Helen Cooper: Mandatory gender targets can play a role

Published in: Risk management, UK, People

Companies: Esure Group

On International Women's Day, Esure Group's chief risk officer Helen Cooper shares her views on the state of gender diversity in the insurance industry 

Is it becoming easier for women to hold senior positions at insurance companies?

Helen CooperMy overall feeling is you really have to hope so. We are all trying our best to help women break the glass ceiling and we all have to hope that is having the benefit we think it is.

There was previously a lack of support in helping women progress, and there was the impact of unconscious bias, but a lot has been done to address that.

Women are lucky. They have always had more choices than men. They have had the choice to work or not to work.  And they have had the choice to work full time or flexibly, in a way men didn’t. I think that is starting to shift now and that is exciting. Women’s issues are no longer women’s issues.

What has been your experience as a woman in a male-dominated insurance industry?

I have been really lucky to not have to think about it. That said, I am clearly aware not all women in the industry have had that experience, and certainly for those women that are 10 years older than me, it was very different.

If you look at the more subtle things, it is not unusual for me to sit, even today, in a room and be the only woman. It would also be very unusual for me to sit in a room and be with all women, unless I was at a women-specific event. I have also never worked directly for a woman.

What other female leaders, both inside and outside of insurance, have inspired you in your career?

For me, when I was a junior actuary, it was women who were standing up on stage and presenting on industry issues. One such example is Louise Pryor [former president of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries]. I remember when she was at the Financial Reporting Council, and we were looking at all the actuarial regulations.

How can the sector encourage the next generation of women to work in insurance? Should insurers have mandatory gender targets?

The flexibility of working from home, post-Covid, is great and can make a real difference for everyone’s work-life balance. But we have to be really conscious that women don’t fall into the trap of working from home and taking the flexibility, and becoming less visible [in the workplace] as a result.

My point on mandatory targets is always I think we would all rather not have targets. But at some point, you have got to look at mathematics and say if it is not working, you have to try something you have not done before.

For targets, whether they are mandatory or not, the fact you have a target makes you think about the things you are going to do. It becomes less aspirational, and I think that is really important.

Ronan McCaughey