10 March 2023

Zoe Shapiro: Provide more leadership training earlier for women

Zoe Shapiro, CRO, open division, at Phoenix Group, 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?

Zoe ShapiroYes it is.  Some of that is because it is becoming easier for women to hold senior positions in most companies now, but insurance has some advantages over other industries. It has a need for a very wide range of skills, from operations and IT, to actuarial and finance, to sales and compliance. It is a relatively well-paid industry, compared with some other sectors.  And many firms have put policies in place that help people manage their family responsibilities better – most of which are typically women’s responsibility.

Nonetheless, we still see too few women, and ethnic minorities, in commercial and sales roles – and this is important as these are often the roles that lead to CEOs.  Too often the women around the executive committee table are those in supporting functions, rather than running the business lines. 

Things like maternity and paternity policies and carers’ policies make the workplace a much better balanced and fairer place to work. I am also really delighted to see firms talking about the menopause and in some cases, like at Phoenix Group, provide menopause clinics for staff. 

Menopause can impact women’s memory, decision-making capacity and mental health, alongside the physical symptoms, and so it is not a surprise that 1 in 4 women consider giving up work due to its impact. 

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

We have to keep the pipeline of women at each level of the organisation as close to 50:50 as possible, and firms should be examining why there are changes at any level or age group. 

At Phoenix Group, we reached the FTSE 350 boardroom gender balance target three years early, and we also require a 50:50 gender split required in candidate shortlists and job-shares.

Firms should also be examining why there are changes at any level or age group.

We should be providing more leadership training earlier in female careers so that women can realise that promotion assesses potential, as well as achievements, and how they can signal that potential in the workplace.

We need to examine the leadership attributes that we are promoting people on – and make sure that they are fit for modern digital, agile and decentralised companies.  And that they are written for all genders.

For those of us already at senior positions, we should be looking at who we sponsor, as well as who we are giving the stretching work and high-profile activities to?  There is evidence to suggest that people tend to sponsor people in their “own image” and the challenge to us all is to include more people in this group.

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

I started my career in mechanical engineering in the chemical industry, before becoming a management consultant and then working in insurance. I have never worked in an industry that has not been male dominated, and have only once worked for a female CEO, so it is all I know. 

I think insurance is a great place for anyone, including women, to pursue a career. It is also one of the UK’s greatest exports, and so should be a magnet for great talent.

But there have been differences in approach. Looking back, when I was in engineering, the organisation was concerned the female engineers shouldn’t fail.  It was well meaning, but we didn’t get risky or stretching work and this held us back.  And there was a time in my management consultancy career when I asked not to be promoted whilst I broadened out my skills. I should probably have been talked out of that. 

Why is having a diverse workforce important?

There is all the evidence that shows that diversity makes for a more productive and commercially successful company. I think this is because your staff are more representative of your customers and the product and messaging is therefore more aligned to your customer base. 

I also think that the problems we are facing today in the UK are complex and long term, and need a new way to think and address them.  We need to break our old patterns of behaviour.  I believe that corporates, and in particular insurance companies, are in some ways better placed than elected officials to start to address issues like climate change, inequality, or savings gaps within their own communities and stakeholders. 

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

I have had strong female friends all my life and have loved the support and helpful critique that they have given me.  In insurance, my CRO at Prudential UK, Marcia Cantor-Grable, gave me lots of opportunities and helpful advice.

More recently, I met Lorna Fitzsimmons and Margaret McDonagh who are a constant inspiration and determined to help women meet their potential. They founded The Pipeline [a consultancy focused on diversity and inclusion].

How can the sector encourage the next generation of women to work in insurance?

I think the industry still uses technical language to describe itself which is off-putting to many people.  I think we could focus on the connection to social purpose and the range of roles to encourage people outside of the normal pools to join insurance. Leadership programmes, such as the flagship development programme run by Phoenix Group, as well as role-modelling and shining a light on our high-performing women also helps.

I came to the insurance industry after 20 years of work and I think we could have better adult recruitment and “returner” programmes. People lose their confidence about being able to make a contribution when they have been out for a while, so we need to find ways to bring them back into firms supportively. 

Phoenix Group
Zoe Shapiro