's top jobs stuck at about 10 per cent.

She decided to focus on the boardroom, where women can shape corporate decision making, help companies boost profits and show other women they can compete at the highest levels.

In November, she formed the 30 per cent Club to press companies to employ that many female directors, up from 12 per cent in 2010.

She has persuaded more than 20 chairmen, about half from the FTSE 100, including Win Bischoff at Lloyds Banking Group and Douglas Flint at HSBC Holdings, to aim for that target.

Her timing is good. Countries across Europe are adopting quotas to put women in directors' seats. Norway started the push in 2002 and has reached its 40 per cent mandate.

Spain set a 40 per cent goal in 2007 with a target year of 2015. France in January required 40 per cent female boards by 2016.

Italian legislators are drafting a law with a 30 per cent female requirement at listed and state-run companies. Quotas may be coming in Germany unless companies tap more women, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in February.

"A year ago, when I started talking about women on boards, people would either be dismissive or say, 'Oh, we'll get there anyway'," Morrissey says. "Now there's a whole groundswell of focus around it."

Former UK Trade Minister Mervyn Davies is spearheading the campaign on Morrissey's turf. He led a Government-sponsored review released in February that concluded that women should make up 25 per cent of FTSE 100 boards by 2015. Davies said he'll back legislation for quotas if things don't change in two years.

"It's not just about gender equality," he said. "It's about improving the performance and productivity of companies."

Morrissey's 30 per cent goal may stave off quotas.

She has been meeting search firms and working with the Professional Boards Forum to develop a database of qualified women.

"I personally am passionately against quotas," she says. "They undermine women with the sense that you can't get there on merit."

Some veteran women executives say the board battle is misplaced. The real issue isn't the dearth of female directors, it's the lack of women with the experience to join a board, says Barbara Judge, a dual UK-US citizen.

Judge, 64, is chairman of the UK Government's Pension Protection Fund and sits on four other boards. She was the youngest commissioner ever appointed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and became the first female director of a British merchant bank when she joined Samuel Montagu & Co in Hong Kong in 1983.

"If you don't give a woman a chance to be an executive, she'll never get a board seat," Judge says. "It's a perfect Catch-22."

Morrissey says boards can be a starting point for lifting women into senior management. At Newton, she's chairwoman and the only female on the firm's five-member board. Yet women occupy 26 per cent of senior professional roles.

When Morrissey looked to hire a global equity fund manager, the shortlist came back all male. A suitable female candidate was added. That person didn't get the job, but she says the process shifted attitudes.

"There's still work to do," she says.

Morrissey says putting women in the boardroom is one step on a long path towards more equality - and better profits - for businesses. If her club is successful, women may find themselves better able to navigate roadblocks that have stopped many of them in their tracks.

"If we change the board makeup and get better gender representation, then that opens people's eyes up," she says. "Then women can say 'well, maybe I can do it'."

HELENA MORRISSEY
* Chief executive, Newton Investment Management.
* Based in London.
* Age: 45.
* Oversees $94.7 billion and almost 400 employees.
* Nine children, ranging from age 2 to 19.

- BLOOMBERG