There is no excuse for sexism in insurance. There is no excuse for sexism anywhere, but sadly, it recently reared its ugly head on a very public stage for the insurance industry.
On Monday, May 9, Aviva Plc’s annual shareholder meeting made global headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the FTSE 100-listed firm’s first in-person annual shareholder meeting since the start of COVID-19, Amanda Blanc, Aviva’s first female chief executive officer (CEO), faced multiple offensive and blatantly sexist remarks.
One unnamed investor said Blanc isn’t “the man for the job” while lamenting that her commentary on Aviva’s financial performance did not match the insurer’s share price performance in the past decade.
A different shareholder questioned whether Blanc – a champion of the UK government’s Women in Finance initiative, aimed at urging firms in the City of London to commit to boosting gender diversity – should be “wearing trousers”.
A third investor chose to draw upon the outdated and belittling adage of “women belong in the kitchen,” stating: “[Women] are so good at basic housekeeping activities, I’m sure this will be reflected in the direction of the board in future.” This investor was likely alluding to the fact that four out of 10 Aviva board members are female.
FLABBERGASTED. That was the word used by Aviva board chair George Culmer to describe his reaction to the sexist comments aimed at Blanc. I could not agree more.
As a young female professional who looks up to business leaders and trailblazers like Blanc, I was completely dumbfounded by the blatant lack of respect for the chief executive at one of the world’s largest insurers. If it is trousers these investors really care about, Blanc has earned her trousers and more (not that one should ever have to earn the right to wear trousers).
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Annual shareholder meetings are an important platform for investors to probe into an organisation’s performance, its direction, and its leadership – all with the aim of protecting and maximising their return on investments.
The behaviour displayed by Aviva’s rogue investors was not constructive. Their sexist comments were never going to elicit rapturous applause from fellow shareholders or the industry. Rather, they left an ugly stain on the event, and they dragged the discussion of sexism in finance back to the surface.
Unfortunately, the insurance industry is no stranger to sexism scandals. In 2019, a Bloomberg investigation uncovered evidence of endemic sexual harassment at Lloyd’s of London, the world’s oldest insurance market, including inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, and sexual assault.
This sparked major outcry and forced the entire industry to turn its eye inward and assess how systemic the issue of sexism was and what needed to be done to fix it. I believe the industry has made significant progress with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) since 2019 – but this Aviva AGM incident feels like a major step backwards.
Blanc’s reaction to the sexist comments was telling. In a post on LinkedIn, she said that after working in the financial services industry for more than 30 years she was “pretty used to sexist and derogatory comments,” although she admitted that the public nature of these comments was a new development for her personally.
She wrote: “I guess that after you have heard the same prejudicial rhetoric for so long though, it makes you a little immune to it all. I would like to tell you that things have got better in recent years but it’s fair to say that it has actually increased - the more senior the role I have taken, the more overt the unacceptable behaviour.”
It is so disappointing to read that in 2022 – and to read it from someone who has been such an influential insurance leader and role model. Luckily for the industry, Blanc is not afraid to talk about it and I admire her strength in response to the incident. Only with strong leadership can the industry wipe out sexism.
One can only hope that, in this case, the guilty parties spent too much time in isolation throughout COVID-19 and they lost touch with the times, where women can in fact lead companies, wear trousers, and thrive outside of the kitchen. Regardless, acknowledging and tackling the problem of sexism in insurance are important issues that deserve all the attention they get.