Shobha Sah

Principal Officer and Managing Director,

Amicus Insurance Broking Co. Pvt. Ltd.

  • The need for more women leaders in insurance

Insurance sector worldwide employs more women than men. Statistics-wise women comprise 60% of the workforce in insurance. However, women in leadership positions the world over, are lamentably, in minority. There is obviously a gender bias in all sectors of employment and not just in insurance as far as senior positions and board seats are concerned. There is a need, greater than ever, to make things more equitable for women.

This is something that starts with generating awareness and bringing the stakeholders together to discuss and debate the matter. The present conclave is a step in this direction, there is no doubt. There are many competent women leaders in the Indian insurance sector, who can prove to be transformative if only conducive environment is available to them. The questions that such a conclave is seized of are many: ways in which the entire industry can benefit if women in senior positions multiply, are there biases that women in the industry have to grapple with and how to remove them, is there an invisible glass ceiling and how to equip talented women leaders to break through it, do salary gaps exist and how to level these.

 Of course the most important issue apart from all these issues is appropriate mentoring and nurturing of talented women employees to take leadership roles.

We know that gender diversity in workplace is a great thing. In traditional societies like India women participation in workforce falls short. Women leaders are needed in greater numbers here to still confidence and encourage others to join the workforce. These leaders provide the much needed mentoring to their juniors through their career path. A sterling example of what mentoring can achieve is the Indian banking industry. Sagacious mentoring of a handful of talented women by the great banker Mr Kamath at ICICI had sown the seeds that have flowered now. Indian banking sector now has a plethora of women in leadership roles due to successive and successful mentoring. The examples are too many to enumerate here.

Women leaders bring different skills to the table. In today’s ever-changing work environment, leaders who can multi-task command a great deal of premium. A leader’s plate is full with planning, organizing and supervising all at once along with dealing with unexpected issues. Women are a natural at multi-tasking, they handle various duties and responsibilities at home with ease. Centuries of conditioning has gone into development of the skill set needed for multi-tasking. Modern insurance workplace can reap advantage from employing women leaders in large numbers for sure. 

Insurance business to a large extent is a business built on relationships. Women have empathy and are skilled relationship builders. Relationships are at the core of building successful business teams. These qualities of empathy and relationship building in women leaders help organizations achieve more success in realizing their business goals.

Good leaders are great communicators. Effective communication skills are non-negotiable for success in business. Women are known to be good communicators as well as competent negotiators. Insurance business rests on building of networks, clear communication with clients and other stake holders and skillful negotiations. Women leaders excel in these roles and really enrich the sector with their presence.

  • How to increase the number of women leaders in insurance, considering their presence is so salutary?

Some steps need to be taken now, that will show positive results in future.

The first step begins at recruitment itself. The insurance industry needs to convince young college graduates that insurance sector believes in diversity and that their recruitment process is formal, not based on personal relationships. Only then it can hope to hire bright minds having technological and creative spark so needed now and in future. More women with science and technology (STEM) background should be hired. Equally importantly, liberal arts majors should find place in the insurance sector as they have necessary skills for sales, relationship building and logical analysis of problems. A conscious strategy to avoid biases in recruitment process also needs to be adopted. Hiring women from different backgrounds having different experiences is always a great thing. To implement this, companies need to go to different recruitment sources.

The next step is to put in place an effective mentorship program. Good mentoring throughout the career helps women reach leadership roles faster. They are able to break through hurdles with timely advice. Equally important are sponsors. Sponsors are friends in the organization who help in getting marquee projects and even stating their case for promotion etc. It is in the interest of Indian insurance sector to provide mentors as well sponsors to its talented women officers.

Thirdly, a well thought out strategy is needed to remove road blocks that prevent women from reaching the top. There has been some progress. Insurance sector today has some glittering examples of women leaders: Alice Vaidyan ex CMD of GIC, and Usha Sangwan, ex Managing Director of LIC of India to name a few. Despite these examples, women in leadership roles are still few and far between. Insurance companies need to devise conscious succession planning that is gender diverse and actively choose and prepare meritorious women for these roles. Companies need to negate the cognitive biases of the search teams and promotion committees. They need to demolish the hiring patterns. Normally companies hire leaders from the same background and profile as the earlier ones. This needs to go. Leaders should be chosen based on the role that is needed for success. A match between the skill sets and the role they are being chosen to fulfill should be the sole criteria for their recruitment and not gender. In fact leaders in insurance sector should be made responsible for hiring, sponsoring and mentoring, retaining, promoting women. This would really pave the way for a truly gender neutral workplace. A nurturing ground for future women leaders.

  • Additional factors that deserve our attention

A few other points worth considering that impact women leaders are work culture, remuneration and harassment policies. Companies that promote a work culture respectful of gender equality that is to say an inclusive work culture is a fertile ground for the growth of women leaders. A gender equal work culture depends on gender neutral work policies and practices. Women professionals especially in the private insurance sector do feel unequal to their male counterparts as far as remuneration goes. Mercifully the public sector insurance companies are free of this taint. Private insurers need to introspect and fix remuneration that is incentive and target driven and totally gender neutral. Finally, women at workplace regardless of their roles face the threat of sexual harassment. Women thrive in workplaces that provide a secure space for them to work. A take no prison approach or zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment is totally necessary. Conflict resolution counseling and a good support system along with other effective policies must be put in place. In the event of a complaint, mechanism of instituting a free a fair investigation and redressal are key to win the trust of all women employees including women leaders.

There is no denying that rapid strides have been made in the insurance industry lately. Especially in the younger generation, a lot of women leaders are now working in various capacities. A few names that come to mind are: R M Vishakha, the Chief Business Officer of IndiaFirstLife, Anjana, Vice President-Change Management with IndiaFirst and Rasleen who heads corporate strategy at Policybazaar and other group companies. All of them come with excellent education and diverse experience. The public sector insurance companies have a good pipeline of second rung women leaders and we will see many of them breaching the glass ceiling in the years to come. We can hope for better times as far as women in leadership roles in insurance industry are concerned.                 (About the writer – Shoba Shah has over 37 years’ experience in General Insurance and in Insurance broking. She is an Associate of the Insurance Institute of India. She is Promoter Director of Amicus Brokers (2009). Her areas of interest are Liability insurance, Fine art insurance, insurance law. She is the only broker in India to be included in the Clarendon List (a fine art resource listing).

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