| Interview conducted by Cécile Faure |
I met Dame Inga Beale before the pandemic, when it was still possible to attend networking events other than through a video-conference platform. An absolute charisma emerges from the lady who observes and smiles, and whose voice and words reflect the care she has for others.
Inga has had an incredible international career in the insurance industry, notably becoming the first female CEO of one of the world’s largest insurance groups. She also found the strength to be open about her bisexuality in her work environment, and has since fought for LGBT’s rights, diversity and inclusion.
We could not dedicate our issue to women without inviting her to contribute, and we are extremely thankful she accepted to converse with us on being a woman in the work environment, on the importance of diversity and inclusion.
From your own experience, Inga, how has the work landscape changed over the years when it comes to women employment? On issues such as sexual discrimination, pay gap, parenting rights, incentive to going back to work, attempt to increase the number of women in leadership position (30% Club, Hampton Alexander Review, etc)
When I started to work in the 80’s, nobody was very focused on whether there needed to be equal numbers of men and women in senior roles. I do not remember it being talked about at all when I started work. There was no specific initiative to promote women. People were not even measuring. It was simply a NON-TOPIC at that time.
I worked in a very male environment. And felt I was very different to the men. I wanted to be one of them, I wanted to be in the boys’ club. So, I took on behaviour I thought they would respect and appreciate to become one of the lads.
And I think it is very different these days. There are so many initiatives to look at rebalancing the number of women in senior positions. Many companies are proactively putting in place development programs, setting targets and having impact bonuses if you do not achieve them. It feels very different to nearly 40 years ago when I started work.
We have seen some progress in terms of more and more women rising up to the ranks, but it still seems very slow. When I think of all the efforts that have been made, we don’t seem to get good enough results for all that efforts. To me, there is still a long way to go.
Obviously, there is now a huge awareness of any discriminations against women, and the #MeToo movement helped in that way to a certain extent as it highlighted then the practices that were going on and it made many senior people get concerned that they should not be associated with activities they could be criticised for. In the UK, the transparency around the gender pay gap has been shocking for some and it helped having data collected and reported.
It is a very complex issue. I am not an expert but I know from the women I spoke to, time and time again, women have left the corporate world because they say “I am not going to put up with it anymore. I want to enjoy my life, I do not want to play politics, I am not going to put up with the negative comments or remarks!”.
There is a whole study being done on microaggressions towards women in the work place by Julia Gillard (2010-2013 Prime Minister of Australia). Those aggressive behaviours are more common towards women than men. Most of the time, the aggressive behaviour is not even clearly discernible, but it has a subconscious impact. If you ask a woman, she may not pin point to a specific event but she simply cannot put up with the atmosphere.
But beyond education and regulation, ‘men are men’ and ‘women are women’, hormones get in the way, and we interact in different manners. We have our own codes. Is it possible and wise to want to erase the differences in gender?
When I worked as CEO at Lloyds, I remember being in a meeting with my male co-chair and another man who reported directly to me. And these two men had a way of communicating together in a kind of schoolboy manner that managed to exclude me, or I felt completely excluded by the way they were talking to each other. And this is the kind of microaggression that is not even possible to describe, and they may not even have been aware that they were doing it.
You are right, we will never get rid of the gender differences, and if we do then we lose the whole point of the importance of diverse teams. We should absolutely respect and appreciate the differences we bring. I do not think we are quite at that stage yet. Women are used to listening to what men bring into the conversation more than men do from women.
I was once told by a chairman to be more forceful and dictate more at board meetings. And I told him that it is not my style, that I like to be more inclusive and ask my team to contribute. But he clearly was expecting me to tell people what to do because that was the kind of attitude he was associating with being a leader.
It is often said that women are their worst advocates when it comes to applying for a position or taking the reins. What do you think? Where does it come from? How can we avoid it if it is true?
I experience it myself. I had been working for twelve years and had not been the manager of anyone. Then my manager called me in and said he wanted to promote me. And I said “No”, because I was not confident enough that I could do the job. At the time I was employed by General Electric, in the insurance division, the Capital side of the business. They wanted to promote women. So, they surrounded me with support, and said “What do you need?” and they gave me a mentor and the training. My mentor, a woman, talked to me, reassured me. Because the company supported me, I gained confidence.
Not all men accept a promotion and feel they have the right to gain it, but in my experience more women than men refuse a promotion when given the opportunity. And if eventually, after a year or two of trying to persuade them they take the challenge, they then realise that they were right to believe in themselves, and would say “Wow, what was I worried about?”. I have seen this a lot.
We have women fighting for women. What about men fighting for women? Are men more involved and changing their attitude?
More and more men are being supportive and active toward helping women. But I have to say that although those changes in education and regulation to stop discrimination towards women are effective, the men are really taking more action if they are touched within their own blood, if their daughter comes back to them one day to say she is the victim of harassment or discrimination.
And the conversation with men has changed also because there are more women expected to go into the work place nowadays than 30 years ago.
Women are indeed encouraged to consider new education and career paths, in particular in STEM. And recently, more and more often, women are said to be more involved in causes that are good for the environment and the society. There are a growing number of articles published on women and their relation to impact investment. What is your view on this?
This is indeed a very interesting issue. I am a member of a few groups actively supporting action in favour of equality, impact, the environment, etc. Prior to Covid, when it was possible to organise meetings, I remember one of the big audit firms was holding meetings on a variety of topics. When I could, I would go to those meetings on topics that would interest me such as on audit, remuneration or technology. Most of the time 80% of the audience was male. Then they held a meeting on Climate Change, where in fact 80% of the audience was female. The men did not bother to come.
Could it be because the return on investment is not as obvious, investment in terms of money or time spent?
It could be indeed that it is perceived differently. My perception is anecdotal, and it is a whole subject in itself. But I feel that women and men do not address money in the same way. Women do not fight so much for money, feel awkward about it, and this can translate in notably in the work environment where they may not be so demanding.
You are an active defender of LGBT rights. Why is it important in the work environment? Why are sexual preferences an issue, or even considered when it comes to employment?
It is a very important issue because still today about 1/3 of employees at work in the UK receive physical or verbal abuse from their colleagues if they are part of the LGBT community.
And again, about 1/3 of students, who have been open about their sexuality and belonging to the LGBT community during their years in education, will go back in the closet and be shy about it when they go into the work place. Their productivity is then up to 30% lower than those who are upfront on their sexual preferences.
I had been for many years in the closet, and when I finally chose to come out, I felt much more energetic, much more powerful. My whole life was richer because I was not scared anymore to say the wrong thing. I came out in 2008, relatively late in my career, and it made such a difference into my life.
So, from my own experience and from the statistics, it does indeed make it an important topic and we should allow people to be out about their sexuality at work should they want to be, and then they should be protected.
When you came out, it liberated you. Did it change how people behave towards you?
In the work environment, all is not about work. We are not machines. We interact and share detail of our personal lives. After the weekend, we may ask each other what we did. Someone who is not “out” at work will then try to avoid all kind of personal conversation, will withdraw from social interaction and isolate themselves.
By having conversations about the topic with people at work, people can gain a better understanding why some comments can be hurtful. The words used change, the comments change. People become more accepting and the life for the gay person becomes more normal in the office.
So, what needs to be done, beyond regulation, as we are talking about human interactions here?
The legal protection is there. What we have to crack next is the behaviour and comments. We need to get to understand why people behave in the wrong way towards others they see different.
I don’t know how to change that other than through EDUCATION and UNDERSTANDING.
For instance, when we launched the first DIVE IN Festival at Lloyd’s (an annual festival of diversity and inclusion over 3 days in September), I organised a meeting of about 30 CEOs of large insurance organisations, who happened to be all male. At some point it was asked “What do you think is the biggest barrier to why you are not hiring more diverse teams?”. And the excuse, the word that most men gave, was “TIME”. By that, they meant that they would have to get out of their network, it would require them to allocate more time to understand that person who would be different from them, be it a woman, someone with a sexual preference other than theirs, from another community, etc.
Data and statistics are crucial to have a proper view on how an organisation is indeed diverse and inclusive. Those questions asked about gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, marital status, etc… you may find in an application form, are very important. They are not there to discriminate against the applicant. They are there to help the employer to understand where one is coming from and what needs to be done to make sure they feel part of the organisation.
Diversity is more than ever a very important topic. We need to get to an inclusive environment to accept people who are different to us!
Interview conducted by Cécile Faure