Chief executive of UK General Karen Beales says the industry must make a “conscious effort” to promote more women and help them back into roles after a career break

One of the few female chief executives at a major UK insurer says the industry has been too slow to deal with gender equality and a conscious effort must now be made to overcome this.

Karen Beales has been chief executive at UK General for 12 months having served as managing director for the five years before that, but she says she was told at many stages of her career she couldn’t get to where she is today due to her gender.

She says it took a lot of perseverance and determination to get to where she is, and that the current make-up of the male-dominated insurance industry still today makes it harder for women to progress than men.

She said: “I still think it is more difficult for women to progress within financial services generally. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and you’ve got to go that step beyond what is asked of you by volunteering for things so that you are in people’s minds. It’s not easy, and to generalise a little bit, I do think this comes easier to men than women to put themselves out there and be confident. Particularly in insurance, when you walk into a room full of men it can be difficult as a woman to start up a conversation.”

Beales’ comments come as government requested data on all major UK companies showed the average gender pay-gap among the country’s major insurers was 29.75%, well above the UK average of 18%. Among brokers the figures were even worse at 31.08%.

UK General has less than 250 members of staff, meaning it was not required to publish gender pay gap data, but Beales revealed the figure is around the mid 20s and has been improving since the company started putting a focus on what added skills female staff members can bring.

The company has recently recruited a new senior management team made up of three females and two males, and two thirds of all recruitment or promotions at the firm have been female in the last year. Beales says the insurer didn’t set out to promote more women in the business, but that it happened organically by looking at areas where it needed to improve and matching the skillset to that role.

Beales added: “I wouldn’t like to think that I was just offered a role because I’m female, it should be about the skills that each person possesses. We have looked to improve our recruitment policy, and the result is we have quite a different dynamic. I believe you need that balance of knowledge, skills, and just different personalities in the room to be successful.”

Beales has spent her whole career in broking and insurance and got where she is without taking a break to have children. But she says there must be equality of opportunity for women who do take a break to start a family, and that the industry’s failure to meet this is responsible for a failure at middle-management level.

She highlights that there are many skilled women who take career breaks who can still offer a lot to the industry, and larger firms and recruiters must take these skills into account when hiring.

She added: “A lot of ladies join on a trainee basis, but the main part of the issue is when you get to the career-break point. It’s how the employer balances that missed period when you’ve had 12 months off. The problem is not recruiting in the first place, it’s the retention and promotion from within that needs addressing. It’s difficult for the employer, but they have to start to think a bit more flexibly to find ways to allow females who’ve had that break to come back and apply for roles.

“I don’t think it’s any more difficult in the insurance industry compared with other industries to fix this issue around women in middle-management roles, I just think that the insurance industry hasn’t quite caught up yet.

“It can’t be done overnight, but there does have to be some conscious effort to make it happen. That’s the only way things will happen, if the industry takes a laissez faire attitude to this then nothing will change.”