Interview: Meet the people making insurance more diverse

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This month the Dive In festival returns as part of the Inclusion at Lloyd’s initiative aiming to help insurance get fit for the future, highlighting the business case for diverse and inclusive workplaces and providing practical ideas and inspiration for how to bring about positive change. Post finds out how diverse and inclusive the insurance market is by seeking out people from minority groups and asking them about their experience.

andrew varley

Andrew Varley, telematics support consultant, Direct Line Group

Introduce yourself
I have a wife and son. I’m a Scout leader with the 1st Barnsley Scout Troop. In August 2006, I asked a friend to teach me how to ride his motorbike, it was a very short lesson, as I managed to hit a wall in the car park he was teaching me in, and I shattered my pelvis. The Northern General in Sheffield saved my left leg. While I was in hospital, I got a nasty infection that necessitated further surgery. This has left me in constant pain and unable to walk more than a few metres unaided.

How soon after the accident did you return to work?
It took just under six years to get back to work. When we found out my son Charlie was on the way, I refused to raise a child on incapacity benefit, so went to see my GP to reduce some of the dosages to clear my mind enough so I could get back to work. It’s been incredibly difficult, and I went through a couple of abortive attempts at work before I found a home at Direct Line.

What challenges did you face in returning to work?
I’d forgotten how to do the job I was previously doing (I owned a data networking business), so I had to accept that I wasn’t going to go back to work at the same level. That took a lot of adjustment, especially admitting to myself that I wasn’t as good as I had been. I was in more pain than I was used to, having changed my dosages to be able to think coherently. That was probably the major issue, followed by depression.

What did your employer do to help?
Having a sit/stand desk, specialist chair and modified breaks have made the difference between me being OK and being good at my job.

What are the challenges of having a physical disability and living in constant pain at work?
Things take a lot longer to do. Even my typing speed is lower. Sometimes the pain is so much that I can’t even get out of bed, but I always try to get in to work.

What did you tell your co-workers and clients? Did you feel it was important for them to know?
As I’m six feet tall and walk with a stick, it’s a bit obvious, but I have told clients over the phone. Sometimes it makes a difference to them, especially when going through a claim, to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

What benefits, if any, has your experience brought to your job?
I am a more resilient in a lot of ways. When you’ve had to do the things I have to get a job, you develop a certain toughness about work.

What more could the industry do to make those with disabilities such as yours more welcome?
We could look at people with hidden disabilities such as autism or certain types of cerebral palsy as more capable than is perceived sometimes. Disabled people bring so much more to the party than just an ability to do our job.

debbie cannon

Debbie Cannon, personal injury fraud investigator, LV Insurance

Introduce yourself
I’m engaged and have a daughter. My interests are diversity and inclusion, supporting others, running, music and literature. I’m a transgender woman and lesbian.

When and why did you decide to transition?
I made the decision in 2012 on a night out in Newcastle. It was my first time in public as Debbie and for the very first time in my life, I wasn’t wishing I was something else. Attempting to conform for 39 years in a gender I had been assigned at birth, I felt that I could no longer live a lie. It was a massively defining moment for me.

What have been the challenges and joys of your transition?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is coming to terms with the psychological adjustment of being female full time and living in a world where I have less privilege than I used to. Having experienced inequalities and prejudice towards females in situations I haven’t previously was a real shock to me. When I’ve been in public, sometimes the open hostility towards me as a female and a transgender female has shocked me.

The biggest joy I’ve had is being able to support others through change. I’ve been able to prevent five people from committing suicide through direct support in networks. To me, that’s the most precious thing you can give someone – another chance at life.

How and when did you tell your co-workers and clients?
I worked with LV for almost a year before I transitioned and they were fully supportive from the off. I moved locations and they supported this also. I wanted to move to a location that had a better lesbian, gay bi-sexual and transgender community (Bournemouth definitely has that), but I also wanted to start afresh: new life, new me, new start. I wrote a letter to my new colleagues explaining the situation, my reasons for moving and that I looked forward to meeting them all. This was done a few weeks before I started.

Did you feel it was important for them to know?
I just wanted my new colleagues to know that I was transitioning. I felt it important to be upfront from the beginning.

How have your co-workers and clients reacted?
They’ve all been amazing. I’ve had complete support and encouragement from them since day one.

How has your employer catered for your needs and requirements during transition?
From assisting me with an internal transfer to a new office, to time off for appointments and surgery.

What advice would you offer employers with transitioning employees?
When dealing with a transgender colleague, it’s not a one-size-fits-all process. It has to be led by the person who’s transgender. Not everyone who is transgender will transition or have surgery. Stonewall conducted research in 2008 that found LGBT people who are out of the closet at work are 30% more productive than those who are not able to bring their full selves to work. So the business case speaks for itself. The damage to a brand’s reputation when it gets this kind of thing wrong can also be irreparable.

Do you feel the insurance industry is accepting of your minority group?
On the whole, yes. My own employers definitely are and I have contacts and friends at other insurance companies who identify as transgender. Festivals like Dive In certainly help raise awareness.

Have you ever faced transphobia?
Professionally, no. Outside of work, yes. No matter who you are in life there’s going to be people who won’t like you. All you can do is be consistent in your message and hope to change some people’s minds along the way. I know I have and for that reason, I will continue to share my transition story and support others in theirs.

What benefits, if any, has your experience of transition brought to your job?
I’ve been able to have a big influence at LV in my transition towards the Diversity & Inclusion agenda, our LGBT network and in supporting the business on transgender-related issues. A happier person is always going to bring more to the table.

What advice would you offer someone starting the same journey in the insurance sector today?

Varley: Be prepared to restart your career at a less senior point. Your determination and skills will shine through and be recognised.

Cannon: First of all, relax! It’s a journey and it will take time for you to get used to your new self. Remember that there is no right or wrong way of being transgender. It’s your transition, so own it. Also keep talking to your line manager and HR support so they can manage and care for you. Your employers want you to be happy at work, so they will do their best to support you.

Raji: Have the confidence to be yourself, resist any urge to compromise simply to ‘fit in’, stay positive and chase your ambition.

White: Be brave, don’t apologise for thinking differently, question things, keep an open mind and don’t feel that you have to conform. Being true to yourself will pay off.

Dowling: Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Be open and honest in terms of how you are affected and what skills you can still bring to the job and industry.

Ahuja: As with any career, hard work, perseverance and zeal for continuous improvement can take you a long way.


tom dowling

Tom Dowling, risk control surveyor, Allianz

Introduce yourself
I am married and have two sons, I occasionally play golf and enjoy running. In December 2011, I was driving to an appointment in Newcastle and was involved in a road traffic accident. I suffered a serious head injury causing swelling to my brain. I spent about six weeks in hospital (involving several operations) before I was discharged home. Due to this injury, I have mental fatigue, among other things.

How soon after the accident did you return to work?
I returned to work about 18 months after the accident on a reduced basis, working shorter hours on office-based activities. It was hard to start with to get back into ‘work-mode’ with such a long time out. But my employer allowed me to take control of my working hours and the activities I was capable to undertake and that helped.

What challenges did you face in returning to work?
Fatigue was my main issue. Simple activities that required minimal thought process and action before the accident took me longer and made me extremely fatigued.

What are the challenges of having a hidden disability?
Externally I look fine, so it is difficult to translate the issues I have to the lay person. It’s not like having a broken leg where you can see the issue.

How/when did you tell your co-workers and clients? Did you feel it was important for them to know?
Prior to my return to the office I did a presentation to my work colleagues to describe the issues I have and how to support me as best they can. As with anything, honesty is the best policy. It allowed my colleagues to get a greater understanding of the hidden issues I have and allowed them to ask questions if needed.

How has your employer catered for your needs and requirements when returning to work?
Allianz has allowed me to develop at my own pace. I work reduced hours to allow for my fatigue, with the expectations and targets adjusted. It is very flexible and supportive and is never afraid for me to ask questions or make requests. It gives me ample opportunity to investigate clear routes to progress my development.

Ola Jacob Raji

Ola Jacob Raji, associate, Alesco

Introduce yourself
As a political violence and downstream energy broker by day, with a background in computer science, user experience and human-computer psychology, I like to think I bring a different perspective to the market. I’m also a sports and social enthusiast, passionate about improving the visibility of the insurance industry to young talent, increasing its diversity and never underestimating the power of relationships to develop and bring about change.

Have you ever been confronted by racism?
Racism is just ignorance and sometimes what’s given that label isn’t necessarily racism but something else. My own view on racism is that you shouldn’t allow it to become a stumbling block; I believe you can always overcome this with personality, talent and hard work.

Has your employer ever done anything to cater for you as a black, Asian, minority ethnic employee?
My employer focuses on empowering everyone in the organisation —regardless of colour, gender, age, disability or sexuality. During my time at Gallagher, and now Alesco, I’ve never been made to feel like I’m any different because of my colour; you’re only measured on your ability.

Do BAME employees bring strengths different from other ethnicity groups?
The more diverse and inclusive a workforce, the more enriched the approach to any problem through bringing broader perspectives and the greater the ability to overcome challenges in business— especially in our global economy.

There are already mountains of evidence to show that diverse, inclusive and highly engaged workforces deliver better business results. So we should look at the lessons learnt and successes achieved from having more diverse teams of people. What more compelling driver for the insurance industry could there be to invest?

Do you feel the pressure to be an ambassador for BAME employees in insurance?
We can all be, and should be, ambassadors in one form or another. And if someone thinks you can inspire just one other person, then you could be making a lasting and positive change to them, their personal and professional relationships and the industry they work in. In my opinion, the best way to actually be an ambassador is to reach your full potential and work your socks off, which is what I intend to do, so it’s no pressure at all.

Are there networks available to you? Do these help?

Varley: Direct Line Group has a Diversity Network Alliance, which I’m a member of and we work together for mutual support on issues that arise from being disabled or caring for disabled people.

Cannon: Link, the LGBT Insurance Network, is a great network.

Raji: Building the confidence of minority groups can definitely help accelerate the blending of cultures. Having a network may be able to inspire individuals to share their opinions and thoughts freely, which may be something they have previously held back on doing. Instead of feeling the need to compromise or change to fit in to what may seem a different culture, individuals can flourish by just being themselves. But equally, being part of a network can also help you focus on all that you have in common just as much as any difference.

White: Yes, there are but they need to be taken more seriously by the insurance industry.

Dowling: I am part of the local Headway group. We meet up on a monthly basis. It allows me to socialise with people experiencing the same issues as I have.

Ahuja: Employee network groups play a vital role delivering significant benefits both for the employees and their employer organisations. For the employees, these networks can provide a forum to be heard and talk about issues affecting them, provide peer support, mentorship and visible role models. Additionally, cross network interactions can promote understanding of the cultural values and beliefs of others. Networks can also be a useful mechanism to develop new skills that can benefit the employee as well as organisations.


Sam White

Sam White, founder and CEO of insurance services provider Action 365 and specialist insurance provider Pukka Insure

Introduce yourself
You could describe me as a serial entrepreneur: I set up my first business aged 24 from my sister Nina’s conservatory and I have worked for myself ever since.

What challenges have you faced working in the insurance sector in what was previously a man’s world?
There is still an old boys’ network to a certain extent but the insurance industry is more of a meritocracy now than it has ever been, so your gender or sexual orientation should not set you at a disadvantage. I have found that adapting my approach to suit my audience and not taking no for an answer tends to work. It’s a shame that insurtech doesn’t attract more women but it’s a more insular environment and, in my experience, women tend to prefer sectors that encourage more collaborative projects. It would be great to see a shift in the scales sooner rather than later.

Women in power are often seen as ball breakers – have you felt the pressure to act like this?
I’m never anything other than me, so no. I’m more of a disrupter. In my opinion, people are always going to judge you, so make sure they judge you for the right things: be brave, trust your instincts and pipe up.

Have you made changes to appearance or character to fit in?
I dress to please myself and I’m very aware that it sometimes takes people by surprise that I don’t conform to the corporate CEO suited and booted stereotype, which says a lot more about them than me frankly. How people perform is far more important to me than how they look.

I’m very aware that at times, my outspoken nature hasn’t done me any favours but I trust my gut instincts and more often than not, this approach has paid off for me. I’m not here to win a popularity contest, I’m here to grow a business and be socially responsible.

As an employer do you do anything for your female employees?
We have tried to create a very flexible approach to working hours so that staff can work around childcare needs – and this also applies to the fathers among the team. It’s definitely still the case though that the women on my teams are the ones who do the lion’s share of the childcare, so they need more flexibility. I’m a mother of two young children myself and I am very aware of the need to do as much as possible to help in getting the work-life balance right for my team.

Do you believe women have strengths and resources that are different from men’s?
Yes, I do believe that the sexes generally have different strengths. On the whole, women tend to have a higher emotional IQ than men, which can set them at an advantage in the work environment. Women tend to be more collaborative in nature as well, which, when harnessed and encouraged, can produce some fantastic results in a corporate team environment.

Is the insurance industry sexist?
Yes, it is, as is any industry which is dominated by a sex. But it’s changing and, while those of us at the top have the ultimate responsibility for driving change, it’s also down to the individual to make the very most of the opportunities presented to them. Some in the industry are changing more than others. Axa’s technical director David Williams is a great supporter and champion of women, as is Covéa’s CEO James Reader, he has created the most amazing pro-female culture at Covéa and it’s paying off, he has attracted some really talented women. Both men are all about empowering their workforce regardless of gender and I’m a huge fan of their work.

What benefits, if any, has your experience brought to your job?
I don’t take any crap any more. I used to accommodate other people’s prejudices and stereotypes but I don’t any more. Thankfully, my work is doing the talking and I’m now in a position where I can let the results speak for themselves.

Devdeep Ahuja

Devdeep Ahuja, rehabilitation services

Introduce yourself
A physiotherapist by background, I completed my undergraduate training in India. After working in clinical practice for a couple of years, I moved to the UK to complete my post-graduation. Subsequently, I worked as a senior physiotherapist within the NHS and then moved to rehabilitation case management. Outside of work, I like reading, walking and socialising. I am also actively involved in the Sikh community and gurudwara in Milton Keynes. Over the last year or so, I have taken up running and have completed two marathons.

Have you ever been confronted by prejudice?
On two separate occasions, as I was walking along the road, a group of lads started shouting: “Run, run, a terrorist is here.” Now those moments make me laugh, but at that time, it was quite stressful, demoralising and made me really question my decision to come to the UK.
I didn’t really feel like staying in the UK at that point. But I discussed it with my supervisor who had always been very supportive and her answer was quite inspirational. She said that rather than leaving my career and studies, which I had achieved with much effort, because of some boys whom I did not know and perhaps will never see again, I should perhaps look at all the people including her who supported and appreciated me. She made me realise that for every one of those, there were at least 10 who had encouraged and valued my role in the society.

Being a Sikh, I wear a turban and there have been several occasions where people have complimented me and on one occasion an elderly gentleman actually saluted me. He explained that he had fought with several Sikhs in the war and he has always respected the bravery, valour and courage demonstrated by the Sikhs. It was a moment of intense pride for me. Yet, it gave me significant responsibility as well – responsibility to live up to the high standards which earlier generations had set for us to follow.

Does the insurance industry do enough to attract non-Christian employees?
I do not feel that religion should have anything to do with recruitment in work. I should not be able to get a job or promotion only because I am a Sikh. While there are people who advocate positive discrimination and it may have its place, I feel that in this day and age, recruitment should focus solely on whether the potential employee is fit for the role or not.

Do employees from religious minorities bring strengths different from other employees?
Each religion and culture has its unique strengths and values. We can all learn from each other and contribute to the welfare of the society and development of our work culture in the office.

What benefits, if any, has your religion brought to your job?
Sikhism is an open, inclusive, progressive, practical, adaptable and loving faith that teaches universal equality and brotherhood. These tenets have shaped my life and contributed immensely to my development and growth within Broadspire. While my turban makes me stand out, I adapt to the culture of the team and thus contribute positively in whatever way possible.

A Sikh always believes in Chardi Kala (positive energy), which comes from your faith in God. This is an important aspect when dealing with people who have suffered complex and catastrophic injuries in a highly contentious litigation environment. It is important to remain balanced and independent as a rehabilitation provider and work for the welfare of our clients without prejudice. Every day in our prayer, each Sikh prays for the welfare of the whole world, irrespective of caste, creed, religion or any other affiliation.

Additionally, Sikhism also teaches us to stand for the rights of everyone, which means that I do not fear to speak up and stand for my personal rights or the rights of others around me. This has been useful in supporting my team members when I felt that they needed me to stand for them in the face of adversity whether personal or professional.

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