Gender equality: a marathon, not a sprint
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Gender equality: a marathon, not a sprint

Despite more than two decades of action, the finishing line for gender parity in the insurance market still seems a long way off

Brigid Kosgei of Kenya winning the Elite Women's Race at the London Marathon 2020 – Credit:unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Gender equality: Key takeaways

• Only a quarter of top earners in London insurance market are female and less than a third of leadership positions are occupied by women

• Initiatives to address gender inequality are more apparent at big firms (and Lloyd’s) but patchy among smaller firms that make up large portion of the market

• Mentoring is a key tool in upskilling the next generation of female leaders

• The gender and ethnicity pay gaps are still a long away from being addressed

• Greater male engagement is needed to help drive the equality agenda

• Sexual discrimination and inappropriate behaviour are less prevalent than a decade ago, but experiences vary depending on location and size of organisation

• Allyship is helping to break down barriers between different groups in the market

• A ‘peer pressure’ approach to gender targets could help speed the pace of change

As countries across the world re-calibrate their expectations of a return to ‘normality’ amid an uptick in coronavirus cases, one feature of the pandemic that generated a lot of column inches is the role of women in combating the outbreak.

Specifically, among those countries whose responses to the pandemic proved the most effective - whose infection, mortality and reinfection rates were among the lowest – a significant number are led by female politicians.

And yet, despite their efficacy, female political leaders are typically in the minority - a situation that is mirrored in the wider financial services sector.

To give an example in the UK insurance industry, the London Market Group’s (LMG’s) ‘London Matters’ report for 2020 notes that, despite women making up 45% of the market’s workforce, the industry is a long way from gender parity at a leadership level.

The report notes that women working in the London market “still have a low share of executive roles in controlled functions according to the Financial Conduct Authority” - with 29 percent of firms having no women in these positions.

This under-representation “largely accounts for the substantial gender pay gap” in the London market - currently at around 30 percent for the UK specialty (re)insurance industry, the group notes.

And when it comes to bonuses, male employees are likely to receive awards seven times the average amount given to female employees.

A further damning statistic for gender parity in the London market is that only 25% of top earners are female - 17 percentage points below the UK average of 42%, according to the LMG report.

In the Lloyd’s market, figures from the Society’s Culture Dashboard tell a sobering story about the level of representation for female leaders in its own area.

Women occupy around 29% percent of leadership positions in the market, with around 12% of board positions taken by females, 18% of executive committee (ExCo) positions and 33% of ExCo direct reports.

Addressing inequality

Lloyd’s has responded to the findings of its own investigation into gender inequality with interim targets for firms in the market - of 35% female representation in leadership positions (board, ExCo, ExCo direct report) and a minimum 20% of combined board and ExCo positions, both by 31 December 2023.

But while Lloyd’s has taken a lead in coordinating a market-wide movement towards improving female representation, in the wider insurance sector there is less of a unified approach.

Insider Engage spoke to representatives from the Gender Inclusion Network in Insurance (Gin) to understand what is happening (or not) in the UK insurance market in terms of driving forward the equality agenda.

Jane Harley works in the performance management directorate at Lloyd’s, managing compliance oversight of coverholders, and is a co-chair of the Gin committee. She agrees that responses to the gender and wider diversity and inclusion agenda are not consistent.

“From my own personal experience, working within Lloyd’s and especially the Performance Management team, John Hancock was always an active champion, trying to drive change, and the same with John Neal since he came on board,” she says.

But the general market practices are more patchy. “Some companies seem to be really good at it, and are really behind D&I initiatives, and others are not so good. But I can’t see that anyone’s really cracked it yet.”

Leadership pipeline

The London Matters report suggests that one reason why career progression opportunities for women in the sector are lacking is that “senior leaders stay in roles in insurance for a longer time on average than in other sectors, which creates fewer opportunities for women to move into these roles”.

Market leaders interviewed by the report’s authors said one way to address this bottleneck would be to create more “cross-function promotion opportunities at senior levels”.

However, if the opportunities to take a seat in the C-suite are lacking, the talent to fill those places is not.

Sheila Cameron is chief executive of the Lloyd’s Market Association and a member of the Lloyd’s cultural advisory group, which produced the recently-announced gender targets.

“If you look at the Lloyd’s Dashboard, what the data say now [is that], 33% of the direct reports of the ExCo are female already, so I don’t buy that there isn’t enough of a pipeline there,” she says.

Further evidence of an expanded pipeline comes from Harley’s co-chair at Gin, Sabrina Pyneeandy, who is a project manager in the UK change function at Aon.

Aon has developed an initiative called NexCo aimed at the next generation of employees who are in the spotlight for possible leadership roles in the future.

“We offer them the opportunity to sit on the next generation leadership committee to give them an insight into the kind of decisions they will be expected to make and the type of engagement they need. It’s the behind-the-scenes leadership insight and exposure that, unless you’re in that role, you really don’t get to see,” she explains.

However, while larger firms like Aon and market-wide organisations like Lloyd’s have both the resources and the traction to work on initiatives aimed at improving gender equality, a large proportion of the insurance sector is made of smaller brokers, carriers and managing agents where it can be harder for female employees to get the experience.

“A third of Lloyd’s business is written through delegated authority models,” says Harley. “A lot of those companies are very small and they still bring a lot of knowledge into the insurance market - so how do we make it a level playing field for those people to get access?”

Bring on the mentors

One route for upskilling the next generation of female leaders is through mentoring schemes.

“When I think about what prevents specifically women [from filling leadership positions], sometimes it can be opportunity. The first thing that came to mind was around [having] a mentor, having sponsorship - people that believe in you and champion you,” says Pyneeandy. “It’s that day-to-day experience that you can often lack and can give you experience as a leader.”

There are, according to Harley, abundant mentoring opportunities available in the insurance market, but their visibility needs some work. Gin is therefore looking at ways to promote some of them to its members.

Some firms run their own mentoring schemes, others may partner with networks to offer access to mentors. However, Pyneeandy also recommends looking outside of your immediate organisation for mentors. “Don’t be afraid to look in the market or even for people in your own community that you can look up to,” she says.

“Having a mentor opens your mind up to being challenged,” she adds. “I had a great mentor who challenged me when I was really struggling. I was stressed and overwhelmed and he just put me in my place. And that’s exactly what I needed.”

Payback time

While some progress is being made on equal opportunities, it’s worth remembering that workplace equality is only meaningful if men and women are on an equal footing financially.

“Sabrina and I are very much trying to change the gear of Gin, to get more involved in conversations about closing the gender pay gap and making firms a bit more accountable,” says Harley.

She observes that while Lloyd’s is close to gender parity in its senior management, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is pay equality”.

“Companies putting targets into play is really good, but how do we make sure that from the pay side of things they all start to level out?” she asks.

Pyneeandy also makes the point that we can’t talk about the gender pay gap without talking about the ethnicity pay gap, because the two go hand in hand.

“To make progress on one and to leave the other behind leaves women like me behind, which doesn’t solve the issue,” she says.

Part of the problem is the lingering cultural issue around women’s own sense of worth in the work place.

Harley says that, in her experience, men are typically more willing to ask for a salary increase or specify a level of pay when applying for a role, but she struggles to name any woman who ever asked for a salary increase or negotiated their pay at their job interview.

Pyneeandy suggests the only way for female employees to assess their monetary worth currently is to do some market research on what other companies are paying for similar jobs and experience.

“It comes back to the point about worth, and how valuable I think I am - and I do think it’s more difficult for women to justify that case than it is for men,” she says.

“If a man gets a promotion it’s expected that he will ask for a salary increase and a bigger bonus, but for women there still seems to be the view that we should be grateful for the pennies that we have, and shouldn’t ask for more.”

A more open conversation about salaries might also encourage male colleagues to take the side of their female counterparts if they learn that they are getting paid less for a similar role.

Male engagement

While Gin is focused on events that provide educational, networking and support functions for its membership, Harley says the organisation has also increased its focus on male engagement in the past 18 months or so, to enable male counterparts to be “champions and allies for equality for females in terms of senior roles and progression”.

“People think gender networks have to be female-focused but that’s not actually the case. We look at things like shared parental leave, where companies like Lloyd’s and Aviva who are part of Gin might be able to do that, and how we can then share that best practice with other companies.”

However, she concedes, the male engagement side “has been quite hard to do”, although there is evidence that the landscape is slowly shifting.

“When we did a Dive In event recently, it wasn’t Gin-branded at all, and there were a lot of males on the call - and a lot of the audience questions in the Q&A section were from male representatives,” says Harley.

“We have started to see a shift in a couple of males in our sponsorship group,” adds Pyneeandy. “This year we held a male-only event which was a huge success for us. It showed us that gender issues are progressing and men want to be more involved. We’re planning to have more male panels this year.”

Zero tolerance

But however much male engagement is increasing, it’s a sad fact that there are still those in the industry who are unreceptive, even hostile, to the goal of gender parity.

A string of court cases in the past couple of years, ranging from bullying to inappropriate remarks and behaviour to sexual assault indicate that prejudice and outright misogyny are still very much an issue in the industry.

“There’s no question that when I joined the industry 10 years ago, sexism was here and loud,” says Pyneeandy. “I’ve moved about and joined bigger organisations throughout the years and I’m not exposed to as much of that as I used to be.”

“This is a very London view, but I do feel like bigger companies on the whole have equal policies, programmes and opportunity, and there is a lot of good intent, it’s incredible progress,” she continues. “But there are still stories that do come out, like the Bloomberg article, saying the opposite which we, as an industry, have to work on.”

Pyneeandy says it is “super-refreshing” to see organisations like Lloyd’s and Aon operating a zero-tolerance policy on sexual discrimination. “I feel that if ever there was a situation I was uncomfortable with, I’m empowered with the process, and ultimately I feel safe and protected,” she says. “I can appreciate that for smaller brokers it’s different - but I do feel like on the whole it’s a lot better now. It’s slow, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”

For those executives who are keen to learn from best practice, there’s plenty of examples from the wider financial sector.

Pyneeandy notes that companies like EY and Deloitte “are doing such great work for gender”.

There are also companies in our industry that are “excellent and have come a long way in terms of gender”, such as Aviva and Lloyd’s with their parental policies and Aon’s trans policy, she adds.

Her co-chair Harley says that while the improvement in male engagement is encouraging, “I don’t think we should ever shy away from the fact that there needs to be stuff done still for females - and transgender is a massive area that we need to focus on too.”

Allies for equality

Back in September, Gin, the Afro-Caribbean Insurance Network, Lloyd’s and PwC collaborated on a Dive In event about active allyship, which around 550 people attended.

“That term ally came back into focus with all the Black Lives Matter campaigns, but what we are seeing is that it crosses boundaries,” says Harley.

“What I took away from it is that people are engaged, and suddenly we’re talking about allyship on a much bigger scale - across women, across gender, the trans community, Black Lives Matter, the leadership perspective,” Pyneeandy says. “I feel like people responded because they’re ready to talk about allyship in a different way, which is tremendous progress in terms of our industry and people in general.”

Positive action, female empowerment, male engagement, allyship – all of these things together will help to drag the insurance sector into the 21st century in terms of gender equality.

However, as the LMA’s Cameron observes, a little coercion might be needed to aid the spirit of cooperation.

“The interesting thing from the Lloyd’s statement on gender targets is that Lloyd’s are not going to put it out there as a minimum standard yet,” she says. “I’m interested to see if they go the minimum standard route or what I call ‘the PPL route’ - which is to use peer pressure by having a league table - and what impact might that have, on recruitment, for example, in this marketplace.

If a firm is known to have an all-male board, an all-male ExCo and all the direct reports of ExCo are male as well, she says: “I’m not sure I know a single female would want to go and work [there].”

“Does peer pressure become a better way of dealing with it?” says Cameron. “I don’t know, but it certainly seemed to work on PPL.”

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