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Starting and growing an insurance brokerage: challenges and rewards for women

15th July 2019 Print

Inequality between women and men is a hot topic right now (think the BBC gender pay-gap row), and rightly so. Across most industries, women face barriers that prevent them from being in senior positions, receiving the same pay as their male counterparts and starting their own businesses. The insurance sector has acknowledged it has a problem, but what exactly are the obstacles faced by women working in insurance?

The challenges faced by women in the workplace

First, there’s overt discrimination: women being judged on their looks rather than their capabilities. Then there’s role stereotyping. Traditionally a woman’s job has been to play a support role to a man, for example, the PA to the senior male manager, and this remains an issue today.

Second, there’s unconscious bias, where we automatically judge and assess people without realising, based on our own backgrounds, cultures and personal experiences. It can influence everything from recruitment to perceptions about how a woman is performing to promotion. Examples are telling sexist jokes, making condescending remarks, not paying women the same as men or providing them with the same opportunities for advancement.

The single biggest challenge women face though, is becoming a mother. Women are judged on attendance during pregnancy, and assumptions are made about care arrangements when a woman returns to work. Fathers also face discrimination at work when they try to get more involved with childcare, meaning mothers are more likely to take time off or work part-time (42% of women work part-time as opposed to men, according to a recent government report).

Beth Clerkin, director of Bloom Insurance told us what happened when she went back to work after having a baby: “Returning to work after having my daughter, things had changed", she said. "I had a smaller area which impacted on my results. I felt increased pressure to prove I was as good as the men and feel I lost valuable parts of my daughter's childhood.

"There are positive changes happening and more females in senior positions. There are still stereotypes about being a woman in business, but not all are bad. In 2018, I established a private client insurance practice based on personal client service. I embrace the female stereotypes in my business – being open, approachable and caring. This doesn’t mean that I am soft, meek or a pushover.”

Add a lack of female role models in the industry and a legacy of senior management not supporting or prioritising gender diversity to the list and you have some big problems to overcome.

Industry support for positive action

The good news is that industry bodies such as the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and the Chartered Institute of Insurers (CII) are pushing for change and leading by example. The ABI has released a report identifying guiding principles and recommendations for tackling the gender seniority gap, while the CII has reduced its mean pay gap by 11.36% in just one year with a targeted action plan.

In 2016, the Women in Finance Charter, a joint initiative between HM Treasury and the Financial Services industry was launched to encourage gender balance across the industry. The British Insurance Brokers Association (BIBA) has signed up, along with several insurers who have all agreed to help improve gender diversity and increase the number of women in senior positions.

The industry is embracing solutions put forward by the Woman in Finance Charter, such as providing transparency around pay and roles, changing recruitment processes to eliminate bias and discrimination, appointing senior managers to champion diversity and inclusion in the workplace and reporting on progress towards internal targets.

Dealing with the challenges – in their own words

Women are also dealing with the challenges they face in the insurance industry by facing them head on. Kate Allison, managing director of Insure Business Services Ltd, a commercial insurance broker, partnered with Momentum Broker Solutions in 2015 to set up her own business, and she hasn’t looked back. She told us: “I’ve been in insurance for 32 years and there is still a bias between women and men, especially in sales and business development, the client-facing roles.

"I had to work harder and prove myself more than the men; I had to be even better. Setting up my own business brought lots of positives: the flexibility and the sense of pride and satisfaction I get from the role. I don’t have to face male bias issues now. Becoming my own boss is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Others are becoming industry role models, using their positions to let others know that holding a senior role in the sector is both possible and rewarding – women like Caroline Fairclough, co-founder and director of Sentio Insurance Brokers, who said: “Having worked in the insurance industry for almost 16 years, I have seen an improvement in gender equality in recent years highlighted by a number of women in senior insurance roles in a sector traditionally dominated by males.

"However, from first-hand experience, I know it’s still an issue. Being a business owner hasn't changed that perception, and I have experienced comments such as 'Do you want to check that with [a male counterpart]?' or 'You don’t look old enough to have your own business!‘

"It’s important to recognise that things are changing culturally within business for the better. I know the insurance industry as a whole is, and will benefit from a change in attitude towards recognising the equal and important contribution made by women, and I am proud about the role I am contributing to this as a local business owner."

According to research carried out by the ABI, 78% of firms now have a diversion and inclusion strategy, and 74% have a member of the senior management team responsible for diversity and inclusion. While it is encouraging to see the industry tackling the challenges faced by women, it’s important to ensure this is not just a box-ticking exercise rather than an active engagement in gender equality.