Gill Sephton and Amanda Kerr of Scottish Widows discuss their routes to becoming female leaders
Scottish Widows' head of protection distribution spoke to Amanda Kerr, who heads up the provider's protection proposition team, to discuss the importance of diversity in protection and the route they have taken to becoming female leaders in the industry
GS: I joined Scottish Widows last summer as head of protection distribution, leading a team of dedicated professionals with a focus on delivering great outcomes for advisers and their clients.
I moved into the world of financial services in 2000 and have worked for the last 18 years in a number of senior roles focusing on strategy and building the best journey for customers. A move to insurance seemed a logical next step for me, as over my career it's become increasingly clear that financial resiliency is a fundamental lynchpin to our overall wellbeing and prosperity.
I was interested to hear from the regulator last year that only 14% of intermediaries are female* and with this in mind, was keen to discuss the importance of diversity in the industry, and the benefits this can bring. Who better to discuss this with than my new colleague, with a wealth of protection experience under her belt, Amanda Kerr.
Amanda, from your experience, do you think the diversity of our customers are reflected in the diversity of those currently working in protection?
AK: Not yet but it is definitely improving. You need a mix of skills, life experience and background to truly understand the issues of our customers. We also need to make insurance more accessible for all. At Scottish Widows we're committed to ensuring cover is accessible to everyone, not just those who are healthy or wealthy, but I don't think this is the case everywhere.
GS: That's my initial observation too. There's lots of work to do, but I see a real willingness to do it. All forms of diversity bring with them richer and more representative perspectives. Bringing people together whose life journeys and experiences are different can only enhance our ability to build propositions that meet everyone's needs. And improving access to insurance is our duty as an industry, something that our colleague Johnny Timpson is a real champion of - across the whole spectrum of needs.
AK: I agree, we need to recognise that one size doesn't fit all. It's interesting that the number of female advisers is still so small, despite increasing slightly since 2016. Do you think this makes a difference to customers? I tend to think that the key step is to listen, giving people choice and help when they need it.
GS: It's important not to generalise, however having an adviser community which represents our population, and products designed with inclusivity in mind is a helpful step forwards in giving customers choice on who they'd like to place their trust in.
Providers also have a role to play in promoting diversity in the industry. How we recruit and proactively identify and nurture talent is imperative. As you know, in Scottish Widows for example, we have a series of internal networks supporting all areas of diversity which we're hugely and genuinely committed to.
The Insuring Women's Futures programme is a fantastic initiative too, as all the research shows that women simply engage less with the topic yet their lives increasingly depend on the industry working for them. Having been through a divorce with a four year old and a young baby, I can attest to the fact that women often focus on the short term in turbulent times like these and become exposed in later years as a result. The more we can show that we are an industry which listens, cares, represents and advocates for them, the more women will have the knowledge and confidence to engage with us. One of the reasons for me moving to this role was the genuine commitment to inclusion that Scottish Widows as an employer has, as well as in the external marketplace.
AK: That's encouraging to hear, Gill - I hope this programme encourages more women to come into the industry. I started my career in a field with very few females - maths and statistics. I started out doing statistical analysis before moving to Scottish Provident in the early '90s with several roles in actuarial, operations and distribution.
When I joined Scottish Widows in 2005 I already had 15 years of protection experience and now head up the protection proposition team. It was actually my dad who gave me the courage to go into a fairly male-dominated world at the start of my career when others said ‘girls don't do maths, go and work in a shop!'.
I have to say I've sometimes found it hard to get my voice heard but regardless of experience or gender, found a good approach was to start with facts as it's difficult to dispute these and people do tend to listen.
GS: I started in a male-dominated area too. In IT in the late '80s in BP Exploration there really were very few women in IT and I spent the first 15 years of my career in that field. After joining what was the Halifax in 2000, I went on to do a really diverse range of roles including running the ATM Channel and delivering major programmes, including integration. Despite these achievements, my main challenge has been confidence. It's a recurring theme but I've learnt that it's OK to swim against the tide and offering constructive challenge is almost always welcomed. I think women probably do wrestle with ‘imposter syndrome' a little more but it's always dangerous to generalise in my opinion.
Mentoring has also been hugely valuable throughout my career. When done well, it's a safe space, where you can get some real insight, some expert ‘advice' and great connections and networks. It depends on great chemistry and it's important to learn how to be a good mentee to make it work well. I've had both male and female mentors and found both equally valuable depending on what the need was at the time. I'm also a big fan of one off ‘career chats' when you're at a crossroads or juncture in your career journey. A fresh perspective without the commitment of an ongoing mentoring relationship can be a really thought-provoking input. I had one only two weeks ago in fact.
AK: That's interesting, I've always looked at a longer term approach to mentoring but can totally see the value of a one-off approach. In my experience, it's important to keep an open mind and not end up with a bias when being mentored but I particularly like the valuable network that a mentor can offer.
GS: What are your hopes for protection in the future, Amanda, and what role do you see women playing?
AK: Personally, I'd like to see a greater focus on end customer human design and opening up new distribution channels for customers with busy lives. Technology and customer data will play a key role so it is important that we see a balanced gender split in roles in these areas.
GS: I observe the industry to be incredibly good at talking to itself. I'd love to see it really have a breakthrough moment in engaging the UK population broadly on why protection matters. I think we all have a role to play in making the industry feel more human, our products and services more accessible and in stimulating debate with the population at large. We need cultural change. You don't have to spend much time on GoFundMe to see how many campaigns are aimed at customers who would be in such a different position if they'd been protected. It's down to a diverse group of protection professionals, reflective of our customers, to deliver this.
*Financial Conduct Authority, 2018
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