Despite the rhetoric, sexism is alive and well in the insurance industry

Two businessmen looking at woman's legs
More than just decoration

Working in the insurance industry, you hear a lot of talk about diversifying the workforce and attracting young people to the market.

It’s heartening to hear insurers speak so passionately about the issue and see them flocking to events geared towards supporting diversity, nodding in earnest at the sentiments and tweeting enthusiastically, complete with a catchy hashtag.

But after only 10 months working in the sector my experience so far would suggest that sexism is deeply ingrained in the industry. Like a lingering stain, it’s far from gone. Beneath emotive speeches from CEOs on inclusion and social media campaigns lies something much more unsavoury.

For example, a conversation I had recently with a senior industry figure at an industry event left me stunned. When I excused myself for a cigarette break, said man chirped up: “You can use my breath spray if you like! I mean, it is laced with Rohypnol.” As a young woman, I was angry but as a person who has an interest in the market  – I was disappointed.

I love puns, I love rubbish memes. And I enjoy office banter with my team. But I don’t find casual jokes about date rape to be at all funny.

I returned – I had no other choice but to sit next to this man for the duration of the event. Cue more offloading of verbal garbage: “I love feminists. I’d chose a feminist over anything else!” He is apparently quite the feminist ally - despite his casual jokes about date rape drugs.

But then he continued: “I personally don’t see the point in a woman fulfilling any role other than a wife or mother and basically supporting the man. Women working is nice, the extra income is lovely. But I just don’t see the point.”

I gently informed him that women work, just as men do, because they have ambitions and strive damn hard to achieve them, also as men do. I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the thought of him saying the very same thing to any of the working women I have met in this industry or, in fact, anywhere else.

I personally don’t see the point in a woman fulfilling any role other than a wife or mother and basically supporting the man.

Young people are constantly being told, ‘you are the future’, and we love it – we have hungry egos, us Millennials. And as this industry strives to attract fresh, young people into its ranks as a way of widening the talent pool, the last thing you want to do is patronise them. This man flat out told me: “You know nothing about claims and have never worked in claims so you couldn’t possibly do a good job reporting on the area.”

I curtly told him my lack of experience lends itself to an unbiased approach – crucial for any reporter – backed up by an experienced team, including my female editor who has been writing about insurance for 13 years. But if this same thing had have been said to a person with a thinner skin, it could have sent them running for the hills. Quite simply – if we are the future, don’t patronise us. Failing that, ask yourselves where you were when you were 23.

And I’m sorry to say this is not the only time I’ve experienced this attitude. While having a pleasant conversation with someone else after a different event, another man interrupted by giving him a shoulder rub: “Thought you might be feeling a bit tense, mate, but I bet you wish it was her giving you a massage.” I informed him that I wasn’t taught the art of massages during my journalism degree.

And on another occasion, while sitting waiting for an event to begin, I overheard a conversation between two men behind me: “Well, she’s definitely not a director – I mean, look at her.” I turned around to find out who they might be talking about – both men were staring directly at me and there were no other women around. Of course, they had a point – I’m not a director. But I wonder if they would have spoken about one of our male journalists in the same way.

And the last whopper from a man who will always – and luckily for him – remain nameless: “Look at you, you’re a trophy. You’re out here to charm the insurers, really that’s what it’s about.”

You’re out here to charm the insurers, really that’s what it’s about.

All I can say is this; if this is how women are perceived in the insurance industry, and spoken to and about, then there is still a long way to go, even in the presence of gender diversity campaigns.

Sexism is still alive – it’s time we got rid of the stain on the industry once and for all.

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