By Victoria Phoenix, Actuarial Recruiter and Insurance Museum History Ambassador
On Wednesday 8th March 2023, people from around the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is a day that marks tremendous achievement, and we reflect on the long-term progress that has been made for women across every corner of the globe – including women’s entry into the world of insurance.
The earliest evidence for women working in insurance is found in the AVIVA archives and goes back to 1797. Mrs Elizabeth Stimson was appointed agent for Norwich General Assurance in Cambridge in place of her deceased husband, Richard. It was not unusual for women to replace their husbands when they passed away, and there are other examples of this throughout the 19th century.
Prudential opened the path to women’s work in insurance. As early as 1855 it employed women as canvassers, who encouraged working-class housewives into taking life insurance policies. Once potential business was identified, the female canvassers would receive a commission and pass the new business on to the male agent. It was widely assumed that women were temperamentally better suited to undertake routine, repetitive tasks. For example, a Liverpool clerk’s journal in 1888 stated: ‘such work as copying out policies, which could be done almost if not quite as well by girls as by men… at a considerable reduction of costs’. Females provided a cheap and flexible workforce for the expanding insurance market.
The first female clerks entered insurance at the end of 1871 and were also employed by Prudential. Qualifications were important in the selection process, but all successful applicants ‘must all be the daughters of professional men’ as stated in The Office magazine in 1890, highlighting the nepotism and class consciousness that was prevalent in the insurance industry. The chosen female candidates were generally young middle-class women who could afford to take on poorly paid jobs and expensive training. Subsequently business colleges flourished, often run by female entrepreneurs, who offered tuition in shorthand, typewriting and book-keeping. From the 1870s until the 20th century women in insurance were employed exclusively in clerical roles of a repetitive nature, such as copying letters and filling in forms.
Further progress was seen in 1919, when the Charted Insurance Institute (CII) lifted the bar on women sitting exams and women were encouraged to advance their formal insurance studies.
Fifty years later in 1969, Countess Inchcape was welcomed into the market as Lloyd’s of London’s first female underwriting member. However, Countess Inchcape was not allowed in the Room (where brokers and underwriters still meet to this day) to conduct business personally, she could only communicate with clients through a male agent. In 1976, Kate Sliwinska became the first female underwriting member allowed to conduct business in the Room. By 1983, more than 400 women were regularly broking risks in the Room, and nearly 4,000 were Names.
Liliana Archibald made history by becoming the first female broker at Lloyd’s in 1973. She started her journey in the insurance industry working at her stepfather’s credit insurance brokerage, which specialised in export credit cover. She told Lloyd’s List at the time of her appointment: “I did not break down the barriers; they were broken down for me by the members of Lloyd’s in a very charming way.”
In recent years much progress has been made. In 1996, Mel Goddard became the first female active underwriter when QBE appointed her to run its first non-marine syndicate. In 2014, the then Chairman John Nelson hired Lloyd’s first female CEO, Dame Inga Beale, and in 2015 Lloyd’s launched the Dive In Festival, which celebrates diversity and inclusion in 17 countries around the world. In 2016 Lloyd’s became a charter signatory of the Women in Finance Charter, a government backed initiative designed to improve gender diversity in senior management across the financial services sector.
Despite the creation of the UK government’s Women in Finance Charter, ‘representation of females in senior financial services roles has only increased by 1% each year’, said Amanda Blanc. Blanc is an inspiring female leader in the insurance industry. Born in Wales, she started her insurance career as a graduate at Commercial Union. From there, she went on to hold a number of senior executive roles across the insurance industry, and after a successful career, she returned to Aviva as CEO in July 2020. In January 2023, Blanc said to The Sunday Times, “I’m not unfamiliar with misogynistic comments. I’ve had 33 years in the city and in insurance – you become a little bit immune to it.” Blanc was included in the Financial Times 25 most influential women of 2022 and in January 2023 she was named The Sunday Times Business Person of the year.
Recently in 2021, Zsofia Korodi became the first female Lloyd’s Liveried Waiter to write an official entry into the historic Lloyd’s Loss Book, which dates back to 1774.
Insurance has been a pioneer of inclusion with women’s entry into the workplace occurring in insurance decades before other industries. Today, 51% of underwriters are female. Despite significant progress being made, women are still underrepresented in insurance company leadership positions and more progress can be made to help accelerate gender parity. International Women’s Day serves as an annual reminder to reflect on all of the tremendous female accomplishments.
With thanks to Anna Stone, Group Archivist, AVIVA