Liz Walker: Why the Women in Finance initiative matters

Liz Walker, UnumEquality of opportunity for women in the financial services sector is still a long way off, but the Women in Finance initiative is a big step in the right direction says Unum HR director Liz Walker

This summer we have seen our second female Prime Minister form her new Cabinet, increasing the number of women in key positions. In the US, the possibility of a female President is a reality for the first time in history. As a mother, I am hopeful that my daughter is growing up in a world where the political landscape is more representative of our diverse population than it was when I was young – a world where she believes there is no limit to her opportunities because of her gender.

When it comes to women in senior positions in financial services, the situation is regrettably somewhat different. In March a Treasury review led by Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Ghadia found that, in a sector of more than 2 million people, women occupy only 14 per cent of top jobs. On average, women are paid 40 per cent less than men in the sector, compared with 20 per cent in other sectors, with insurance companies being the worst within financial services.

There are many reasons for the limited progression of women – a culture of working at a desk from dawn until dusk, the lack of a supportive line manager, unwillingness to comprehend the pressures on women as mothers and in many cases as carers. Many people have advocated that the solution to this problem is to introduce quotas – I am not one of them. I am of the view that people should always be appointed on merit. However, that does not mean that we should not be doing anything and hope for the best – the current situation is frankly not sustainable.

In July of this year, the Government launched the voluntary Women in Finance Charter, which commits financial services firms to link the remuneration packages of their executive teams to gender diversity targets. It also commits firms to set internal targets for gender diversity in their senior management, publish progress reports annually against these targets, and to appoint a senior executive responsible for gender diversity and inclusion. I am delighted that Unum is one of the 72 firms that have signed up to the charter. I am also delighted with the fact that insurers are leading the charge with over 15 firms already committed to the Charter.

Signing the Charter is a key part of our programme to become a more inclusive and equal employer, and to increase the number of women holding senior leadership positions. At the same time, we have recently launched a new Women in Leadership initiative to help future leaders develop and reach their potential within the company. Furthermore, we will be setting additional internal targets, which the Women in Leadership programme will help us to meet. Fairer and more equal companies are without doubt more productive and successful.

The Women in Finance Charter and the forthcoming introduction of reporting the gender pay gap by companies with more than 250 employees should not be viewed by financial services firms as a threat to the way they do business and structure themselves or as government interference. These are some tools, together with companies’ own tailored programmes, that can help and support achieving a more inclusive senior management workforce, which ultimately reflects society as a whole.

Embracing diversity allows us to better understand the needs of our customers and reflect the communities around us, brings out the best in our people and helps us be more competitive. The Women in Finance Charter and gender pay gap reporting will help drive our industry to hold ourselves to a higher standard in achieving diversity and will help us deliver better solutions and services to our customers. We look forward to leading the way with the other 71 firms.