Embracing Equity this International Women's Day

Woman in workplace leading team

Susan Penwarden, Chief Technical Underwriter, Executive Sponsor Gender Balance 

I was recently asked: if you had an equally qualified male and female candidate for a role, would you hire the woman? My immediate response is, not necessarily. Diversity is important, but filling roles is about hiring the best candidate for the job. To achieve that, the key is a diverse pool of great talent in all of its dimensions. 

Multiculturalism is the bedrock of what makes Canada a great place to live and work. I was struck again moving back to Canada in 2019, just how diverse we are, and it is something to be incredibly proud of. But as I look back at my career and the insurance industry in general, I realize over the years I’ve often been the only woman manager, the only woman in leadership, and sometimes, the only woman in the room. It’s 2023 and despite the efforts of many – men, women, and organizations – tackling equality at the workplace, the stats, continue to be staggering.

Only 1 in 4 at the C-suite level is a woman. Even more concerning – just 1 in 20 is a woman of colour, according to a recent McKinsey report.

Why are we still unable to move the needle? Why is our workforce still not reflective of the diversity that forms the fabric of Canadian society? My take - because we are not seeing this through the right lens. We need to stop expending energy on equality, and shift focus to ensuring equity. It’s more than giving people the same access to resources and opportunities.

Not all women face the same challenges when in the workforce. So, we need to give every woman what they need to be successful. Meet them where they are, enable them to progress and succeed. That’s equity.

Removing Barriers for Women

Having worked and lived in several parts of Europe, I experienced something of being the outsider – because I wasn’t “from there”.

On the surface, I looked similar, but I had a different education. I didn’t speak the language or understand cultural norms and that made it hard to integrate into the senior leadership team, without strong support from my colleagues, and the top leader at the time. Although I certainly did not face the same challenges as many women, in a small way I have experienced the challenges that migrant women in Canada face, trying to succeed. Far worse, not seeing someone like them reflected in the management of their organization can be discouraging.

In the insurance industry, women make up 50% of our entry level workforce but that’s where it stops. Because having a family and balancing a career of a senior leader can be intimidating. Sacrifices will have to be made. It’s unspoken, and could largely be self-imposed, but we know something’s got to give – which is why we often see female leaders being “always on”, with many working 7 days a week, encroaching on their family and personal life.

I know I’m one of the luckier ones. My daughter was almost 10 when I was Chief Risk Officer and then Chief Underwriting Officer. I managed to attain those positions because I had strong support from my family and an au pair. Eventually my husband specifically, who retired to help at home while I continued my career.  It should, however, be possible for women to have both.

Creating Space for Diversity in Leadership

At Aviva, we’ve worked on developing the pipeline to address representation amongst our leadership level. We’ve looked at our own data on our people and are committed to diversity being one of our key differentiators and to having a workforce that reflects our customers and the Canadian population. In 2020, we were the first financial services company to have a 50/50 male-female split at the VP+ level, because we’re building confidence in our people by giving them the opportunities and training, rolling out Women in Leadership programs and looking to develop our succession pipeline to ensure we have the right people, regardless of gender or race for future leadership roles. We take pride in what we’ve done thus far: tripled our female successors and quadrupled our visible minorities.  But we also know, to keep making progress, you have to stay focused.

On this International Women’s Day, I ask that you take a moment to think about what you can do to develop the women that you work with, be it to help them grow their confidence, coach, and mentor them, or encourage them to apply to that senior leadership role because they are the best candidate for it.

The latest Diversity and Inclusion report from McKinsey shows the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time.2 It’s something we already know at Aviva and my peers, and I are impatient to do more to change the make-up of our industry. Collectively, we can make insurance THE place women want to work in, grow in and succeed in. Now we just need the industry to step up. Are you coming onboard?




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