Let’s talk transformation: how to close the gender gap in South Africa’s insurance industry

Over the past year, efforts to bridge the gender gap in South Africa’s insurance sector have been ramped up by several corporate role-players. While the drive to improve the representation of women in executive leadership teams is beginning to bear fruits, ongoing realities like the gender pay gap represent significant hurdles to achieving complete gender parity.

Real progress in this area requires a paradigm shift. One that takes into account the unique needs of women in the workplace in relation to broader issues such as education, socio-economic status, global culture and the evolution of women’s role in society.

This is the opinion of Alicia Narainsamy, Business Head at SHA Risk Specialists, who has played a key role in advocating for workplace transformation and gender diversity as a necessary building block of a more equitable society and industry.

The past five months has seen SHA make significant strides towards meaningful change, with the promotion of two of its female leaders to the position of Business Head. The company also recently promoted Manisha Chiman from Business Head of Liability, Professional Indemnity & Construction to Business Leader.

Support as a fundamental requirement for sustainable change

Commenting on the state of gender equality in the insurance industry, ahead of International Women’s Day, Narainsamy asserts that: “The days of thinking about transformation as a 'tick box’ exercise have come to an end.  A new era where women not only need to be appointed to roles of prominence within the sector but also need to be supported within those roles is firmly here.

What we have in the insurance industry is a starting point. Practical action towards empowering women and equipping them with the tools they need to grow and thrive as effective business leaders. What we need to move forward, however, is to build pipelines for diverse talent that will provide women with a clear career path and a measurable vision for their future.”

Going beyond the boardroom

Elaborating on this point, Narainsamy argues that once a woman is appointed to a senior position, the question becomes: “What next?” This is where one of the most pervasive hurdles to gender equality becomes evident – a lack of women role models and mentors in the workplace.

As she explains: “Women need to see other women succeeding in their roles and actively challenging the status quo and the prevailing societal biases that see women as being less competent than their male counterparts. Women need champions – professionals who can set an example and pave the way for the next generation of young women in insurance.”

Culture as an enabler of change

The insurance industry in South Africa (and abroad) has remained a relatively male-dominated sector until fairly recently. Advocates for gender equality and positive change therefore find themselves up against a ‘legacy issue’ of historical and systemic inequality.

As such, there can be no ‘quick fix’, says Narainsamy who sees the main objective as being equal opportunity. Achieving this objective requires targeted steps to eradicate gender discrimination at every level, but it is also linked to the question of company culture and whether it fosters an enabling environment for equality.

“Proactive measures such as introducing flexible working hours, facilitating women-led mentorship programs, networking events, training and education are necessary steps in the right direction. But these actions need to be rooted in strong principles and practices that celebrate diversity and nurture women to reach their potential as people and as employees,” says Narainsamy.

Overcoming internal dialogues

Many women in male-dominated industries like insurance suffer from imposter syndrome. This is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people doubt the legitimacy of their skills, talents, expertise and accomplishments, resulting in an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.

As Narainsamy explains, while external factors such as biased opinions, outright discrimination and a culture that undermines women are a few of the biggest stumbling blocks, women’s own internal struggles also play a role in curbing their potential.

Women who lack a sense of belonging in the workplace and struggle with these issues are more prone to having low self-confidence and feeling ill-equipped to overcome limitations and charter a positive way forward. A values-driven approach to transformation is therefore key to helping women realise and unlock their own worth and potential.

A call to action

As Narainsamy concludes: “Companies need to find creative ways to foster a culture of collaboration and support, with access to resources and knowledge sharing opportunities for aspiring women leaders.

Women bring a fresh perspective to the industry, as well as a unique set of skills and capabilities that warrant an equal seat at the table. As role-players in insurance, we need to leverage the strength that can be found in diversity and focus on ensuring that the measures we take to promote positive change in the present, can be sustained in the long-term.”