Diversity in the risk professions – a view from France (full report)

Women often compose a large share of participants at risk management events – at sessions and workshops, as well as among the executives, advisers and sales personnel hosting the exhibitors’ stalls set up by the insurance industry.

It could give the impression gender diversity at least has been achieved in the risk industry. In several countries, including France, most of the people working in the sector are women. But if women are a majority among insurance workers, they still represent a minority among the industry’s leaders.

In France, the latest report by l’Observatoire sur les Métiers et les Formations des Salariés de l’Assurance, a think-tank that deals with labour issues in the sector, found that although women represent almost 60% of all insurance workers, they fill a miserly 27% of all executive positions. Ten years ago, the ratio was an even less impressive 16.6%.

Few statistics are available for risk and insurance managers, but the responses to FERMA’s 2014 European Risk and Insurance Report are curiously similar. Of the 850 risk managers from across Europe who replied, only 27% were women.

FERMA interviewed several leading risk professionals in France on the occasion of the 2015 Rencontres de l’AMRAE to learn their views on gender diversity in the risk management and insurance sectors. The picture that emerged shows that there is progress, but plenty more to be achieved, and many companies have still to put the value of diversity into effect in their business.

Some of their comments:

  • There are few women on the executive committees of most large companies in France, like most other industries.
  • Men are still seen as more natural leaders.
  • Where women do play a leadership role in an insurance business, typically the company is not French.
  • Working practices are not often family friendly.
  • Women may be more risk conscious than male colleagues – good qualities for risk professionals but possibly less valued in candidates for leadership.
  • Informal networks are important.

Slow change

Isabelle Bousquet, Senior Director of Global Business Continuity & Crisis Management at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, believes that not much has changed in terms of parity between men and women in France’s insurance and risk management industries.

“There are still few women in the executive committees of most large companies in France, insurance industry is not much different than other industry,” she said. “Despite progress in the society, it is hard for women to go beyond a certain management level. No woman is a CEO at one of the CAC40 society for instance. In my view, the current situation is progressing more slowly here.”

Ms Bousquet believes that valuing men more than women when it comes to leadership positions is a bias that afflicts the whole economy and is reflected at the highest echelons of the government as well.

“In many countries, women have been chosen as heads of government without much fuss being created because of their gender,” she said. “But this is still creating lots of debate in France. We have had a female prime minister many years ago, and then never again despite an increasing number of very talented women in politics. Women represent half of the population and a majority of highly educated young adults. The executive committees of most of the largest companies as well as highest level of responsibility in ministers do not reflect this fact.”

In fact, according to Ms Bousquet, in the course of their careers women tend to hit a double wall when they work for French companies.

“Age can as well be perceived as negative on the working market in France. In the 1980s, companies have started what was called early retirement layoff plan. Thirty years later, it is becoming very difficult for people over 50 to find a job, and inside companies employees over that age have less access to promotion,” she said.

Ms Bousquet added: “In America, as in other Anglo-Saxons countries, the mentality is completely different, and it is something that surprised me very positively when I was contacted to work at my current company. I was evaluated only for my professional skills and experience. My gender and age were never in question.”

More “diversity” than “diversité

The sheer quantity of women taking leadership positions in insurance companies could lead the casual observer to conclude that the female touch is highly valued by boards in France.

In fact, insurance companies that have hired women for top position in the country tend to share a significant and revelatory characteristic: they are not French.

Women have climbed to the very top of the local subsidiaries of American, Swiss and British insurers. But that is not the case in the largest locally owned firms.

“If a man and a woman are competing for the same job, and their profiles are identical, my personal opinion is that the tendency for French firms still is to choose the man,” said Raïa Faby, the head of technical claims at brokers Gras Savoye. “American or Swiss companies seem to act more objectively in this kind of situation.”

Ms Faby knows the situation well. She has worked for American, Swiss and French companies. She spent a number of years in the reinsurance industry and noted that it is very much a male-dominated environment.

“Definitely, when I moved to a reinsurance company, I moved to a men’s world,” Ms Faby said. “I had to deal with major claims, not only in France but also worldwide, and I was usually the only woman among several claims managers during market meetings. It was a great experience from a technical and legal point of view, but the fact is that reinsurance is a predominantly male world.”

But she has also noticed that the pressures of the job often contribute to keeping women out of the top. Many times they struggle to reconcile long hours with the attention that their families deserve, and companies still have not addressed this issue properly.

“It is more difficult for women to climb up the company’s ladder,” Ms Faby pointed out. “One has to completely forget her family life in order to become a top manager. My personal point of view is that more flexibility (for example allowing working at home) may help women to take top management positions more often.”

Diversity in an evolving business environment

“There are many women working in the insurance industry in France because we have a lot of colleagues in this industry that come from a legal education where women are often predominant,” said Corinne Cipière, the Managing Director at RSA France. “But the proportion is lower at leadership positions. Also, it appears to me that there are probably fewer women in the business at executive committee level within brokers than within insurance companies.”

“Every French company acknowledges the fact that it is important to have a diverse staff at all levels. But moving from the theory to practice has been a hard task,” Ms Cipière said. “There is a cultural factor there which can make it more difficult for women to project themselves into leadership positions, for instance long working hours which create a challenge to conciliate more responsibilities at the company with family life.”

She added: “The main question today is how companies can change their ways so that they can enable women to take more responsibilities. An important step forward, for example, would be to forbid that meetings take place very late in the day. This is the kind of rule that could help staff to balance their professional and family lives, and which would benefit women and men alike.”

In fact, French firms should become more aware that enhancing staff diversity is not a measure to be implemented only to appease calls for gender parity. Ms Cipière stressed that the diversification of backgrounds at leadership positions makes plenty of sense from a business point of view too.

“Diversity empowers companies to react to any to any type of challenges,” said Ms Cipière, who, before taking over at RSA France, was a member of the executive board at Marsh in the country. “Companies that show a higher capacity to adjust to changes and to adapt themselves to new situations often have a mixed, diverse team. Promoting diversity is something that will enhance the performance and efficiency of firms.”

She also believes that, in general, women have a tendency to show more caution and to care more about risks than their male colleagues. And these are qualities for successful risk professionals.

“Good understanding of risks and well-balanced risk taking are in the DNA of our industry,” Ms Cipière said.

The importance of networking

Consultant Béatrice Blanchard Duhayon considers that women can provide invaluable contributions to the risk management profession.

“We have the psychological tools to be at the crossing between the several different areas of a company with which a risk manager needs to work,” she said. “We have the qualities required to convince both operational staff and top managers to do something not by force, but by the use of psychology.”

French companies, however, still need to acknowledge this factor and to entrust more responsibilities to female risk managers. “In the risk management field, there are many women who already have this title in France, but very often they actually work in a team headed by a male risk manager,” she pointed out.

Very often, the culture that prevails in the company prevents competent female professionals to move upwards. “Many women are still inhibited, they doubt whether they will be chosen to take higher responsibilities,” Ms Duhayon said. “It is a matter of showing willingness to do it, but their progress is also sometimes hampered by their bosses. If a male boss has a macho attitude, women will not progress under him.”

Due to their family responsibilities, they also find it more difficult to develop the professional relationships that contribute to the advancement of many professionals in insurance and risk management.

“Women do not take the time required to develop professional networks,” Ms Duhayon said. “After they leave their offices, they do not go to a café or a pub with colleagues. They go back home to take care of their kids.”

In order to help female insurance professionals to change this situation, Ms Duhayon created Pluri’Elle, an association that presses for the equality of women and men in the industry.

Pluri’Elle also promotes events and meetings with the goal of allowing women workers to meet each other and to develop professional relationships.

Ms Duhayon knows well the difficulties of carving a space in a male-dominated industry. She has performed several different tasks in the insurance industry, from helping companies to set up international programmes to working at the European Commission in the restructuring of national insurance sectors in the Balkans.

In the past, she frequently found herself as the only women among dozens of risk professionals around a table. “There was a time when I often went to Germany for meetings,” she recalls. “People called me ‘die Madame,’ as I was always the only woman to be seen in this small world of  industrial risk insurance.”

Heavy industries

Marie-Claude Delaveaud has managed not only to reach a top risk management position at French companies, but she has achieved the feat in a heavy industry, a sector where women have made fewer inroads overall than at others.

Ms Delaveaud is the Director of Risks and Insurance at DCNS, the naval defence group. Despite having a background in law and finance, she decided to dedicate herself to risk management after working at AIG, the insurance firm, and FFSA, France’s association of insurance companies.

It was at FFSA that Ms Delaveaud made contact with some of the professionals who boosted risk management like Thierry Van Santen, who was FERMA President for four years, and former Secretary General Pierre Sonigo. She eventually became herself a pioneer of AMRAE, France’s risk management association.

But her trajectory has been unusual for more than one reason. “There are not many women who work as risk managers in heavy industries,” Ms Delaveaud said. “That is because such industries are a traditional fief of men.”

However, this situation could change. “There is no obstacle for women to work in risk management at heavy industries,” she said. “But it is necessary to have the desire and technical capability to keep up with engineering processes. In my job, I spend roughly 70% of my time dealing with engineering risks, and the rest with insurance and law issues.”

She added: “If there were more female engineers working at heavy industries, we might have more women risk managers in the sector too.” It is estimated that around 25% of the students at France’s schools of engineering are women.

In fact, women are often excluded from positions that require a technical knowledge to the benefit of men. “It is not easy to evaluate whether there are many women working as risk managers in France today,” Ms Delaveaud said. “People often qualify as ‘risk management professionals who are actually managers of insurance programmes, an area where there are indeed plenty of women involved. But when it comes to risk engineering activities, there are not many of us.”

An American view

In the view of Patricia Goudarzi, Director for Sales and Distribution for ACE in Continental Europe, the example set today by female leaders at insurance companies should drive more women to aim higher in their careers.

“Women still have to deal with some assumptions from others about what we want to do in our careers – our mobility for example, said Ms Goudarzi, an American who has lived in France for several years. “If you are married and/or have children, it may be assumed that you will not move to a new city or even new continent to take on another opportunity. So you have to take responsibility and let people know.  You are your own best advocate.”

She added: “People can sometimes have a mental block about what they can do. By seeing women performing at senior positions, more will believe that they can get to the top as well.”

In fact, about one year ago, the American company has introduced in France the Women’s Forum, an initiative to promote gender diversity that is delivering fruits in the home market.

“Our events are all about mentorship and building networks both internally and externally,” Ms Goudarzi said. “They help us build special relationships and to support each other in the market as well.”

“Historically, men have been proactive in the development of informal networks. We need to try and do the same, and initiatives such as ACE Women’s Forums provide a good start,” added Nadia Côté, the managing director at ACE France.

The goal of the program is to empower women in developing networks and honing their leadership skills. “There is progress to be made in terms of women reaching board levels,” said Ms Côté, who is Canadian. “But women have to show the appetite to do it as well. Networking helps to dispel misconceptions that may persist about being a senior executive.”

She added: “We must not push women into boards only because they are women. But if they have the appetite and the quality to do the job, why not?”


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