Canadian Underwriter

‘We have a lot of work to do’

October 3, 2020   by Greg Meckbach, Associate Editor

Print this page Share

Industry leaders need to reach out to prospective employees from historically disadvantaged groups, especially people who are Black and Indigenous, to ensure that employees have role models within the organization, property and casualty executives tell Canadian Underwriter. In doing so, they should compare the demographics of the management teams with both the general employee and customer populations.

“We have a lot of work to do in terms of inclusion and diversity across levels of management,” Saad Mered, CEO of Zurich Canada, said of the P&C industry generally. “While we may have done very well in the industry in terms of gender diversity — at the individual contributor level or at the coalface of the workforce — we have not done so well as we move up management ranks.”

Diversity is the variety of people and ideas within a company, Deloitte Canada notes. Organizations often define the diversity of their people according to differences — such as race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation — but it can also apply to education, family status, values and beliefs, working-style preferences, religion, and veteran status, among others.

Diversity and inclusion means you have an environment in which people feel involved, respected, valued, connected, and able to bring their “authentic” selves to the team and business, Deloitte said in a recent report.

“Inclusion is really the issue [the industry needs] to tackle,” said Donna Ince, senior vice president of personal lines for RSA Canada. “We can bring people in. We can look like we’ve got great diversity. We can tick all those boxes, but inclusion [is] how people feel about how they are contributing and how they are valued at that table. Are they being heard? Are they being listened to?”

A 2017 survey of 7,327 Canadian P&C industry employees (about 6% of the industry) had 69% of its respondents as women and 31% as men, the Conference Board of Canada reports in Demographics of the P&C Insurance Industry in Canada, a report commissioned by the Insurance Institute of Canada. In the survey, 2.2% of the respondents said they were Indigenous (compared to 3.9% of Canadian workers in 2016) while 2.8% of respondents self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

“What we are seeing in Canada and a lot of other western countries — not just in insurance but in other corporations — is that even companies that are fairly diverse in entry level roles become substantially less diverse from a seniority perspective,” says Michael Thompson, associate vice president at TD Insurance and co-chair of the Black Employee Network at The Toronto-Dominion Bank’s P&C subsidiary.

“Organizations need to look at how the leadership reflects their employee base and customer base,” Thompson adds. “When they don’t see people who look like them within the leadership ranks, that is somewhat of a tell in terms of, ‘Am I going to be able to reach my aspirations in this organization if they are not hiring leaders that look like me or have similar backgrounds? And will I be understood within this organization?’”

Debbie Thompson suspects she is the first Black woman in Canada to be president of a provincial brokers’ association. She served in 2013 as president of the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario. On several occasions, while attending industry events, she observed that she was the only Black person in a room of about 100.

“We have to get better at just acknowledging that the service industry should look like the residents or the citizens that it represents,” she said. “When I was growing up my father would always say to me, ‘As a Black woman, you will always have to do 110% of [what] your white counterpart [does] to be at the same level, to get paid the same, to be seen the same.’ I still think that is true today.”

At Desjardins Group, Benaaz Irani is responsible for about 470 independent insurance agencies for Desjardins in three provinces.

Born in Mumbai in a family of Iranian descent, Irani finished university in her native India before immigrating to Canada, joining the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce shortly thereafter. Her move to Desjardins resulted from Desjardins’ acquisition of CIBC’s general insurance business.

“I have come this far because I have had amazing male role models who have supported me throughout my career,” says Irani, appointed vice president of the Desjardins Agent Network last year, succeeding Barbara Bellisimo, who retired from Desjardins at the end of 2019.

Irani believes men and women must work together to create an inclusive work environment. “Sometimes you need individuals to support you as you climb the ladder, and sometimes people need to give you a hand to get up there. You need to create a safe environment for people to succeed, to fail, and to move forward.”

Leaders need to make sure people feel comfortable and respected, says Zurich Canada’s Mered. “For me, that emotional well-being, that comfort every team player has to have within the firm — regardless of who they are, regardless of their background — is, in the end, the bigger challenge.  That goes to behaviours, it goes to unconscious biases and is so difficult to influence in the short term.”

Mered recounts some feedback he heard recently from a company focus group. “One of our claims examiners, who is a person of colour, whose parents are originally from Jamaica, mentioned to me that because of the responsibility he has, he attends court-driven mediations and arbitrations quite often. He takes offence at the fact that in Canada, a number of these court officials are still called ‘masters.’” This is the title of case management masters working in the Ontario court system.

“For some, ‘Master’ has a different connotation,” as Mered points out. “Little things like this fail to recognize some very painful historical legacies that I think we need to stop once and for all and address collectively.”

For its part, RSA Canada commissioned a third-party survey of its workers. Employees were asked whether they identified as being: part of a visible minority group; newcomers to Canada; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Two-Spirit (LGB2sQ+); having a disability; First Nation; Métis; or Inuit, said RSA’s senior vice president of personal insurance, Donna Ince. To keep the answers confidential, RSA Canada received only the total numbers and not the raw data. The participation rate was 71.3%.

About 24% of respondents at RSA Canada self-identified a part of a visible minority, compared to 22% of the Canadian labour force. About 24% of respondents self-identified as newcomers to Canada, in line with the Canadian labour force. About 5% identified as LGB2sQ+, which is about the same percentage as the Canadian labour force, RSA Canada reports.

“The challenge is, you have to check in with your employee group around self-identification,” said Ince. “It’s really hard to keep tabs on whether you are hitting a target on anything other than gender.”

In 2017, RSA Canada set a specific gender target of 50% for women in senior leadership positions, to be achieved by the end of 2020. The target was increased in 2018 to 55% and was finally reset in 2019 to 48%. As of Mar. 31, 46% of senior leaders were female, Ince said.

“We need to shift what we have done around gender diversity and now shift it to the racialized people, LGB2sQ+, people with disabilities and indigenous people,” says Ince.

Bringing in and promoting people from historically-disadvantaged groups requires a fine balance, notes Irani at Desjardins.“You do want to hire people who are the right fit for the job, who are talented,” she says. “You can’t just hire people because you want to be seen as being diverse. We want to be honest to ourselves.”

For its part, Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. has formed a Black Initiatives Action Committee at the Fairfax corporate level, CEO Prem Watsa said this past July during an earnings call.

The committee was formed “to discuss these issues openly and to create more opportunities for people from the Black community and for all minorities,” said Watsa. Toronto-based Fairfax owns Northbridge Insurance plus Odyssey Group, Brit PLC and Allied World, among others.

The diversity of your workforce could depend in part on where your offices are.

As a commercial insurer, Zurich has a presence in big cities, notes Mered, adding some personal lines insurers and life insurers may be more concentrated in mid-sized cities. “Being in big cities enables us to have a fairly diverse work force,” he says, “which I would say probably represents — mostly but not entirely — the population mix of big cities in Canada.”

But the industry could be doing more to improve the representation of some groups, says Mered. “For Black Canadians and Indigenous Canadians, we have not done enough. I would say we have not gone aggressively in a structured way to high schools, to technical colleges, to universities, which have more of an affinity with these populations, and made the sales pitch of why insurance is a great career.”

Traditionally, the insurance industry has hired from universities, including mathematics, actuarial and engineering programs.

Diversity and inclusion is not just a one-off project or program, says Mered. “It’s a daily battle. It’s a way of living.”

Unconscious bias has been a hot topic in recent times. Photos emerged showing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had (before entering politics) worn makeup to darken his skin with blackface or brownface on multiple occasions. Trudeau has since apologized for the behaviour.

South of the border, Black Minnesota resident George Floyd died on May 25 after a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. The incident prompted a nationwide protest.

“I think what has happened in the last few months has really been a wakeup call to us as leaders,” Mered says. “Right below the surface, things are not what they seem to be. Re-opening the loud vocalization of those sentiments and observations, for me for the last few weeks, has been a painful but positive step forward.”

Feature image via

Print this page Share

Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *