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‘This is not over’: leaders urge industry to prioritise gender equity

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Naming its incoming Australia and Pacific CEO Sue Houghton recently, QBE described the insurance trailblazer as “known for her sound judgment, resilience and adaptability, as well as for cultivating talent, fostering diverse and inclusive teams and driving performance”.

It’s a timely description as the world marks International Women’s Day today, and key players in insurance continue to urge that diversity be made an industry-wide strategic priority.

The statistics remain troubling, showing a gender pay gap favouring full-time working men over women in every industry in Australia and insurance ranking near the top in allowing discrepancies in remuneration.

In financial services, men on average earn $2272.60 a week in Australia, which is $536.10 or 31% more than the $1736.50 a week earned by women.

Conversations between and top female executives reveal a shared love for the insurance industry alongside acknowledgement that there is still a long road ahead before inequalities are fully addressed.

The career anecdotes shared are enlightening: men-only gyms, low-ball pay offers, no paid maternity leave, being the only woman at networking events, secret juggling of child rearing duties and leadership team meetings infuriatingly scheduled bang on school pick up.

“I had to tell them, ‘I don’t have a wife at home that’s got everything done for me so have some flexibility with me. My outputs are just the same’,” says underwriting agency ARAG Services Australia MD Natasha Gale, who has three sons and a daughter.

“I never thought of it as a negative but there was always an opportunity to start educating these probably male executives.

“You were doing all of that juggling, and it was all very covert, under blanket. That’s probably been the biggest curve that I’ve seen change and hopefully that path is a lot smoother for women that are coming into those leadership roles. It’s all out in the open now which is great.”

Ms Houghton, currently GM Insurance at Westpac, is also the first female president of the Insurance Council of Australia, and points out that the National Insurance Brokers Association (NIBA) and the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance (ANZIIF) also have women presidents.

She tells that from an industry group point of view, women are very much leading the way.

“We are starting to see a lot of female leaders. I’m not going to be the only female CEO of an insurance company,” Ms Houghton says of her new role at QBE, which starts in August.

“Women need to think about backing themselves,” she says.

“We’ll all be judged on what we contribute and not just being female. That will be what’s important to us. At the same time, having that opportunity to be role models for the industry - if that encourages women coming through I think that’s fantastic.”

Women make up almost a quarter of insurance industry board chairpersons, versus a global average of just 8%, according to Swiss Re, though less than 10% of CEO positions at re/insurers are held by women in Australia.

Dianne Phelan, the first female President of NIBA, who has worked in insurance for 43 years and is Group Operations Manager at BJS, says “huge inroads” have been made since she started out and was “often the only woman in the room” at industry events.

She is “disappointed and surprised” that the gender pay gap remains such an issue.

“There shouldn’t be any distinction,” Ms Phelan says. “The role is the role, which should pay a market salary. Gender just shouldn’t come into it.”

She says dismantling historical expectations in the home is key.

“Until we get to the point where men and women equally share that parenting role and have equality in leave around childcare, then it’s going to be difficult. I think that those missed years that women take, being the major child carer in a lot of households, that’s a major thing in terms of not being able to further your career.

“Insurers and brokers are doing a lot in that area but it will take some time to see that translating into opportunity.”

At Aon Affinity, MD Lisa Henderson shares that she summoned the chutzpah to negotiate a higher salary when she first joined the executive team in her early 30s. She spoke up and convinced the CEO that “he was paying me for my skills, not my age” and a higher offer was secured.

“I received my offer, seated across from the CEO, and it was less than what I was expecting. I knew this was a key moment,” Ms Henderson says. “That day I learned a lesson on rightly valuing your skill set and being an advocate for yourself.”

She advises female school leavers seek a mentor early in their career as well as an advocate “to help get you in front of the right people” when further opportunities arise. Attracting top talent requires “a readiness by the executive team to be open to diversity of opinion,” she says.

More women should develop this kind of courage and put their hands up for the top roles, says Ms Houghton, who agrees the industry’s stubborn pay gap is “disappointing”.

“It’s an important topic. We need to keep reviewing and working towards that parity,” Ms Houghton says. “This is not over. We have got to be really conscious about it from every perspective and proactively looking at diversity in recruitment processes.

“I’d like to think that women are becoming braver and that will be important in having more CEOs going forward. The more of us there are I think the better for the industry. I really do.”

Swiss Re analysis reveals a 10% increase in the share of women at the C-suite executive or board level is clearly correlated with above industry average profitability. Re/insurers with the highest proportion of women leaders outperform the return on equity of those with the lowest by as much as 5 percentage points.

“It makes direct contributions to shareholder value,” says Sharon Ooi, Swiss Re’s Head of Australia and New Zealand, who has spent two decades in the industry and recommends measurable gender-specific hiring and promotion goals and identifying future women leaders early in their careers.

“We’ve come a long way and are heading in the right direction,” Ms Ooi says. “On the other hand, there’s no question that across our region, many of these numbers are still too low.”

“We as an industry and a region need to make diversity a strategic priority,” she says, adding that workplace equality “will strengthen our governance, profitability and sustainability for the long term - an outcome that will ultimately benefit all of us”.

There have been important structural shifts with paid parental and carers’ leave, and a new focus on addressing domestic violence, and Ms Houghton highlights the positives: four female directors on the ICA board and 57% women in ICA leadership roles, as well as more women coming through in traditionally male-dominated sectors, which “will start to change the debate”.

“It’s a lot of change. It’s probably not been quick enough - the fact that I’m the first female president in 2021 probably tells us that … but at the same time I think over 50% of the people in our industry are female. So that gives us a great opportunity to have a pipeline of leaders in the future.”

Role models via diversity across the industry will “accelerate the change,” she says, and COVID may prove to be an unlikely driver.

“I’ve seen young men with babies and toddlers doing meetings because maybe there is more sharing of some of those home tasks when everybody’s at home together,” Ms Houghton says. “When you have got to do school drop-offs and pick-ups, not doing a commute as well can be very helpful. I think that different way of working will be beneficial in the long term.”

ARAG’s Ms Gale says while she applauds male champions she is most passionate about women supporting women in the insurance industry.

“If I am climbing the ladder, then I want to pull someone up with me. If you get a promotion, take a woman along with you. Keep in contact, be a mentor,” Ms Gale says. “It is so important. Instead of reaching up for a man to pull you up, reach down and pull a woman up with you.”