To mark International Women’s Day today, Insurance Times speaks to some of the female trailblazers in the industry about the gender seniority gap and how they foresee the future

Last month a survey by the ABI found that gender diversity in the industry has improved at nearly all levels, and more firms are using ’blind’ CVs or gender-balanced short-lists.

But is it enough?

Amanda Blanc, the ABI’s chair and chief executive of Zurich EMEA vowed that following the survey, the organisation will look to tackle the lack of diversity in insurance, with gender equality being only one aspect of it.

The survey also found that there was a small drop in BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation – from 15% down to 13%.

At Zurich its board is 44% female, and 65% of its balance sheet is run by women as well as every major market including Latin America, UK, EMEA, US and France.

With today marking International Women’s Day, Insurance Times speaks to some of the female trailblazers in the industry about diversity in senior roles and how they foresee the future.

Seismic shift

Claire Bowler, partner at DWF LLP, board member and head of the firm’s insurance sector believes that although change in this area at all levels was never going to be easy, there has been a “seismic shift” in mind-set over the last 12-24 months.

This she said, has been coupled with companies trying to drive diversity agenda as a business imperative.

Nicola Critchley, partner and head of costs at law firm Horwich Farrelly believes that the industry is now more diverse.

She said: “We have come a long way but there is still more to be done before the number of women in the top positions is proportionate to the number of women working in the sector.

“However, I believe that we also need to celebrate the successes and recognise that anything is possible - regardless of gender - through hard work, dedication and talent.”

Critchley holds a senior position at the law firm working with the insurance industry. She said she is keen to keep pushing gender equality.

“Formal reporting of the gender pay gap has acted as a catalyst for many organisations, including my own, to put gender equality at the top of their change agenda and even though we were already developing our processes to overcome barriers to gender equality, this remains a priority for my organisation,” she added.

Change

Critchley has spearheaded various initiatives at the firm including Horwich Farrelly network of women (HF NoW) to provide support, mentoring and break down barriers to career development.

It is just one component of the firm’s push to cater for diversity and inclusion as it is investing heavily in a more varied workforce.

Charlotte Halkett, managing director at Buzzvault added: “Whilst there has been a great deal of talk about diversity, there’s little discernible action.”

She explained that in the last 15 years of speaking at conferences that less than 10% of female representation on stage is quite usual.

“If insurance is to reflect its customer needs, it should reflect its customers’ demographics and the changing way we live. The tech sector also suffers from massive female underrepresentation. So, when you bring tech and insurance together, as we have at Buzzvault, the issue is compounded,” Halkett added.

To address this, the insurtech has decided to shake up its recruitment set-up by writing job descriptions that appeal to the widest possible audiences.

It actively getting involved in grass roots initiatives to ensure both women and young people enter the industry.

She cited the benefit of creating a balanced workforce for businesses with the impact on outcomes and the bottom line as well as attracting the best talent and keeping it.

Sharon Bishop, chief executive at Close Brothers said that she feels proud to be part of the industry, which has historically seen fewer female executives and has taken responsibility to do everything in her power to encourage and support women to achieve their goals. 

She champions diversity and inclusion in her own workplace and in the financial services sector. 

Bishop said: “There is nothing special about me and I’d encourage women to believe in themselves and be brave in taking opportunities.”

She cited the ABI’s recent results which found that one in five jobs at board level are occupied by women, up from just 1% over the year. 

”Of course a lot of companies are now working very hard to ensure women have fair opportunity and reward, and there are some shining examples of where it’s working well. There are some types of role, such as marketing, where things have moved on far more quickly, but in the top jobs, in the more traditional insurance disciplines – and of course in broking – there is still an imbalance.

”In part that’s due to the remaining influence of the “old school” system – and in part I think it’s due to women being put off by their perception that that system is still pervasive within insurance. We need to demonstrate that there are exciting opportunities and that they will get encouragement to flourish and succeed.

”Although I still sometimes get frustrated by the speed of change, I am optimistic that it can and will be achieved by positive influence from within the sector – from men as well as women,” Bishop added. 

She noted technology as one of the drivers providing new opportunities for different skills in the workplace. 

Challenges

These barriers are twofold – one at a societal level and the other at market level, highlighted insurtech Tapoly’s chief executive and founder, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy.

She said firstly there are a lack of female role models in the sector and secondly at a societal level traditional values around child rearing still exist.

Kaenprakhamroy told Insurance Times: “I feel privileged to be able to pursue my current career path, even if it is not in line with all of my family’s expectations, who are still hoping for me to settle down and have children instead.

“However, despite my achievements so far, I believe that more changes are needed to level the playing field.”

Penny Searles, chief executive at Smartdriverclub, added that women will always face the challenge of having to step out of the business for a while but the same would apply to men if they took a break.

“It is a distinct disadvantage when you are out for a period of time regardless of how responsible the employer is at keeping you in the loop,” she said.

Halkett added: “Many women feel they need a higher standard of entry than they actually need to go for the more senior roles, so self-selection can be a barrier.”

This she said feeds into a lack of mentorship for women who seek top jobs and the need for role models. 

But she also flagged that recruiters can be a barrier if they stick to the type of candidate that previously assumed the role.

Bright Future

Overall various initiatives such as the Women in Finance Charter as well as AXA, Aviva, Allianz and BlackRock have helped push the issue to the top of the agenda.

Critchley cited agile working as a benefit to all which could increase staff retention.

Bowler added: “One would hope that over the coming years, the pipeline of female talent now being properly nurtured on programmes within companies will gradually start to come through and change these results, but perhaps it is not the industry that needs to change more to turn this into a reality but rather society and family stereotypes around childcare, where on average women still undertake 74% of childcare responsibilities.”

She pinpointed this conundrum as possibly more difficult to change than anything within insurance itself.