Taking a wider perspective on gender issues

Setting up a women’s forum can be a struggle. When, in 2014, we established our first Women’s Forum at Chubb, we had visions of rapid growth. The reality was very different and we had plenty of teething issues but many of the reasons behind these rested with us as much as our business. Now, three years on, the group has been renamed the Gender Equality Network and those early challenges have, to a greater extent, been met. However there are plenty of lessons we have learned along the way that we are keen to share.

For us, the story began three years ago and it is important to understand the background to contextualise what happened next.

Chubb is an international insurance company that is probably best known in the United States. Here in the UK, its reputation is familiar to wealthy individuals, who buy its personal insurance, and specialist underwriters in the City of London, or key insurance centres across the UK and Ireland.

In July 2014, Pat Goudarzi, an American member of staff seconded to our Continental European operation in Paris, decided to replicate the women’s forum of which she’d been an active member of in the US. Pat posted a notice on the company intranet seeking likeminded souls and an initial committee was formed comprising eight members. From little acorns, as they say…

In those formative days we quickly recognised that things were not going to be quite as easy as we had anticipated. Differing views about what the women’s forum should set out to achieve and the need for an overall mandate hampered our ability to organise and gather momentum. Some colleagues felt the focus should be on encouraging more women to seek senior roles; others believed flexible working and family-friendly policies were the key. We were feeling our way, a process which proved to be a slow one.

As a way ahead, we decided to hold a launch event for colleagues – a networking bingo session at which staff engaged in rapid-fire meetings with potential contacts. We deliberately decided to open the event to the entire company rather than making it women-only, which was a bone of contention for some on the committee. For us, the key was to ensure our group was relevant to the business as a whole rather than it being seen as a special interest group. We were delighted with the turnout and the energy the event generated. With hindsight, this was very much a first step on the road to establishing the group’s importance to the business.

We realised that gaining tangible support with senior management would require some work on our part, however. At this early stage, we didn’t have an executive sponsor or champion in place and we had only a budget of £2,500. There was also a degree of wariness about being seen to take sides or promote one element of the company’s staff over another. This was a challenging time for our new group but the sense of direction and the momentum we had built from our first event kept us on the right track.

Our next move was to organise a panel session for senior members of management to share their career stories with staff. We involved the most senior female director on the company’s board plus a non-executive director and a chair of a risk management organisation. Again, the event drew a large audience and proved extremely inspirational.

Having begun with a deliberate grass roots approach, we decided to act more strategically. We surveyed the group’s members to discover what they wanted to achieve and set up a page on the company’s intranet with the aim of reaching out further. On a fundamental level, we still had not been able to reconcile everyone’s views about the group. Like any team, we were going through the well-recognised phases of forming-storming-norming-performing. That storming phase in particular resulted in some people leaving the group as they realised their aims were different to the majority of other members, but the lessons from that period were valuable. In a job, the tendency is to work with people of a similar mindset or skill set; in a group like this, the pool of people is more diverse so people issues tend to be more diverse, too.

The following year, 2015, was an important one for us and marked a sea change. We secured a larger budget of £10,000 – partly by working our way around the management team one by one. By the end of the year, membership of our intranet group had risen to more than 200 and we’d been running breakfast events monthly. But it was 2016 – the year in which our company was involved in a major corporate acquisition – that our group had its most profound impact on the business and its people.

Prior to our acquisition of Chubb, our business was ACE Europe. The news had a huge impact on staff as it had major implications for jobs, our culture and the locations in which staff were based. As the only group involving staff from all areas of the business and being both externally and internally facing, we suddenly found ourselves playing a significant role. This was set against a backdrop of rapidly rising awareness of gender and diversity issues within London’s insurance market as staff recruitment and retention was highlighted as a vital contributor to London’s ongoing status as a global insurance centre.

On the acquisition side, we organised an informal drinks reception for staff from both businesses, which proved to be the first opportunity many had had to meet their future colleagues. There is no doubt that this established us as a significant player as the two companies came together.

We also gained significant buy-in from senior management. The Government’s Women in Finance Charter marked a change in mood in the City. Issues such as gender pay gap reporting, inclusion and diversity had all found their way onto board agendas. Across the Square Mile and beyond there was a growing realisation at the top that there is a solid business case behind the need for workforce diversity. Failure to engage places businesses at a commercial disadvantage.

Perhaps most visibly, 2016 was the year that members of the company’s senior management team increased their involvement with our events and raised their profile. As business women, our aim was to stage professionally-organised, business-focused events for the benefit of the entire organisation. Feedback and metrics we collected from attendees proved this was the case.

We have come a long way in the three years since our group launched. We have changed its name to the Gender Equality Network to broaden our appeal and highlight that gender equality should be a concern of everyone and is not just about women’s issues. Indeed, we’re now actively recruiting men to our group and committee, which has now risen to more than 300 members.

Most importantly, we have succeeded in getting senior management actively involved. The group’s professional approach has earned it real credibility in the eyes of our management team and led to a productive dialogue.

On a personal level, many of us have gained new skills and new insights. Running an issues-based group like ours involves marketing, communication, budgets, networking – even being able to manage a meeting efficiently. While these were not the reasons why we founded our group, they have all had a knock-on effect on our knowledge and our confidence as business people.

Finally, there’s what the group says about our company. When we go out into the City, we feel proud to say we work for Chubb. The work we’ve done and the progress we’ve made have created a sense of achievement that’s as powerful as anything generated by our ‘day jobs’. The fact that Chubb is a gold sponsor of this year’s DiveIn, a festival of diversity and inclusion, stands testament to the changes we’ve helped to bring about.

Founding and establishing our group has not been easy, but little in life that’s worthwhile usually is. Had it proven to be a walk in the park, then it’s doubtful we would have earned management’s respect to the same degree. Today, we have a strong voice on gender equality issues while working for the benefit of the company and its people as a whole. Adopting this wider perspective while ensuring every aspect of our activity was professional has placed our agenda into the mainstream of the business’s thinking. It’s a lesson worth repeating. 

Lessons learned

We could have been tougher in our pursuit of funding from senior management.

We may have locked ourselves away too much at the start. It would have been more productive to have been outward looking and, ironically, more inclusive.

Gaining agreement on the group’s objectives was much tougher than we’d anticipated.

Don’t underestimate how much work is involved. It’s virtually a full-time job for someone now.

We were very London-focused. Our aim now is to get out into our company’s regional offices.

Advice

Take small steps. Don’t try to change the world.

Set realistic objectives.

Get buy-in from senior management.

Have a senior advocate and take them on the journey with you.

Be resilient. You’ll need a thick skin.

Energy and enthusiasm are powerful drivers.

Just do it! But don’t forget to have fun.

Authors:

Emma Bartolo, Corporate Regional Manager– London, Chubb

Claire Wilkinson, Senior Life Science Underwriter, Chubb Europe