13 March 2023

Torunn Biller White: Mandatory gender targets may be counterproductive

Torunn Biller White, CRO at Norwegian marine insurer Gard, 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 think things are better than they used to be. There is more awareness and more open discussion around the topics of diversity and gender balance in the industry now, which is good. That being said, let's be honest, the marine insurance sector is still a strikingly male-dominated industry.

Even in Norway, where I live and work and where the share of women in leading positions overall is relatively high, the percentage within insurance is still remarkably low. Things are gradually changing and moving in the right direction, but we still have some way to go.

What more can insurers do to advance the issue of gender diversity?

Having the discussion is important – awareness is an important first step. The attention that is now given to diversity, the disclosure of the leadership compilation, and the negative focus that male-only leadership may receive, has brought this topic all the way into the boardrooms, which is good. However, change doesn't happen by itself. If a company really wants to see a change, it has to set goals, and those goals have to be accompanied by concrete action plans.

Diverse recruitment, long-term succession planning, good work-life flexibility – all of these elements are probably key to ensure a good gender balance in any business. Having good role models are also important. As more women fill senior positions within our industry, more women will see that it is possible.

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

Torunn Biller WhiteThings have changed over time. It was very different being a young woman in a male-dominated industry in London in the late nineties, compared to holding a senior position in the same industry in Norway in 2023. Being a woman in the City back then was very different from now. In short, you could be female, but you shouldn't be "too female".

For instance, questions around maternity leave were raised in private, secret meetings. Many were worried that if rumours came out that one might be thinking of starting a family, it could have negative consequences. Eventually, there were court cases where women sued investment banks for discrimination, and these rulings improved the rights for women.

Fortunately, the situation is different and much better today. The legal framework has improved, the general awareness is higher, and things are moving in the right direction. Personally, I have never experienced any setbacks in my career because of my gender, but as an industry, it is clear we still have a way to go to improve a better gender balance.

Why is having a diverse workforce important?

It ensures diversity of perspectives and opinions – different outlooks and ways of solving problems. That is good both for business and for society. For shipping, and marine insurance in particular, where we know that we have a talent shortage and a general recruitment challenge, having strategies in place to ensure female representation and diverse recruitment is even more important.

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

Yngvil Asheim, CEO of BW LNG, [which is a developer, owner, and operator of floating LNG infrastructure] is a role model. As a former member of Gard's board of directors, she inspired me when I was new to the shipping industry.

Should insurers have mandatory gender targets?

The fundamental requirement should always be competence and ability, not gender. As such, I am not sure if mandatory gender targets are the right way forward. It might even be counterproductive, casting doubts around women's qualifications and their career advancement.

Going forward, I think more and more companies will see that attracting talent from a broader talent pool makes sense from a business perspective, and perhaps even be a competitive advantage, so things will gradually improve. But along the way we should set concrete goals and work systematically towards them.