IWD Blog: Progress requires not half but the whole

International Womens Day

On International Women's Day, Alexandra Foster, director of insurance at BT, explains why we should choose to challenge men.

Let’s talk about women this International Women’s Day. Or should we really be talking about men? After all, progress requires not half but the whole.

Much progress has been made by the insurance industry over recent years to improve female representation with the latest data indicating that women now hold 29% of board roles in the sector and 24% of executive level positions in the UK. The US is slightly behind in its efforts with just over 20% of executives from leading insurers on the NYSE or Nasdaq being women. However, as the Association of British Insurers has warned, progress is simply still too slow and, across industries globally, the percentage of women in leadership decreases as career levels advance.

To address this, women must accept that we cannot bend the curve alone and that male advocacy is necessary. We should all choose to challenge, not just on IWD but every day, and invite men into this conversation. Only then can we obtain long-term systemic advancement for women. We need to look at and develop end-to-end female leadership strategies specifically focused on engaging men in the process. Without this active engagement from men we cannot drive change. If 70% of senior positions within the insurance industry are held by men, then men are 70% of the solution.

The number of women who played a big part in helping me get to where I am today was limited, but I was lucky enough to have a number of male advocates from home to higher education and early in my career on the trading floor. Mentors as allies have a substantial role to play in helping the women succeed up the career ladder but what’s really needed is a pivot from mentors to advocates who demonstrate to insurers the benefits of more diverse representation at the top levels of management.

Top of the list

It is imperative from a business perspective that the subject of diversity and inclusion extends beyond simply being seen as a HR or compliance issue, and is at the top of every leader’s priority list. This is particularly true when it comes to encouraging greater female representation. PWC’s latest Women in Work Survey calculates that there would be a further £48bn annual boost to the UK economy from increasing the proportion of women in work, a huge figure made even more significant during a time when economies globally are reeling from the impact of Covid-19.

To foster the progression of women within the insurance industry, we must also fix the ‘broken rung’ of the career ladder, namely that first promotion from team member to team leader. While the emphasis is often on the number of women in senior leadership positions, in reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline at the first step up to manager and fixing this is the key to achieving parity, as highlighted in a report by McKinsey and Lean In. If women were promoted to their first management job at the same rate as men, then we would see one million more women move into leadership positions in next five years.

The increasing focus by investors and regulators alike on environmental, social, and governance is now driving insurers to accelerate their own initiatives to bring more women up the ranks. Remote working, enabled by collaboration technology, has opened up a world of possibilities. A flexible working programme means that both women and men are able to enjoy a good work-life balance while still progressing their careers.

IWD 2021 represents an opportunity to reach out and involve the other half of the workforce in the conversation concerning the advancement of women. Through a combination of male advocates, fixing the ‘first rung’ and utilising flexible working, we can build gender-diverse companies within the insurance industry which attract and retain women in leadership roles equally at all levels and, crucially, are sustainable for the long-term.

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