September 16, 2019 by Adam Malik
Christine Lithgow had one simple response to her employer when they offered her a position that was junior in comparison to the one she left six years prior after the birth of her first child.
“I had to remind them: It was a baby that dropped out of my uterus, not my brain,” the chief executive officer of commercial risk solutions Canada at Aon Risk Solutions told attendees of the RIMS Canada conference in Edmonton, which ran from Sept. 8-11.
Her answer drew rapid applause from the crowd. It was an example of the challenges women face in the workforce, with the insurance industry being no exception.
For Yvonne Steiner, head of property at Zurich, she spent some time in Switzerland. At first, she was the only woman – and North American – in the room. Things changed as more Swiss women came on board but there was something amiss that she couldn’t put her finger on. Her mentor later called it the ‘foreigner forgiveness factor.’
“He said, ‘Well, you’re a North American woman. Your job, your purpose here, is to speak up. We want you to take on the elephant in the room and we expect that you’re going to carry the voice that others won’t,’” Steiner told the audience.
That’s not the way it should be, she thought. The culture needed changing, as well as women’s self-belief that they could speak up. What she was used to back home hadn’t quite made its way across the ocean.
“It was very eye-opening for me that all the things I took for granted – being brought up in Canada, having strong female leaders around me who I could look up to – that maybe there are other places that just don’t have that,” Steiner said.
Lithgow and Steiner were part of the Women in Leadership panel, which included Lynn Oldfield, president and chief executive officer at AIG Canada, Sarah Robson, president and chief executive officer at Marsh Canada, Gloria Brosius, RIMS president, and moderator Lana Cuthbertson from ATB Financial. More than 1,400 people registered for the event.
Cuthbertson asked how much longer such a type of panel would be needed. When can the term ‘women’ be removed?
When Robson looks at the numbers and how few women occupy senior roles in companies, she’s not all that encouraged about the prospect of doing so. She quoted a report from 2018 that showed full time employed women earned 87 cents for every dollar a man earned. It’s a number that is less dismal than, say, a decade ago, but it would still take 217 years to close the global economic gap at the current rate of change, she said.
And while we’re at the height of a curve where issues are being called out, Robson would like to get to the bottom where such issues don’t exist and special panels on women in leadership are not needed anymore.
“So while I would love to say now’s the time to drop the ‘women’ part, I just don’t see that we can do that at this stage. The reality is, we need to call out the discrepancies and the inequalities [and] highlight the successes in order to promote and challenge and change,” Robson said.