Women in Insurance: In Jenny’s footsteps

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  • Widowed Mrs Barnes worked for Norwich Union Life in 1822
  • In 1912, LV appointed Millicent Cuttress as head of lady clerks
  • Hilda M Theobald became fellow of the CII in 1921
  • In 1965, Jenny Wellsteed was appointed fire underwriter at Commercial Union; she may have been the first woman, in any firm, to hold such a role

With diversity so high on the insurance industry’s agenda and the world of science recently celebrating the annual Ada Lovelace Day, highlighting the contribution of women in science, Post set out to find when the first female underwriter made her mark on the sector

When I was set the task of hunting for the UK’s first ever female insurer, I was – for the most part – excited to find out which woman it was who paved the way for the outstanding females we have in the industry today.

Upon ringing up various insurance offices and explaining what I was looking for, I was met with the type of reactions that suggested I’d expressed a desire to abseil down the Lloyd’s building wearing a bunny costume. In hindsight, perhaps travelling the length and breadth of the UK on rollerblades would have been an easier feat.

There was an overwhelming call for diversity during September’s Dive In festival and the topic of women was pertinently brought to the fore. The sheer amount of attention given to gender diversity indicated that more needs to be done to ensure women are given an equal footing. As I researched the subject, it was difficult not to get the impression that women have long been ignored in the industry, so it was heartening to find that a lot of insurers have long been employing women to their ranks.

Risky gossip
In as early as 1822, Mrs Barnes – first name and maiden name unknown – took over her husband’s position as agent at Norwich Union Life. She worked on behalf of the insurer, selling products in her local area of North Shields to friends, family and acquaintances. After collecting in premiums from the insureds in her area, she would send them to the head office. Rather than carrying out risk assessments to decide whether or not a person would receive insurance, in Barnes’ time local gossip was the deciding factor. Living in a small town meant that Barnes was privy to the minute details of everyone’s lives, and she used that knowledge to advise the head office whether she felt that person was a good subject for being insured.

Today’s methods of underwriting are perhaps better, by all accounts.

Anna Stone, group archivist for Aviva, says that the women who usually went into professional roles in the 19th century were from middle-class backgrounds.

“These women were from upper-middle class and professional backgrounds because those were usually the people who had the good contacts. They would have been able to do the business because of that and were capable of selling policies,” says Stone.

At the time when Mrs Barnes was in her role, the majority of Norwich Union agents were men but it was not uncommon for women to take up such positions. Still, Barnes is no unique example, as widows would often take over their husband’s roles soon after their death, to make a living and become self-sufficient.

In 2016, it’s perhaps not considered very novel that a woman would decide to make her own money – certainly females nowadays decide to start their careers for reasons other than their husband’s death. Had Mrs Barnes tenaciously pushed her way into the industry, her success would have been cause for celebration.

Fast forward a century and Mel Goddard, currently market liaison director at Lloyd’s, was the first female to become an active underwriter of a Lloyd’s syndicate in 1997. Goddard doesn’t find it surprising that women got their foot in the door due to their husbands – dead or otherwise.

“Given the date of 1822, I suspect it is highly significant that she took over from her husband,” says Goddard. “It is hard to believe that she would have been appointed outright by herself at that time. ‘Dead men’s shoes’ and all that.”

However, Penny Searles, CEO of Smart Driver Club, believes that the lack of support given to women at the time was a factor that saw many women taking to the industry after being widowed.

“It is a surprise that Mrs Barnes started as early as that,” says Searles. “But during that time there was no social support, so many women would try to take on their husband’s role if they passed away, particularly at that time in the mining industry.”
It wasn’t completely uncommon for women to take up roles within insurance, but those in high positions were few and far between. For example, Nelle Vander Starr gained her position as an executive of AIG in 1920s Shanghai through her relation to the male head of the company.

According to LV’s archive, the firm employed an increasing number of women once it began to grow. In 1912, this necessitated the creation of a new role, head of lady clerks, which was taken up by a Miss Millicent Cuttress. Still no sign of an executive though.

Female insurers take to the Olympic Games

torvillIce dancer Jayne Torvill, pictured, worked for Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society’s Nottingham branch in the accounts department, later moving to the motor department where she wrote motor endorsements. Torvill would work a full day in the office and skate in the evenings. With Christopher Dean, she won a gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Ann Johnson represented Great Britain in the women’s athletics 200m during the Helsinki games in 1952. She worked for Commercial Union’s foreign fire department.

In 1956, Fearne Ewart swapped her day job at Commercial Union’s head office life department for the pool and represented Great Britain in the women’s 100m freestyle relay.

Miss M Aileen Thomas worked for General Accident in Canada in the 1930s. She was ranked as the number one female fencer for her country and represented Canada in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.


War brings change
It was something as terrible as the First World War that saw women being ushered into positions in insurance. In 1914 Germany, Allianz began employing women because 667 of its 792 male employees were sent off to war and the reduction in the workforce meant women had to step in.

Stone says that it was around the time of WW1 that women were taken more seriously, in Britain as well as Germany.

Prior to this, Allianz had functioned without women, but the war saw female insurers working alongside the men who had remained in the company. Dorothea Schutz and Toni Wasservogel were two of the first women employed by Allianz, but due to poor record-keeping it is not possible to determine which positions they held. It wasn’t until a century later that Allianz appointed its first woman to the boardroom of its holding company: in 2012, Helga Jung took over responsibility for strategic participations, mergers and acquisitions and legal compliance.

“When the men went off to fight, generally women took over the roles of men temporarily,” says Stone. “There were more women in the offices of insurance firms and this is when women came into their own as professionals and they realised they were perfectly able to do things. British women got the chance to prove their intelligence, capability and show a willing attitude.”

Disappointingly, there appears to be a lack of information recorded on the ‘female firsts’ from the industry. But since there is evidence of firms employing women from as early as the 1800s, it’s possible that more insurers were doing the same.

Chartered ladies
In 1921, the Chartered Insurance Institute made a monumental statement when it appointed Hilda M Theobald, from the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation, as the first woman fellow of the institute. There was a gaining of momentum around this time; women knew they were capable and they knew it was essential to use those capabilities to become more self-reliant. Perhaps this was something that spurred on Miss M E Wright when she addressed the London Institute of Insurance in 1922 with a stirring speech. Wright cited the important successes of women during and after the war:

"Insurance companies are conservative by tradition, but in this new world, where women are taking such a large interest and becoming actively engaged in almost every phase of our national life, it seems to me absolutely necessary to review our judgement and where desirable to put tradition and precedent aside notwithstanding the strong prejudice that may exist in many minds against a change which appears to them so vital [...] The addition of the new women workers to the ranks of the producers of the country cannot fail to add to the material welfare of all. The full journey will doubtless be made before long. Last, but not least, woman is rendering incalculable service."

Barbara Merry, first CEO of Hardy and now deputy chair of inclusion at Lloyd's, says that the very same speech is relevant even today.

"You could say some of the same things today, really; virtually 100 years on and we're still saying that we need to get more women into the industry," says Merry. "I can't help but wonder how many generations we're going to have to go through before we get more women around the boardroom table. If half the workforce are women, why aren't half the directors of companies women?"

You can’t help but wonder if Miss M E Wright would have been kicking herself at the last Dive In festival when different variations of the same speeches were being made. It’s been almost a century since Wright made hers and – while there have been significant achievements made in terms of gender diversity – the glass ceiling is ever distant, never mind on the verge of being smashed.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first female underwriter was appointed by Aviva. In 1965, Jenny Wellsteed was made fire underwriter at Commercial Union. Aviva’s research suggests that she may have been the first female at the time, in any firm, to hold such a role.

An extract from the firm’s staff magazine, Concord Spring, in 1965 says: “Not many ladies qualify for the Chartered Insurance Institute’s diplomas. Miss Wellsteed is already an associate and is on the way to becoming a fellow. We wish her every success, particularly as at present she is combining this with settling into a new job as fire superintendent at North London branch. We believe she is the first woman in the group to hold such a position.”

If Wellsteed was in fact the first female underwriter, then this essentially means a woman underwriter came 20 years after the first nuclear bomb was exploded.

According to Searles, women were slow to enter the industry because of the social climate. “The main role for many women at that time was running a house and raising children,” she says.

“Although the 1950s saw more women moving into office work, it tended to be pre-marriage and if they took career breaks to have children, they had to start in administration again when they returned.

“By the early 1970s, that had changed and women were encouraged to return to their roles and move into more technical positions.”

It was around this time that Lloyd’s began to open its gilded doors to the opposite sex, but only just. In 1970, Countess Inchcape became the first female underwriter of Lloyd’s, which sounds like a breakthrough – apart from the fact that the Countess wasn’t actually allowed to conduct business personally and could only communicate with clients through a male agent.

In 1973, Liliana Archibald became the first female broker at Lloyd’s. She previously worked at her stepfather’s credit insurance brokerage, which specialised in export credit cover.

She said at the time of her appointment: “I did not break down the barriers; they were broken down for me by the members of Lloyd’s in a very charming way.”

The experiment
Though they weren’t the first women to hold high position, perhaps the appointments of Archibald and Inchcape could be seen as having kick-started a host of new women into Lloyd’s. Just years after Archibald, Kate Sliwinska joined the most profitable marine Lloyd’s syndicate in 1976. In her 20s, she was hired as an ‘experiment’ and was one of the first few women admitted to work on the underwriting floor of Lloyd’s.

“When I was taken on, I was taken on as an experiment. I was later offered a job by Ian ‘Goldfinger’ Posgate, one of the most controversial underwriters at Lloyd’s. I suppose women stood out more then than they do now,” says Sliwinska. “He threw an underwriting stamp at me and told me I could underwrite whatever I wanted, but if I made one mistake I was out. I’m still here.”

Sliwinska’s experience has given her a steely determination to avoid any patronisation or tokenism that could arise from a push for gender diversity. She believes women should be encouraged to pave their own way; they shouldn’t have to wait to be accommodated.

“Women should come through on their merit. Promote women, encourage them in their careers and to stay,” says Sliwinska.

“Women need to be determined to succeed and there shouldn’t be an air of expectation. They need to get qualifications to understand what the business is about. Women need to want to succeed and see it as a career rather than a job.

“Women ought to have ambition to succeed in insurance, they shouldn’t look at it as a man’s world – it’s an industry. They should aim to work with the industry and take an active part in it.”

Role models
Inga Beale, the first female CEO of Lloyd’s, says having a female role model early on in her career was paramount in helping her build confidence. She notes women have worked in insurance for a long time and suggests they should help one another.

“Insurance is the thread that runs through almost every part of our lives, so it is vital that those who work in this profession are representative of the customers we serve. When we look back in time, we can see that women have been a vital part of the insurance workforce.

“In my own career, other women – role models – have had a huge impact on me. I had a very important female mentor in the 1990s – Annette Sadolin. We were both working at GE Insurance Solutions in those days and she was almost unique in terms of her seniority in the (re)insurance world as a woman.

“She always had a keen eye on developing people and helped me build confidence in myself to take on more and more senior level jobs. She is currently retired from executive life but has several non-executive board positions.”

It’s heartening to find that women have long been present in the industry and have no doubt played a major part in making it what it is today. It’s decidedly disheartening to find that information was so poorly recorded that the search for the first female insurer was such an arduous one. Maybe Jenny Wellsteed was the first female underwriter in England, maybe there was one before her – it is a shame that some of the early female insurers have seemingly gone forgotten.

But maybe not all insurers are bandying around their ‘female firsts’ because it shouldn’t be such a big deal. They’ve been here for ages and are continuing to have an increased presence. This could be an opportunity for today’s female insurers to make enough noise so that they’re better remembered than the ones who have come before them.

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