How choosing to challenge can create opportunities for equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace
Businesswoman and former CEO of Lloyd’s of London, Dame Inga Beale, was the keynote speaker at this year’s Joan Woodward Memorial Lecture Series, celebrating International Women’s Day. We were delighted to speak with her about her experience of breaking glass ceilings, as Lloyd's first woman CEO in the insurance market's 328-year history, and building inclusive environments at work.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “a challenged world is an alert world”. What does that mean to you?
I know that one of the most challenging times in my professional life brought about a change for me that opened my eyes to another world and another way of doing things. I think of it as turning challenge into opportunity.
You started work in the insurance industry as the only woman underwriter in a team of 35 men in the 1980s. What was it like to work in a male-dominated environment in those days?
I just felt I didn’t belong, that I was different, and I so wanted to be one of the “guys” that I found myself adopting male behaviours to fit in and feel more accepted. Looking back I realise that anger was building up in me although I wasn’t really aware of it at the time.
Did your employers have gender-based expectations of you? How did you challenge these?
There were certain dress-code requirements for women, but often it wasn’t the employer expecting things of you [that was the problem] but rather what they didn’t expect. Not expecting to promote you or that you should be in line for a certain role. Early on in my career I wasn’t so good at challenging these things, I just walked away. One time I left the City of London and thought I had put the world of insurance behind me forever. I returned a year later but this time with different expectations of myself.
We are now in a time when the world expects equity, diversity and inclusion in all aspects of life. How can organisations play their part and ensure these do not become mere buzzwords but are embedded in an organisation’s culture?
Many organisations have started late but any organisation truly committed to this can make progress. First of all start with the data and report on your current situation. See where you have a problem and focus on a few key areas. Create some targets you’re aiming for to force something to change and measure against them. Start building a pipeline – proactively include women and those from under-represented groups and give them the tailored support required.
You did a lot of work in implementing a culture of inclusion in your role as CEO of Lloyd’s. What were the main challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
The main challenge was to convince people about the need to change the culture. This needed a combination of hard facts around building the case for diverse teams and then moving onto why an inclusive culture is so important for improving productivity. Many people don’t understand the need for it, or they perhaps feel threatened. To convince them otherwise takes time and persistence.
Working mothers, Black, Asian and minority ethnic women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities especially face distinct challenges in the workplace, which has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. What can companies/employers do better support these groups of women?
Include these women in the conversation so that you understand what is needed for them. Don’t make any assumptions that you know what is best. Based on their input, provide things that will ease their life to enable them to fully participate at work, particularly if more home working will be the norm. Ensure the working environment really does offer flexibility in terms of organising the way of work to suit someone’s particular circumstances.
According to a report by McKinsey & Company on impact of the pandemic on working women, 1 in 4 women have contemplated downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely, which presents a real risk to having more women leaders in the future. How can companies better support employees most impacted by the crisis and create more opportunities for women to succeed in the long term?
I’m a firm believer in development programmes created for women as well as ensuring that there are support networks or Employee Resource Groups that women can tap into. There was nothing more motivating for me than to air my troubles with a group of women who are experiencing similar things – the energy and courage we give each other just by talking can make a huge difference.
You once mentioned in an interview that low self-confidence was a barrier to you accepting a promotion. How did you overcome this and what advice do you give other women in similar situations?
I attended a course designed just for women – “Assertiveness for Women”. I’ve no idea if such courses still exist but it was very helpful for me when I refused my first promotion at work in the early 90’s. I also had a mentor who helped me talk through and remove the barriers that I had put up for myself.
What do you think are keys to breaking the glass ceiling for women in workplaces?
Believe in your ability – focus on what you’re good at and don’t dwell too much on aspects you want to improve.
Consider all the PIE elements – your Performance, your Image and your Exposure – strategically work on your networking.
Prioritise yourself over others every now and then – we’re far too good at putting others first.
Which current issues are closest to your heart right now?
There has been a huge surge in violence against women and girls during the pandemic and the increase in both domestic and economic abuse concerns me a lot. Financial independence for women is an important step forward and we are making some progress. I am also focused on increasing the number of female CEOs particularly amongst the FTSE 100 companies – the highest this ever reached was seven percent and that was in 2019.