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Women in insurance: May the best (wo)man win

Source: Asia Insurance Review | Mar 2015

There are equal opportunities for men and women to develop their careers in the insurance industry, but sometimes women still face some inherent societal challenges. Six female leaders speak about their experiences and offer advice to those who are new to the industry.
By Benjamin Ang
The (re)insurance industry has proven to be one where gender equality triumphs and performance and expertise are rewarded. 
“I don’t think all these years my gender has affected my career in any way, either positive or negative,” said Mrs Alice Vaidyan, General Manager, GIC Re. 
For Ms Margrit Schmid, CEO of Swiss Life Network & Senior Vice President, Swiss Life, she said that while she had been confronted some times during her career with gender-related issues, she stressed that she has also experienced very strong support from both men and women throughout her career. And that support was not based on her gender but on her performance, experience and expertise. 
Ms Susan Loftus, CEO of AIG Vietnam said: “I never felt I needed to make gender a defining issue in my career, either positively or negatively. I’d like to think I have been astute in understanding how to succeed in business by using a combination of my skills and brainpower effectively, and building a strong network of influential men and women.”
The woman advantage
In fact, rather than being a hindrance, women have traits suitable for the industry. Ms Dora Wong, Chief Financial Officer, QBE Asia Pacific, said: “Many women are born with good listening skills and have a good eye for detail. These natural gifts give us better advantages to build careers in the insurance industry, where insurance products can be very technical, and good listening skills are required to understand and fulfil customers’ needs.”
“If I look back at my career, my gender being a woman has helped to add to the diversity of thoughts and ideas at work,” Ms Sharon Ooi, Managing Director, Client Markets Asia and Head of P&C Reinsurance, SID, Swiss Re, said.
Dr Suzanne Corona, Head of Natural Perils, ACR Capital Holdings said: “In certain situations, I believe that as women tend to be more dedicated to what we do, this can actually be advantageous for us, as women get identified for and are placed in jobs, roles, opportunities that can leverage our qualities.” 
The “Super-woman”
While ample opportunities present themselves for professional development and growth in the industry, there are challenges in juggling society’s expectations of the traditional role of a woman as the main care-taker at home and her career. 
“There are still stereotypes which exists that expect working mothers to be a ‘super-human’ and do it all. Balancing work life and family is difficult and I only succeed as I have a good familial support structure with my husband, parents and extended family. I still make mistakes at home and at work but I learn from them more than regret them,” said Ms Ooi. 
“Despite the fact that we balance our career with our responsibilities as a home-maker, I feel it is unjustified to expect sensitivity towards your family demands, as it is unprofessional to give any excuses for womanhood at the workplace.
Neither do I share Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi’s view that ‘a woman can’t have it all’. After all, it is up to us working women to draw strength from family and support systems and develop our own coping mechanisms,” said Mrs Vaidyan.
Ms Wong said: “I do not see a glass ceiling to progress in my career because of my gender. However, I do see the requirement for mobility may potentially limit my career progression or choice, particularly in multinational companies where senior managers tend to rotate between roles and across geographies. Then, it boils down to choices that I need to make with consideration of my own career development, as well as that of my spouse and the family as a whole.”
Challenge for both men and women
This mobility challenge is not one that is attributable only to gender, it is a typical work-family balance that both men and women have to deal with. 
Ms Wong said that many times, one has to make decisions on career development with consideration of the family, and this is the same decision that men need to make at some point of their career paths as well.
“Everyone, male or female, married or single, has their own challenges and need different types of support to succeed at work and outside of work,” Ms Ooi concurred. 
Women in management
If there is gender equality in the industry, why then are leaders still mostly males? 
To answer this question, Mrs Vaidyan said there is a need to understand why there are so few women in the leadership pipeline. “Is it because the more senior leadership roles are not as appealing to them as they are to men?” 
Quoting that a 2012 McKinsey study showed that a bigger job or greater title did not hold the same appeal or serve as strong an aspiration for women, Mrs Vaidyan said: “In many cases, the importance of work-family balance – especially motherhood – outweighs the leadership opportunities being offered. If this is true, then women must assess for themselves their personal and professional goals and understand that everything is a choice.” 
Organisational support
“We see a good number of women in the junior roles but the number drops at the higher levels of the corporate hierarchy,” said Ms Wong.
“If organisations can introduce more working-mother friendly policy, for example, flexible work arrangements such as work from home, part-time roles, remote access tools, and sabbatical leave, these would definitely encourage more women to stay or return to the job market when their family responsibilities are fulfilled,” she added. 
One of the best ways leaders can foster gender equality in the workplace is by cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Mrs Vaidyan said: “We need to look at the organisational barriers that deny women positions. These barriers could be systemic and might include hiring and promotion processes that favour men, inflexible hours or similar work condition policies that penalise women who – as a group – often accept more family responsibilities than men. Removing these barriers is how you build confidence and enable your best and brightest young women to become great leaders.”
Stepping up to the plate
While an open, gender neutral and transparent approach is a must when deciding nominations for management positions, more living examples, role models and success stories will also foster women’s belief in their own capabilities and give them the necessary self-confidence to step forward for management positions, said Ms Schmid. 
“It cuts both ways,” said Ms Ooi. The industry should promote diversity in the workforce and ensure that it is measured by the right KPIs to show that this measure is truly supported. “However, women should also put their hands up and go for management positions even if they feel they are not 100% ready.”
Times are a-changing 
Changes are already in store. Dr Corona said: “Depending on the market, women are increasingly taking up senior positions. The positive note is that the (re)insurance industry is opening up more and more to women. As an industry, we firstly need to attract talent who are dedicated to advancing our knowledge base and I’ve observed much of these talent are women. It is therefore most important that we can provide the career paths of these talents, so that they can see where they are going in the industry.” 
And more than just in relation to integrating more women in management positions, Ms Schmid said that having out of the box and creative settings which take into account various family and life patterns will become more and more the norm – not only in relation to integrating more women in management positions but also in relation to generations Y and Z entering management level. 
And it perhaps is not just an industry issue, but one where the right principles have to be fostered at home and in society. As Ms Loftus shared: “I grew up with four brothers and a sister – my parents believed in gender equality and I played sports with the boys all the time. And I got in trouble just as much as they did! So I grew up without the negative thinking that women cannot be as capable as men in the workplace.”


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