Allies need to step up in insurance's diversity and inclusion movement

Leaders from the industry sound off on the changes still needed

Allies need to step up in insurance's diversity and inclusion movement

Insurance News

By Alicja Grzadkowska

This year will go down in history as one that has brought issues of systemic racism, equality, and diversity sharply into focus, after decades of injustice in the United States against marginalized groups. During a panel at the Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association’s (WSIA) 2020 Annual Marketplace, experts agreed that in the insurance industry, there’s been a lot of positive movement forward on issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I), but there’s also a lot more work to be done, particularly when it comes to peers standing up for other peers in the workplace.

“If we had enough allies [in insurance], we probably wouldn’t be having such a detailed conversation at this point, and we would have been much further along,” said Richie Henry, managing director and CIO, US Insurance IT, Markel. “As allies, when you see something and you know it’s not right, you should say something about it, especially if you’re in an authoritative position within the organization.”

One of the obstacles to pushing D&I forward has been colleagues not understanding why it’s important to be an ally, added another panelist, and, in turn, they have not often volunteered to join the D&I discussion on their own.

As a result, “I think that we have to go out and speak to people and ask for their support, share our experiences, and make the first step,” said Oveta Mitchell, VP, AXIS Insurance, noting that allies are needed, “especially in the boardrooms and at the C-suite levels, but I don’t think that we have them yet and depending on the organization, you could have less allies and you may not have enough programs or initiatives that are in place to support you.”

Nonetheless, there have also been signs of progress in the insurance industry, and the last four months have been particularly momentous in sparking important conversations about representation, as they have “laid bare the systemic inequalities that permeate the lives and livelihood of African Americans each and every day in this country,” noted moderator Janet Jordan-Foster,  EVP – insurance, AXIS and the incoming chair of the National African American Association (NAAIA). “Across the country, people finally acknowledge that the status quo is unacceptable. Leaders far and wide are leaning in and listening to the frustrations, anxieties, experiences, and aspirations of their African American employees – all in an effort to drive changes within their organizations.”

Many of the leaders on the panel remembered a time not so long ago when D&I wasn’t even part of the conversation. For example, Kevin Davis, senior executive VP, Worldwide Facilities, joined the insurance industry in the late-1970s when affirmative action was in place. As a result, there were many African Americans who were branch managers, unit managers, operation managers, and senior underwriters at insurance companies, and he had people he could relate with and talk to.

This period lasted for a short 10 years and by 1986, he explained, “We hit our ceiling, and we started seeing people that were younger than us … starting to pass us by, so we all left” to work for themselves or for smaller companies. In contrast, today, there’s way more resources in place to support diverse employees.

“The support system of employee resource groups is an amazing turn of events,” said Davis, adding that he now has somewhere to point people if they want to have mentors and support as they advance in their careers.

Markel’s Henry likewise remembered when the 1990s ‘pulled out the rug’ from the D&I conversation, which started to come back into the forefront of insurance companies’ minds in the 2010s. “There’s a drastic difference from the 1990s to where we are right now – that not only are we having a discussion, but we’re having a discussion that is on topics that one would have never thought about bringing up in corporate America,” he explained.

As for what’s needed to continue driving D&I forward and bringing about actual change in the industry, panelists sounded off on the importance of key leadership qualities that help to establish trust and implement decisive action. These characteristics include having a sense of awareness and empathy, as well as courageousness, and being led by someone who is willing to do what’s right, even when it’s not comfortable. One panelist also pointed to the role that brokers play in driving equal representation forward.

“I do believe with this movement, brokers will really be able to take the lead … based on where we are in the chain, as far as being closer to the insured,” said Terrence Meade, specialty property broker, AmWINS. “I think of it in simplistic terms, where I say you have a bus and it’s heading to a destination. To me, D&I is not about changing the destination of the bus. To me, D&I is about opening the door to let more diverse people on the bus to help navigate, because studies have shown diverse groups could help that bus move even faster to that destination.”

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