The conversation about women in the workplace never ends. A scathing report by Bloomberg a few weeks ago about the existence of an ‘old boys club’ in Lloyd’s of London showed that we still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and equality. What about Asia? We talked to several women in insurance in Asia to get their opinion on how women are treated in the workplace, focusing on four markets – Singapore, Indonesia, India and Australia.
Technology is the great equaliser, said Milliman principal and consulting actuary Wen Yee Lee. “Taking on a senior executive role used to require long hours in the office and a lot of time travelling, a difficult choice for women who planned to raise children. With advances in technology, it’s more feasible for us to take our work home while putting in the required amount of effort and we no longer have to travel as much. This makes it feasible for us to strike a balance between work, in a senior role, while spending time raising a family which often was huge factor in preventing us to pursue our careers beyond a certain point.”
Ms Lee also said that it’s probably easier to take on more challenging roles in Singapore, even after having children, which is a common impediment for women. “I have an easily accessible network of family I can rely on, I have a helper so it’s possible for me to spend the necessary time and focus on the job at hand,” she said.
Further, the cost of living in Singapore means that women were not just ‘allowed’ to work, they often need work to maintain a decent level of household income. Family then becomes an economical and reliable alternative for childcare.
Maintaining a balance
Juggling work and family is an issue for women all across the globe. Prudential Indonesia’s chief customer officer Ms Evelyne Mirna Kusumowidagdo added that women face a unique challenge in balancing home and office life, being both caregivers and financial providers to their families, and seeking career advancement while fulfilling their family responsibilities.
In many societies around the world, women have transitioned into becoming primary breadwinners for the family, alongside their role of primary caregiver – however, most men have not adopted the role of primary caregiver alongside their role of primary breadwinner. Some experts maintain that until there is equality achieved in the home, there will not be equality in the office.
Ms Evelyne noted that Prudential will soon be adding daycare facilities to support their employees in achieving a more balanced work-life scenario.
“I believe every role demands extremely high levels of commitment and some others even more, especially in a start-up ecosystem, be it in insurance or elsewhere. If one is fully aware and is on board, the gender topic should not matter,” said Digit Insurance head of operations Ms Meena Chinnappa, based in India.
“At Digit we embrace diverse backgrounds, experience and culture and provide equal opportunities. Transparency and challenging the status-quo are our guiding principles. I have not come across differential treatment on basis of gender and there is no gender disparity, “she said.
“Things have improved by leaps and bounds in the Indian corporate sector, including the insurance industry. Gender diversity is today actively encouraged and currently a significant portion of the workforce in the Indian insurance industry is represented by women,” said IFFCO Tokio General Insurance executive vice president and head of IT Ms Seema Gaur.
“Yes, there are certain areas that still need more thought and attention. Continuation of work post marriage when women move to a different location with the husband. Similarly, continuing work post-childbirth needs to be seriously considered and looked into.”
In Ms Lee’s experience and observations, women in some markets like Australia may not have the same options as those in Singapore. The lack of an easily accessible support network and the high cost of childcare means that they may need to often make a choice between a progressive career path and raising a family.
So even though the opportunity may exist within the organisation to grow they may be unable to do so for a certain period in their life. Career gaps will make it harder for women to come back after their kids have grown, into more senior roles in the industry.
In Singapore or Indonesia for example, extended families tend to live closer together (and Singapore is so small that everyone lives close together), which allows for working mothers to receive childcare support from family members. In Australia, however, especially in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, families live further away, which makes day-to-day childcare aid unfeasible, and thus, they leave the workforce in order to raise their children.
This has led to a knock-on effect where Australian companies are looking for these women to return to the workforce, but they are reluctant to, as they feel they have been left behind and have been out of the working environment for too long.
One solution lies in Australian firms providing more avenues for more affordable childcare, although it is a wider societal issue that has no easy fix. However, there has been a significant change for women in Australia over the past five years.
Actuaries Institute Australia director Nicolette Rubinzstein said “As a result of publishing a book in this area, I have been invited to present at a large number of workplaces. I have seen a lot of positive momentum and much has changed in the last five years. I know this because some premises in my book are now out-of-date! A simple example is flexible work arrangements. When I wrote the book, flexible work arrangements were a privilege, something that had to be earned. Now, almost 70% of companies have a flexible work policy, with some companies having gone as far as saying that any job can be done flexibly.
“However, I have also seen a wide spectrum of work situations. On entering a workplace, it is surprising how quickly the gender diversity situation becomes apparent. It can be judged from things like number of women in the leadership team, how prevalent part-time work is and level of CEO emphasis on diversity.”
She added: “One of the most encouraging moments was when I asked a group of female Actuaries Institute members whether they thought they had equal opportunity in the workplace. I’m happy to report that the majority thought they had. Although only anecdotal, this lends further support to the premise that actuarial workplaces are generally supportive environments for women.”
Equality of opportunity
The women we talked to in Singapore could easily agree that there were plenty of equal avenues for advancement up the insurance corporate ladder, and that the culture in Singapore did not discriminate. Nor did the men they worked with fall victim to a ‘boy’s club’ attitude, full of crass jokes and impolite behaviour.
“There is a strong commitment for diversity and inclusion that comes from the top. When I worked at AIG in Singapore, they were really adamant to ensure balance in terms of gender for the executive committee – and it was really well done,” said Microsoft’s APAC head of risk, Ms Aurélie Saada. “This does not mean that they promoted only women, but it meant that they gave women a voice and avenue to grow.”
Similarly, the Indian insurance industry is working to weed out pre-existing biases and abolish stereotypes regarding gender diversity. The industry today appreciates that every person, irrespective of gender, brings something of value to the table, and by optimising inherent skills, leads to greater productivity at work.
Gender is not important, it is more about skillsets
Bajaj Allianz General Insurance head retail health, personal accident and travel underwriting Dr Rashmi Nandargi said, “Contrary to the perception that the Indian insurance industry is a male dominated sector, it is an actively gender diverse industry.
“I joined Bajaj Allianz after 6-years in clinical practice with minimal knowledge of insurance. Today, I have grown into an experienced underwriter through training and support from seniors,” said Dr Nandargi.
“If I take the couple of years that I have now spent in the Indian insurance industry, as my reference point, I don’t think gender is a factor for one who fits the bill. It is more about the availability of the skillsets,” said Ms Chinnappa.
Ms Gaur said, “Many of our innate qualities make us (women) a preferred choice for the insurance industry. We, as women, are more empathetic as well as good in networking. Our ability to multitask has helped us excel in important departments such as underwriting and operations.”
The insurance industry has realised that productivity can be enhanced through a gender diverse and inclusive workforce agenda.
The notion that some roles are cut out for just one gender is a great fallacy.
Dr Nandargi said, “Today right from being an insurance agent to an actuary, women are present across the value chain. Our industry provides the perfect environment for women to work in all roles.”
“Also, there is no one work profile that is favoured by women. With the opportunity that the sector provides and the growth potential it offers, women are exploring all options rather than restricting themselves to one profile,” she said.
Ms Chinnappa said, “I think barring claims, I see a good gender mix around. The reason being, majority of the claims are motor related and there are fewer women who are technically qualified in this portfolio.
“I think it is a matter of time before we see a lot more women taking an interest in the automotive industry, hence academically opting for courses such as mechanical engineering, which hitherto was predominantly male dominated. I am sure very soon we will see a healthy gender mix in claims as well.”
Ms Gaur said, “With their ability to multitask, women have excelled in all important departments including underwriting, data analytics and claims settlement too.”
Changes still need to be made
However, this does not mean that all problems have been solved and Asia is a bastion of equality and diversity. While many insurers in Singapore push for greater diversity, a move that is accepted and welcomed by the majority of the Singaporean workforce, there are still differences in the way women operate and the way men operate that can create some friction.
“Women tend not to ask for help when they need it,” Ms Saada said. “They carry on with their task and assume that people can pick up on the fact that they need help. Men are more direct communicators, so they will ask for assistance and get it.”
The conversation is not just about basic differences between men and women, but how people communicate in general. “There needs to be more training and thought put into improving communication across the board,” she said.
Ms Lee’s experience has been slightly different . “I feel women in Singapore are more likely to be expressive, both on issues affecting their demographic within the customer base and on any concerns they might have in the workplace. Simultaneously, with women more involved in consumer decision making and a large proportion of the consumer base, companies that are keen to grow, actively encourage participation and contribution by both genders.
Dr Nandargi said, “Bajaj Allianz GIC emphasises the fact that employees are the biggest asset of a company and employees are what build and sustain a company. We have an open environment that encourages honest and frank discussions to achieve the goals set out.
“There are ample opportunities for women in the insurance industry, which is consistently growing. The career prospects that this industry offers them are humungous. Companies are offering sufficient flexibility for women to handle both fronts – family as well as work,” she added.
Opportunity, of course, must be seized. “I believe only those who cut the mustard stay the course. We have so many examples of major positions filled by women.” said Ms Chinnappa.
Ms Gaur said, “Today women no more work out of compulsion. She is no more stepping out because she needs to support or supplement the family income. Today’s Indian woman wants to be financially independent and empowered.”
Indonesia is also seeing a surge of women in senior and middle-management roles, said Ms Evelyne. “Women have an important role to play as the need for insurance protection grows among the female population in Asia,” she said. “We are committed to equal treatment of all employees, and providing everyone with the opportunity to achieve professional success and contribute to our business. We want to build a business our people can shape, a place where their ideas are valued and a culture where we can thrive together.”
She added that the company has increased its focus on gender-balanced shortlists for hiring and recruitment processes have also been reviewed to ensure our clear commitment to equal opportunity is reflected in all job ads internally and externally.
Insurance is a social business. The image of a group of men in a drinking establishment after hours, which eventually leads to a deal being closed, is a popular one. In many of those images, there are no women to be seen.
Ms Saada says that this ‘after hours’ culture still exists in Southeast Asia. “It is a usual culture for people in the insurance business – especially on the sales side – to cultivate relationships after hours, typically in social areas such as bars. Women tend to not favour the same type of client engagement, both due to social preferences but also family commitment: spending time after work hours is not really a choice they will make”
The social aspect of the business has also led to the men within the office to form closer bonds, especially between junior and senior members of staff. This then leads to unofficial, personal mentorships, that give the junior male employee a leg up over his peers. One of the women we interviewed, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “It’s quite typical of any industry really. And I think it doesn’t happen between women, because the women who are in senior positions are too focused on proving themselves to their male peers, and so they do not have the time or inclination to mentor someone.”
In order to combat this issue – or at least, to help younger women find their own path up the ladder – is mentorship programmes. However, Ms Saada believes companies need to be careful while designing it, as sometimes these types of programmes do not really work. “They can appear as forcing the employee to select a mentor with who they don’t have much interaction with. The learning might be then top – down, very hierarchic. In such a case,they are not organic and do not really benefit either party.”
Ms Saada is also the president of Primetime, a business and professional women’s association. “What we do at Primetime is a two-way mentoring programme, where members are paired with each other based on complementary interests and they share same goal for mutual growth and knowledge. The goal is for both women to teach each other, and it becomes a more equal relationship,” she said.
Ms Lee, however, had a male colleague as her own mentor. “I think it is not really a gender divide but a personal preference. There are some men and women who are happy to commit the time and energy to mentor a junior, while there are some who do not.”
She added that people who are looking for mentors do not necessarily need to go out of their way to mingle and socialise after hours. “Mentorship can work on the job if there is adequate communication between the mentor and the mentee. Naturally as you grow within the organisation, you have to be able to take on the new challenges senior roles bring which go beyond just technical competence. Proving you can do the job, that you are the best person for the job, is enough for organisations to support your career path,” she said.
Dr Nandargi said, “If you are willing to work hard enough and consider insurance as a serious career option and invest your time, organisations are willing to do the same for you. They don’t differentiate here on any basis, including gender.”
Ms Chinnappa had the final word, “I can say with all humility, we don’t stick it out to get accepted. We stick it out because we graciously endure challenges and thrive, be it at home or back at work or both.”
The culture of tomorrow
With more millennials and Gen Z joining insurance, the industry has to adapt its culture to accommodate them. Of course, different generations working together also helps promote creativity and add intelligence to product development.
Ms Gaur said, “We walk that extra mile to ensure a smooth onboarding process in spite of the challenges the women of these young generations face. Young women generally face the challenge of bringing up a child along with taking care of the family. Given the situation, most of the companies now provide flexible working hours along with nursery facilities to support them.”
“We also ensure that they do not stay late in the office and if at times exigencies require, we ensure their safe and secure travel,” she added.
“Millennials offer fresh perspective and their exposure to information, data and new perspectives is highly valuable. They help provide a perspective in understanding the needs of their peers and introduce products and services that suit them best,” said Dr Nandargi.
Ms Chinnappa said, “Millennials are millennials, whichever gender they identify with. They want to keep the work environment interesting and don’t like the mundane. Remuneration in our industry is also on par with other industries. The millennials are attracted to something when they feel they are a part of a cause or organisation which pushes the boundaries.”
To make the most of the evolving workplace dynamics, upskilling managers to handle a generationally diverse workforce is vital in promoting a positive work culture. A