Why women matter more than insurers think

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Women are conspicuous by their absence throughout the insurance value chain. As the IFC notes, “For the insurance industry, women are a growth opportunity on the demand side, as well as vital for sustained business success on the supply side.” 

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the lack of women leaders and decision-makers in global insurance companies, and the woefully inadequate numbers of women - particularly low-income women in emerging markets - with some form of insurance cover. This matters, and not just because women face disproportionate health, climate and employment risks. According to Swiss Re, there is strong evidence that gender equality boosts economic potential.

“By focusing on solutions to achieve gender parity, insurers and reinsurers can address a key driver of the widening protection gaps facing individuals, families and societies,” says Marianne Gilchrist, Head Global & South Asia, Hong Kong at Swiss Re. “A good starting point would be to target insurance products at women in ways that resonate with their preferences and behaviours, and that reflect women's ever-expanding role in financial decision-making around the world.”

One in a thousand

The insurance industry is not alone in grappling with gender inequality in the C-suite, but it does have a particular problem. Despite women making up 60 percent of the workforce, S&P Global Market Intelligence recently reported a grand total of seven - yes, seven - female CEOs of insurance companies in the US. For context, in 2019 there were 5,965 insurance companies in the United States, meaning roughly 0.1 percent of American insurance company chief execs is a woman. And yet, when women do pierce the glass ceiling, their impact can be significant. Inspiring examples such as former Lloyd’s CEO Dame Inga Beale, Anthem boss Gail Koziara Boudreaux and others suggest times are changing, albeit slowly.

Improving inclusion and diversity doesn’t happen by itself - it takes a conscious effort. Hilary Browne, Ireland country head at Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance says that like most women in the sector, her journey to the top wasn’t easy. However, she believes that as a woman she has greater empathy and flexibility. “Empathy helps you to be a better manager and leader,” she said, “I believe women are also very flexible and can adapt and roll with things when maybe they are not working as well as you hoped” - a sentiment many low-income women would doubtless agree with.

Initiatives such as the Incisive Media Women in Insurance Awards and Geneva Association Women in Insurance Award - the latter won last year by Garance Wattez-Richard, Head of AXA Emerging Customers, MiN member and Co-Chair of the IDF Inclusive Insurance Working Group - help raise awareness, encourage women and recognise their efforts. The second edition of the UK awards, in November 2020, included a new category for Contribution to Inclusion, which was won by the UK Gender Inclusion Network. The MiN itself is proud of the diversity of leadership at Board level: five out of eight Board members are women, and half of the Board is from the global South.

Beyond diversity in leadership

Ultimately, however, what matters is the impact of gender-diverse leadership when it comes to breaking down financial inclusion barriers and helping more women manage risk. According to a McKinsey report, “diverse teams are more effective at solving difficult problems and reaching diverse markets and customer segments. To grow and keep their competitive edge, insurance companies want to have effective and diverse teams at all levels - meaning more women and women of colour. Carriers must take bold and sustained actions to support women as they move through the talent pipeline and into more senior leadership roles.”

These findings are backed up by EY which notes that “Studies show that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams when led inclusively and that firms deliver better financial results when they have women on their corporate boards and in the C-suite.” EY suggests three ways that insurance companies can build women leaders: by improving college and market recruitment and hiring; sponsoring and mentoring women to support career progression and improve retention; and clearing away barriers preventing the ascent of women executives. However, as many women working in the industry will tell you, the third aspiration is easier said than done. Counteracting promotion and hiring preference bias requires significant investment in changing attitudes and behaviour.

Scaling up gender-sensitive insurance

Diversity in leadership is certainly important in its own right, but does it translate into a more inclusive approach which helps low-income and vulnerable women manage and transfer their risk more effectively? Despite some gains, women’s financial inclusion still lags behind that of men.[1] The reasons are complex - in Pakistan, for example, only 18 percent of women have an active bank account, against 51 percent of men, and are 41 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone. Even in Kenya there’s an eight-point gender gap in mobile money usage. A recent FINCA white paper notes that “women’s continued financial exclusion is a reflection of the broader inequality that they face in all areas of life.” Time spent on unpaid work, low participation in the formal labour market, digital and technological barriers, and lower literacy and education levels all contribute to financial exclusion.

Low-income women face a double whammy: inadequate or non-existent insurance cover combined with greater risk. According to the IFC, “Women are more at risk of losing their income because of pregnancy, divorce or separation, as well as constraints imposed by society and laws. The insurance industry can play a major role in increasing financial protection for women—including those from low-income levels—through approaches that target their specific needs. Insurance companies can design coverage for their illness, pregnancy, and assets, while protecting their savings to cope with financial challenges.”

Those insurers still unconvinced of the need to offer inclusive, women-centric products are in danger of being left behind, according to Swiss Re. “Insurers need to prepare for reforms and regulations that are increasingly being put in place to advance gender equality. Importantly, insurers need to recognise gender differences in preferences, and understand what solutions to offer how and where. Financial literacy and inclusion are also important. Studies show that financial inclusion drives higher insurance demand. To this end, insurers can help more female consumers improve their understanding of the benefit of insurance and the specifics of risk protection products.”

The business case for offering gender-sensitive insurance is also strong. According to the IFC’s Marieme Esther Dassanou and Prapti Sherchan, “due to women’s traditional role of acting as conduits for their families and communities, they represent a significant entry point to the family wallet, and hence a market opportunity for insurers. Additionally, targeting the low-income women’s market will help insurers broaden their brand and build loyalty among a customer group with the potential to become middle-income consumers in the future.”

Closing the financial exclusion gap

Nonetheless, analysis of 2017 Global Findex data by the Center for Global Development confirms the gender financial inclusion gap is smaller in wealthier countries and wider in poorer ones. Report author Kyle Navis emphasises that these gaps “should profoundly concern policymakers and motivate us to understand what other barriers are being erected around access to finance.” He also notes that, in addition to unequal access to education, mobile phones and secure employment, social norms and legal discrimination also play a role.

The Global Findex Survey does not specifically cover insurance, but for the first time, last year’s Landscape Study collected data on the gender of microinsurance customers and out of almost 200 insurers surveyed in 30 countries offering inclusive insurance products, providers were only able to report gender data for 45% of products. We included the question not simply to establish gender distribution, but as a proxy for how well insurers (who, laudably, tend to be those committed to financial inclusion in general and inclusive insurance in particular) know their customers. The results and subsequent discussions suggest that insurers and their distribution partners need to shift gear when it comes to thinking about reaching and understanding vulnerable women clients.

Some have already taken up the gauntlet. For example, the InsuResilience Centre of Excellence on Gender-smart Solutions, which was launched in December 2020, provides knowledge, evidence and guidance on how to drive gender-transformative action on the ground. In 2019, a2ii published a check-list for insurance supervisors, regulators and policymakers wishing to bridge the gender gap: 

  1. Compile and analyse gender disaggregated data.
  2. Address legal and political constraints that are hampering women’s access to insurance.
  3. Foster market research into innovation targeting women.
  4. Adapt claims infrastructure to ensure that it is accessible and responsive to women’s needs.
  5. Develop national financial inclusion strategies that address gender-related issues and inclusive insurance.
  6. Build up stakeholder capacities on gender-related matters and inclusive insurance.
  7. Support financial consumer education, adapted and directed to women.
  8. Promote gender diversity in the insurance industry.
  9. Work in coordination with other stakeholders – including the industry, and lead the process of promoting inclusive insurance.

MiN members are already leading the way in promoting women’s inclusion on both the supply and demand sides of the insurance sector, but we know there’s a long way to go before low-income women in emerging markets get the risk protection they need. We’d love to hear about other initiatives and success stories - so please share your stories with us so we can keep this conversation going!



[1] The 2017 Global Findex Survey of 110,000 people in 99 countries (representing 4.1 billion people) found there is still an 8.3 percentage point financial inclusion gap between men and women. Reference.