Or is it? It depends who you talk to. Some high-profile women say the barriers are down: it’s what you know that counts. Others tell Muireann Bolger that little has changed; most women still face a battle to get to the top

“My boss is male, my boss’s boss is male and my boss’s boss’s boss is male,” chants a young woman from one of the UK’s top broking firms. She is wondering whether she will one day fulfil her ambition of moving up the ranks to reach board level, while also juggling the demands of family life. But as her chain of command shows, there are few role models from which to draw inspiration.

“I don’t see many senior women who have children – and I don’t see much flexibility for those who do have children,” she says.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s not there. But I just don’t see it.”

This lack of visibility is rife throughout the corporate world. The Female FTSE Report 2008 shows that women take up only 11.7% places on the boards of the top FTSE 100 companies, an increase of less than 5% in 10 years. It will, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), be 73 years before there are an equal number of women and men in UK boardrooms.

The outlook for the financial sector is worse. The EHRC reports that only 11% of senior managers are women compared with 28% in the economy as a whole. And when it comes to the insurance industry, the statistics are nearly as bleak. A survey conducted by Insurance Times of the top 50 brokers and insurers in the UK shows that of a total of 443 board positions only 57 (12.9%) are held by women, while one in three boards is exclusively male.

It seems the feminist ideal of the “have it all” woman who happily conducts a high-flying career with a BlackBerry in one hand and a toddler in the other, is little more than a fantasy in insurance. So why are so few women dominating the industry’s boardrooms? Where are the superwomen of the insurance world?

Macho-fuelled environment

Actuary Helen Crofts, chair of the Women’s Insurance Network, believes the legendary macho-fuelled environment of the financial sector remains a deterrent. Corporate hospitality events that tend to revolve around traditionally male pursuits, such as golf and football, and alcohol-driven nights out do little to improve this perception. “I think there is still an atmosphere that prevails that to get ahead, you have to act like a man. Women don’t want to have to do that,” she says.

Gwen Rhys, founder of the social networking forum Women in the City, argues the women who do attempt to climb the career ladder still find it difficult to thrive. “There are all sorts of issues, particularly in the financial services and within the City environment where I think women do experience a great deal of sexism,” she says. “It is a highly competitive environment and that competition is testosterone-fuelled because it is still the guys at the top.”

Furthermore, the EHRC reveals the pay gap between men and women in the financial sector is double the national average and Rhys believes this has led women to become more vulnerable to discrimination when it comes to redundancy.

“There are strong rumours around the City that women are being let go sooner because their salaries are seen as secondary to men’s.” But she adds that women are still deeply reticent about highlighting their dissatisfaction to employers.

“I am still quite astonished that in a professional sense women don’t band together and say ‘we are not putting up with it’,” she says. Perhaps tellingly, the young women that Insurance Times spoke to for this feature preferred to remain anonymous.

Barriers have been removed

However some high-profile women believe the barriers of sexism and discrimination are no longer a major hurdle. Amanda Blanc, chief executive of Towergate’s UK broking division and winner of the overall Women in the City award last year, says the lack of women at senior level has more to do with history than sexism. After all, insurance giant Lloyd’s only started accepting women underwriters in 1970. She argues that it is simply taking women a bit longer to reach the top. “To elevate yourself to a senior position you will have to have started at a certain time within the industry.”

Blanc says that women need to accept that a more male-friendly culture is the norm but adds that performance remains the key factor in career success. “There is a lot of talk about football and some women don’t like that,” she says. “And I do think you need a thick skin. But in my experience I have always been rewarded on my merits; not on whether I am a woman or a man.” ‘

Meanwhile, Janet O’Connor, managing director of Fortis subsidiary RIAS Insurance, also believes the difficulties facing women in insurance have been exaggerated. She says the challenges lie mainly in getting to grips with a complex industry rather than grappling with macho banter and the state of the Premier League. “There are challenges, but I wouldn’t think these are any different for men or women.”

Moreover, some women thrive rather than wilt in a male-dominated arena because they prefer working with men. “I have always opted for working with men instead of women. Even in college

I used to room with men because there is less drama,” says Lorena Mico, business development manager for insurance broker Francis Townsend & Hayward. She adds that her gender can even be an advantage. “If a chief executive has only one meeting slot left at the end of the day and he has to decide between a man and a woman, he will often choose the woman just for the sake of variety.”

So does it really matter that only a handful of like-minded women make it the top? Does it make any difference if women decide to drop out of the industry before achieving that extra promotion? “Yes,” says Janice Deakin, Aviva’s corporate sales director. “Women bring huge value to business. Specifically, they offer new perspectives and challenges and bring a greater depth to conversations,” she says before adding; “The worst thing a woman can do is mask her emotions because she assumes that is what men want her to do. That removes the value of having women in business.”

And while it has become common for many in the industry to shrug and say that women simply are not attracted to a subject as technical as insurance, Deakin points out the problem is not necessarily attracting female candidates. In Aviva, 40% of new entrants in trading regions are women. “The key is to do more in supporting them and helping them develop within the industry.”

The motherhood hurdle

But, undoubtedly, motherhood and family life remain the most challenging obstacle on the career ladder. Even Blanc admits she experienced a twinge of apprehension when she discovered she was pregnant after accepting her promotion to chief executive.

“I had a job offer in one hand and a pregnancy test in the other. I decided that I had to tell Towergate and give them the opportunity to withdraw the offer,” she says. “But when I phoned Andy Homer he was adamant that it would not make any difference.”

However, Crofts says that many in the industry have failed to find the same acceptance. Both Blanc and O’Connor admit they have been lucky that their husbands have chosen to stay at home and look after their children. But for many women who do not have that option, combining work and motherhood is a struggle. “The broking sector in particular is very London-centric and it is hard to have both a family and a career. If you don’t want live in a town flat and you want a family home, that means you have an-hour-and-half commute every day and that is very difficult to do with children,” says Crofts.

Other women find there is a lack of understanding at senior level about what it means to be a working mum dealing with the high costs of childcare. “You do have to shrug off some comments,” says a client manager in a large broking firm. When she found herself working longer hours and struggling to arrange care for her five-year-old daughter, a senior executive colleague asked her why she didn’t simply opt for a live-in nanny.

“He didn’t understand because he has no connection with somebody in my situation,” she says. “He is from a different generation. When he was having his children, it was probably easy for his wife to stay at home, and for them to buy a house for much less than today.”

She adds that women in the industry who are thinking of starting a family are wary of confiding in their employers, especially in a climate when the spectre of job cuts looms large. “I do think it is a concern. In this kind of economic climate with everything being so unpredictable, it just adds another level of uncertainty. You could be made redundant anyway. From a company’s point of view it has to pay the person who is taking maternity leave and pay somebody to fill that position.”

Many women who do consider taking some time out to have children fear that they will struggle to keep tabs on a rapidly changing market while they are away from the workplace.

“Unfortunately, women are the gender that have to take time off to have children,” says a young female broker. “There is no choice in that. In this age when things are changing rapidly, you are away for six months and there are lots of new initiatives. You don’t know about a new piece of software or what is happening in a specific market. You are automatically at a disadvantage and then you have extra responsibilities.”

Crofts adds that women who do want to return to work after having a baby need more support from the industry and she draws comparisons with the help available in other industries. “The accountancy profession is fantastic,” she says. “They run courses to get people back in the workplace after time off. You have so many regulations and the environment changes very quickly, so if you do take some time out, an awful lot happens. There is always something new.”

However, Barbara Bradshaw, chief executive of the Institute of Insurance Brokers, argues that employers also need to be taken into account.

In particular, she says, small brokers can struggle having to pay for maternity leave as well as maternity cover. Finding a good quality candidate can also prove onerous. “You are never going to find good career people just to fill in for maternity leave. It is just not an attractive position,” she says.

Moreover, while some women may choose flexible working hours or a part-time position after returning from maternity leave, the client manager concedes that some roles in the industry are less compatible with these options.

“If you choose to be a broker you have to accept that when you go into that, you do need to have a major market presence, she says. “With broking you really need to maintain that relationship with the underwriter. Often you can get a much better response if you are there in person. It is simply the nature of the job.”

Time to break the mould

However, others feel that some women simply remain reluctant to embrace the challenge or lack the self-belief to break the mould. “I think women sometimes have themselves to blame in that we expect an awful lot from ourselves and our standards are incredibly high, says Blanc. “If we don’t think we are going to achieve those standards, we will either choose work or family. We don’t believe we can have both.”

Deakin says: “Women want to do everything 1,000 per cent.” While she accepts it is unlikely that a board member could work part time, she says they can find compromise in other ways. “It is about being flexible about where you work.

I work at home sometimes and often find I end up working longer hours.”

She believes most male colleagues accept that women occasionally need to prioritise their family. “When it comes to the choice between work and a family event, very often the work is still there the next day. Some events with your family can’t be recaptured,” she says, “I don’t think many men are sitting in a boardroom grumbling ‘oh there she is at home with the children’.” She adds: “Often most of the barriers come from within.”

Eileen McCusker, chief operating officer for XL Insurance’s UK and Ireland division, believes the situation is gradually improving as more working mothers have started to rise to the challenge of a career in insurance. She presides over a board where a fifth of the places are held by women. “The challenges are very much about managing your time and multi-tasking,” she says. “There are a lot of ladies who combine both family and business life and do it successfully. I think the industry is attracting some very smart women.”

However, it remains a problem that many senior women who have experienced rewarding careers in insurance either remain reluctant to flag up their achievements, or encourage women to join them in the upper echelons of the industry. This can be a powerful psychological barrier to other women. “We lack role models and these can be hugely influential in which career direction people choose to follow,” says Crofts. “Those that have made it are not particularly keen to bang the drums for females and say ‘you can do it and here is how’.”

Indeed, when Insurance Times approached a renowned female trailblazer in the industry for this feature, we were told she generally preferred to focus solely on her achievements as an individual in the industry rather than discuss how her gender affected her career.

But Blanc believes high-flying women in insurance have a responsibility to raise their profile and encourage other women. She says this is vital in addressing the gender imbalance that prevails at senior level. “The role models need to push themselves forward and to say ‘it can be done, it really is not that difficult’. I think that is an important role that we have to play.”

This, she argues, is the only way to ensure the industry becomes more receptive to the problems facing women. “If you haven’t got women in the industry you can’t do anything for them. So the key thing is to get women to stay in the industry and work throughout their careers,” she says.

What the industry’s top ranking women told Insurance Times

  • “Twenty years ago when women started to get into the boardrooms they had to play the man’s game … I think there is still an atmosphere that prevails that to get ahead you have to act like a man. Women don’t want to have do that.” Helen Crofts, chair of the Women’s Insurance Network
  • “It is very male dominated. And there is a lot of talk about football … but in my experience, I have always been rewarded on my merits; not on whether I am a woman or a man.” Amanda Blanc, chief executive of Towergate’s UK broking division
  • “Women have to be a lot more committed than the guys to get to the same position.They have to try harder, fight harder and work a lot harder.” Barbara Bradshaw, chief executive of the Institute of Insurance Brokers
  • “You have to give up a lot if you want to progress in an organisation. But it doesn’t mean that you have to give up your family life as well.” Janet O’Connor, managing director of RIAS Insurance
  • “It is fundamental to have the support of your family.” Eileen McCusker, chief operating officer for XL Insurance’s UK and Ireland division
  • “If you want to work and have young children you have to be focused, have a lot of will and determination, and an enormous amount of energy.” Rosemary Whitfield Jones, Groupama group company secretary