OneFamily's chief risk officer Philippa Herz 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?
I would like to believe that we’re getting past thinking in terms of whether some roles are difficult for women to hold. All senior roles require a considerable commitment, but should also give the opportunity for some flexibility – and that’s a benefit for both men and women.
With greater diversity in leadership teams, however, it has become easier for a broader range of people to feel included, to be more confident that they will be viewed at the table as an equal, and to build networks.
What has been your experience as a woman in a male-dominated insurance industry?
My experience hasn’t been of a consistently male-dominated environment in practice: for example, the graduate intake of my first job (over 30 years ago!) was pretty equally gender balanced, and the executive team of the business I worked for 20 years ago was also gender balanced.
However, I have perceived that women have had more to prove in terms of demonstrating their competence, rather than it being assumed at the outset.
I do recall being in some male-dominated situations. I once attended an industry dinner, some years ago now, and only realised I was the sole female guest in a room of 60 when we were called into dinner with the announcement “Lady and Gentlemen …!” I remember that while most of room found it quite amusing.
I felt rather awkward having my difference called out, particularly as we were all there due to a common interest in the subject being spoken about.
What other female leaders, both inside and outside of insurance, have inspired you in your career?
I’ve been very fortunate to work for and with many excellent women and men during my career who have been inspiring for different reasons. Inspiration has not always come from the most senior – sometimes people at a similar level have made me see that the next step is within my reach, perhaps by being bolder and less afraid of failure.
I’ve also been grateful to the very senior people who, despite having many demands on their time, have offered thoughtful and practical feedback.
Outside of insurance, there are many famous women from the political, sporting, arts and business arenas who I admire for their resilience. Closer to home, I have been inspired by women around me who show leadership in their communities – sharing skills and resources, building networks, fundraising, sharing knowledge, encouraging others when they’re feeling low. These are all things that translate well to leadership in the business context.
How can the sector encourage the next generation of women to work in insurance? Should insurers have mandatory gender targets?
Insurance is a great career choice – there are lots of different roles offering the opportunity for both professional specialism and sideways moves as your skillset evolves. It’s also, of course, socially purposeful and vital to the economy, and I’ve found all the insurers I’ve worked for to be very good employers.
It is, however, an industry that’s not known about much by young people thinking for the first time about their career choice. They probably won’t yet be customers of insurance companies themselves. I think there’s more we need to do to educate young people about insurance and financial matters more generally.
I have had mixed feelings about mandatory targets in the past. I have found though that setting targets prompts helpful actions that might not otherwise be taken. An example of this is insisting on gender balanced recruitment shortlists.
My experience has been these have led to more lateral thinking on potential candidates - for example, looking at transferable skills rather than rotating an existing smaller pool. I also believe that your role is not just about your job in isolation, but also about the balance and range of perspectives you help to bring to the teams that you’re part of, and targets can help to focus the mind on improving this dynamic.