Uphill Battle
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Uphill Battle

As UK firms publish details of their gender pay gaps, Charlie Thomas outlines the four major issues stopping women reaching the top jobs in the London market

Girl Soldier
Credit:Insider Quarterly

It has been 46 years since Lloyd’s welcomed its first female underwriter, and 45 years since it appointed its first female broker. It took until 2014 for the Corporation to appoint a female CEO, Inga Beale, and she remains one of a handful of women at the top of their game in EC3.

Even looking beyond Lloyd’s to the wider London market, the statistics make for poor reading.

The London Market Group’s London Matters report, published last year, showed the city’s insurance market employed some 35,000 people, 41% of whom were female.

But when the focus shifted to the upper echelons of those businesses, just 5% of executive directors in the London market were women – far short of the 21% average seen across FTSE 100 companies.

Lloyd’s recent gender pay gap reporting showed there was almost double the number of men than women in the highest-paid quartile of the Corporation, at 66.2% compared to 33.8%.

We have spoken to our market’s top headhunters, along with representatives from the human resources (HR) community and a few executives, and has identified the four major issues which are holding back our market from making progress in the area of diversity and inclusion (D&I).

Timing and pipelines

Senior role turnovers are few and far between. Add to that the fact that the notion of having gender diversity on boards is a relatively new one, and you can see why it might take some time for companies to demonstrate material changes in their board make-ups.

“The issue has only really become live in the last decade or so, and we have seen progress – albeit slow progress,” notes one headhunter.

There are a growing number of women taking higher-ranked roles, such as Beale at Lloyd’s, Hiscox’s Kate Markham and Megan McConnell, JLT Specialty’s Lucy Clarke and Canopius’s Sarah Willmont.

But it is not enough to simply sit and wait for nature to take its course. There is also a clear problem in terms of the limited pipeline of potential female candidates.

As more women become middle managers, the potential pool from which to select the CEOs, CFOs and chief risk officers of tomorrow will become more diverse. The problem is, the number of women filling that pipeline is currently low – and they don’t have as many years’ experience in those higher roles as their male counterparts.

“We’ve seen searches where we’ve been asked to come up with female candidates, but the problem is they all have less experience than the male ones because of where they are in their careers,” says one search executive.

“And for all the positive talk at the beginning of the search, some firms can’t see past that. They also don’t understand that the few available ‘good’ women get snapped up. There needs to be a change in mindset about which skills you really need, rather than insisting on ticking 10 boxes out of 10.”

There was also a need to recognise that men and women have different experiences – and to then help mentor and teach accordingly.

Of course, even as the pipeline of top women improves, there are other obstacles which need to be addressed.

Networking and visibility

Many of the people we spoke to said that when it came to selecting a person for a top job, a lot of consideration was given to culture and making sure the individual would “fit in”.

Therefore, those doing the selecting would often consider candidates they already knew well – people they socialised with, trusted and had anecdotal evidence of being “the right fit” as well as the proven experience on their CV.

Out of sight is definitely out of mind for many of those hiring for the top jobs in insurance, and as a woman, if your network is not strong enough, it is unlikely that people will put your name in the hat when vacancies arise.

“There’s a lot of leaders who’ve been in place since before the financial crisis, and when they plan their exit they’ll probably look to hire in their own image,” says one search specialist.

Much is often made of the “blokey” nature of the insurance market, and while the boozy heyday of long lunches, days on the golf course and nights out in table-dancing bars is largely behind us, the relationships between men from such events is strong, and can be difficult for women to penetrate.

Much of the bonding still happens outside of work hours, which can be challenging for women with childcare concerns.

And given that the recruitment process for these jobs also often begins before the vacancy is made public, it is difficult for those on the outside to know that the job is available, unless they are part of the hiring team’s network.

One way to combat this is to create D&I champions, ideally at the board level, whose job it is to make sure these women are not overlooked – and hold the board’s feet to the fire when they are failing to look beyond their usual pool of potentials.

Having a champion also combats the issue highlighted by a number of recruiters – that some women have lacked the self-belief and self-confidence to put themselves forward for senior roles.

Research carried out by Korn Ferry in 2017 revealed that of 57 female CEOs across financial services they interviewed, 65% didn’t realise they could be a CEO until someone else told them. Just five of the women said they had always wanted to be a CEO.

While having a lack of role models for women is certainly a challenge, mentors who provide advice or sponsors who promote people internally and externally can be a good alternative.

One firm also talked about how they had set up an “allies” programme, so that staff can be visible in their support for greater diversity in the workplace in a subtle, but clear way.

Maternity leave

How companies handle women returning to work after maternity leave was the number one issue when we consider why we’re not seeing more female leaders in insurance, according to headhunters.

Broadly speaking, this is because many firms have an unsupportive, inflexible culture, which in some cases penalises women for working on a part-time basis.

After attending a Dive In event last year, we asked several brokers and underwriters what one change would help to bring more women into senior roles.

They all identified how firms handle returning to work after maternity leave as a major problem. Job shares were not an option for high-powered roles, meaning women who wanted to work part-time initially were denied the opportunity. This was driven by HR departments seeing roles in terms of headcount rather than budget and being unwilling to temporarily increase the headcount to retain talented staff.

One headhunter spoke of what he called “squeaky wheel syndrome”, where there was an attitude of not wanting to be the individual to call attention to the need for change when it came to encouraging women to return to work.

Others noted that the issue was particularly pronounced in “front office”, client-facing roles, where presenteeism remained rife.

“People are definitely encouraged to come back, but in my experience, there’s less flexibility offered in underwriting roles,” one source says.

“This won’t make me popular, but if you come back three or four days a week after mat leave, until you’re prepared to do five days a week you won’t get further up the ladder in underwriting. That’s because there is still massive presenteeism in [the profession].

“I have a friend at [a large London firm] who’s gone back to five days as, in her words, if you’re doing four days a week, they think you’re just grateful to have a job. You don’t get the same bonuses, pay rises or opportunities, and there’s always a crucial meeting that you’ll miss.”

The headhunter puts the dearth of action in this space down to poor understanding and support from management and a failure to embrace technology. “There’s no reason why a broker couldn’t FaceTime someone at the box. But I bet it doesn’t happen,” the source says.

Others had a more positive experience. “We have seen an example where a client initially specified they wanted a full-time worker only, but HR actually challenged it and they ended up appointing someone for four days a week in the office, and a day from home,” one says.

A related issue is that women often find themselves behind the pay curve once they return to work, which can – unfairly – mean they get stuck earning less than their male counterparts for prolonged periods.

One way in which headhunters are tackling the issue is to attach a salary to the job, rather than the individual, and to prohibit the client from asking what the candidate is currently earning.

“We talk about what the price of the seat is. As women don’t get paid as well as men, broadly speaking, it can affect how much they’re offered for the next role. So we don’t talk about how much candidates are currently earning, and just put a worth on the role instead.”


The final issue raised by a number of search firms was the somewhat limited view that some clients took when considering the search pool for a top insurance role. They cited an inability to look beyond the UK industry and the insurance market itself. As an example, many clients would insist that CEOs and chief underwriting officers had worked in a top underwriting role in their career, rather than considering a leader from a different field.

This issue is less pronounced with more operational roles, such as CFO or COO, where it was more acceptable to take on someone from a different financial sector. As the regulatory requirements on CEOs and other executives are ramped up, however, many search firms believe the reins could be loosened somewhat, as a proven ability to handle compliance and the asset side of the balance sheet become more important than 30 years of underwriting experience.

Another headhunter notes that the way search firms are traditionally set up could also be hindering progress. At most firms, he says, each country’s office operates under its own profit and loss (P&L) account, meaning that leaders of those regions are quite territorial around who can see those candidates.

At his firm, there was one global P&L, meaning there was more collaboration across geographies, which in turn led to a far greater pool of female candidates to choose from for the top roles.

“From a headhunter’s point of view, we have to look further afield,” says one search executive. “For us, having offices in New York, Singapore and London, we’re able to look globally, which allows us to put together a shortlist with real D&I in it.”

Leading by example

As depressing as the statistics around gender diversity on boards in the London market are, not everyone is getting it wrong.

When we asked a collection of headhunters if any of the firms were getting it right, one name came up consistently: Hiscox.

The London-listed carrier has three women on its board – non-executive directors Lynn Carter, Caroline Foulger and Anne MacDonald. More recently, Kate Markham was promoted to CEO of the firm’s London Market business, while Megan McConnell was named director of underwriting for Hiscox Re.

But it is not just gender diversity that Hiscox stands out for – the board has a distinctly international flavour too. There are three Americans, two Bermudians, one Swiss, one Australian as well as CFO Hamayou “Aki” Hussain, who is a practicing Muslim from a Pakistani immigrant family, and South African-born CEO Bronek Masojada.

Masojada is clear that all those at the top have got there on merit, and stresses that there was not a conscious effort to create a diverse representation at the top – it was something that occurred naturally.

He does credit Richard Watson, Hiscox’s chief underwriting officer, for making a tangible difference, however. Having a D&I champion from an underwriting background in the boardroom means the issue is taken seriously.

“There’s no special passes given here, but I think Richard’s made a big difference,” Masojada says.

“He’s a business person, he’s on the board, and in an underwriting business when an underwriting person asks a question, people take notice.”

A question of visibility

Yvonne Lancaster is co-owner of a strategic agency, advising Charles Taylor Managing Agency, where she was, until recently, interim CEO.

She has worked in a variety of senior roles across the insurance industry in a career that has included stints at Lloyd’s, Amlin, Barbican, Beazley, and Asta.

A vocal advocate for getting more senior women to the top of the insurance market, Lancaster believes the biggest issues for women are a lack of visibility and a lack of confidence.

“I’m a firm believer that people don’t deliberately put hurdles in front of women in the workplace, we put the hurdles there ourselves. There is a massive difference between how men and women see the world, and therefore how we might position ourselves, compared to men,” she says.

“When I was younger, I’d think, ‘I work really hard, I do a great job, and someone will give me recognition for that’ – but that doesn’t work in the real world. Men are more forthright in showing off the work they’ve done and asking for something in return.

One of the key problems, Lancaster believes, is that when top jobs become vacant, the men who are hiring look to their existing network to fill the gap – and if women aren’t in that network, they’re not considered.

“You have to consider, how do I penetrate that network and make the opportunities to meet with those people? There are a lot of women a few levels below board level; the question is, are they visible enough, do they believe in themselves enough?”

That lack of confidence can also see women limit their ambitions when seeking their next role, Lancaster continues. Too many women will only look at a sideways move, rather than looking at the next rung on the ladder.

She also recognises the issues around returning to work after having children.

“[Women] almost feel like we have to prove ourselves all over again, and even if we’re supposed to be working three-day weeks, we’ll in effect be working five-day weeks, because we care,” she says.

“If we could invest more in flexibility we’d get massively productive women at work, which would be hugely helpful for the industry.”

Her other tip was for women to stop limiting their job hunt to part-time positions, and instead apply for a full-time role and then negotiate flexibility options once their foot is in the door.

“If you start off saying, I’m only going to look for a three or four day a week job, that’s much harder to find. Again, it’s about not waiting for something to be given to me, I’m going to go out and make that happen.”

This article was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of Insider Quarterly