Time to buckle down and act to improve diversity

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“Let us focus on doing what works, not just what makes us feel good”

New research published last week suggests that having children and taking maternity leave are key drivers behind the lack of women in senior insurance roles. As someone who has worked in financial services most of my life, this rings very true. Looking back, I now recognise that I had a fear of missing out and rushed back to work far too quickly following the births of my two children; in one case after only three weeks. Women should be able to take maternity leave and have a successful career.

It must not be an either/or choice. A lot has changed for the better since I started off in insurance nearly 30 years ago. Back then, the industry group I now chair, the Association of British Insurers, didn’t have a female toilet on its boardroom floor.

The ABI of today is unrecognisable from those days, but in many industries the picture is still pretty bleak. When serious conversations really began about improving gender diversity in the industry a decade ago, I was convinced the problem was finally being addressed. But I look around now, and I still don’t see enough women at the top table with me.

Compared to other sectors, insurance is far from the worst offender in terms of progression of women into top roles, but being mid-table in a league of low performers is hardly cause for celebration. Good intentions are not resulting in the change which is so badly needed and I am impatient to see much faster progress. It is no longer enough to talk about commitments and intentions — although I’m always pleased to hear about them. We need to focus on actions that will actually make a difference on the ground, not what makes us feel like we are trying.

One of the most common interventions by firms is unconscious bias training, but a review by academics at Princeton and Yale found a “dearth of evidence” on whether such programmes worked. A separate study of US companies over three decades found that the levels of diversity training provided had no direct correlation to the diversity of the workforce.

This is not to say don’t do it, but we should really be more focused on doing what works. That means making it easier for part-time or formerly part-time employees to advance. We should make more senior jobs explicitly available part-time, make job-shares easier and more attractive and allow more rapid advancement opportunities for women who worked part-time once they come back to full-time work. And given the slow speed of change so far, I would not rule out more direct interventions in the future. It is easy to be too pessimistic. I genuinely believe the insurance and long-term savings sector is making more progress than most. I will always champion it as a great career opportunity for young women and if you put in the hard work you will get rewarded. I am also impressed by the palpable change in attitudes within the insurance industry toward tackling the seniority gap.

There are really positive initiatives that show we are going the extra mile, such as the increased transparency led by the ABI or industry initiatives like the inclusive behaviours pledge. We are making progress, but it is still too slow and too patchy and frankly we should be further along by now. That’s why I am personally committed both at Zurich and across the wider profession to supporting the next generation of female leaders and creating an environment where they can flourish.

Source  – FT.com – Amanda Blanc

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