If you were to ask Benaaz Irani, vice president of the Desjardins Agent Network, what helped her succeed as a P&C insurance industry executive, part of it would be the help from good mentors and allies.
“It’s not just about women helping women,” Irani says. “We definitely need allies, at home and at work. If you don’t have a good support system, you’re kind of on your own there, so it starts at home.”
While networking and support programs for women are important, so too is ensuring there is a spot for everyone around the table. Those in key roles who step up and make what may seem as unconventional choices can be a powerful force, Irani says.
Irani joined CIBC Insurance two years after emigrating to Canada (Desjardins later acquired CIBC Insurance). “And within a year, I was appointed as a manager, being one of the youngest leaders in my 20s,” she says. “I get asked this question, ‘What was the path to get to where I am today?’ And it is a reflection of the organization’s culture.”
To support women and immigrants, organizations need to acknowledge the talent they have within their ranks, how they can tap into it, and what support systems they can build around that talent to maximize an individual’s potential, Irani says.
“I’ve had mentors, I’ve had individuals who have taken a chance on me, starting with my first manager who appointed me as a leader being so young, but saying, ‘Hey, I believe in you. Go for it. I’ll be there to support you.’”
This manager also helped Irani build her managerial presence. This in turn helped build her own confidence.
So, companies need to build in a support system, she says. “It has to be intentional. They can’t just hope for it to happen.”
At Desjardins, a female empowerment program helps build the confidence of women at all levels of their careers, giving them a voice and helping them network, she says. “How do we build the confidence so that she doesn’t stop or hesitate before she makes the next move?” Irani asks. “I still get calls from women saying, ‘Hey, Benaaz, I’m thinking of taking on this position. What do you think, will I be able to do it?’ I’m thinking, no man is going to call me up and say that.”
Desjardins General Insurance Group is pretty unique in that 55% of C-suite positions are held by women. On Desjardins Group’s executive management committee, there is gender parity with six women and six men.
Besides having women represent senior executive positions, companies also need to step up and talk about biases. Women are enough, they can make the necessary decisions in the roles they hold in and outside of the corporate world. “The more we talk, the more we hold people accountable because you can’t just talk and do nothing.”
There can be a tug of war happening for women between their career and family obligations. “Sometimes they hold themselves back thinking, ‘If I pursue an executive role, it will come at a price that I’m not ready to pay.’ How can we change the narrative to, ‘Can we as an organization provide the right support so that women don’t have to choose?’”