Diversity and inclusion: the business case for a fair go

By Abigail Murison & Anna Game-Lopata | Vol: 44 Issue: 1 | May 2021
V44 I1_Article 05_Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs date back to the 1960s, when anti-discrimination laws were passed in the United States and elsewhere. Increasingly, however, what was a legal requirement for equal opportunity under law has become a strategic business case for diversity.

Research from around the world has found that the more included employees feel, the more innovative they are in their jobs and the more they go out of their way to help team members and meet work objectives — increasing innovation and productivity.

So, some 60 years down the line from those first D&I initiatives, how does the insurance industry measure up?

Taking stock 

The Refinitiv 2020 Diversity & Inclusion Index assessed more than 9,000 publicly listed companies globally against 24 metrics across four pillars (diversity, inclusion, people development, and news and controversies). The Asia Pacific had 21 companies recognised in the top 100, including two insurers.

Banking services and pharmaceuticals took out the most places by industry (with 12 and nine companies in the top 100 respectively). Four insurers globally made the top 100: Allianz SE (Germany), Cathay Financial Holding Co. Ltd. (Taiwan), NIB Holdings Limited (Australia) and Munich Re (Germany). 

The Working Mother 2020 Diversity Best Practices Inclusion Index recognised nine insurers for best practice in D&I, including AXA. Two US insurers, Nationwide and New York Life Insurance, scored in the top 10 per cent of the index. 

Closer to home, in 2017 and 2019, the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) biennial [email protected] Index found that workers in financial and insurance services said they were more likely to experience inclusion at work, and felt their employers were working to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

D&I benefits

Hiring people of diverse ages, genders and backgrounds appeals to our innate sense of justice, but different voices can also help insurers find new answers as the marketplace changes.

‘A diverse and inclusive workplace rests on respect and fairness,’ says Psynapse Psychometrics founder and managing director Jennifer Whelan, who recently conducted ANZIIF’s second inclusion survey.

‘Decisions around hiring, promotion, remuneration and performance evaluation are more objective and more rigorous. This not only protects against cronyism, favouritism and other “isms”, it also supports good standards of conduct.

‘Secondly, there is no industry that I know of that is not undergoing or about to undergo change, disruption or transformation of some kind. Diverse, inclusive organisations not only perform better in general, they also adapt and innovate more effectively. 

This “continuous improvement” mindset that values a broader range of perspectives and skills promotes a more resilient and productive organisation over time.’

War for talent

Companies that value diversity and inclusion also have an edge when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.

‘If talent is scarce, you need to ensure that your business is more attractive than your competitors,’ says Whelan. ‘We know that candidates [particularly diverse candidates] value culture, values and flexibility more than they value salaries and perks. This makes inclusion an important draw factor when it comes to attracting talent.’

Bobby Lehane was perhaps not your typical pick for CEO of underwriting agency CHU, winner of the inaugural Excellence in Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Award at the 2019 ANZIIF Australian Insurance Industry Awards. 

Ultimately, though, bringing in someone with a very different skillset has helped fuel transformation at the insurer.

‘From the outset of my tenure, it was clear that the CHU board was looking for some cognitive diversity,’ says Lehane. ‘Hiring a technologist to run a large underwriting agency would not have been an obvious choice, but I am pleased to say it proved a good one.’

CHU has a 64 per cent female and 36 per cent male gender split, with women comprising 55 per cent of all leaders — including a new female CEO who has recently taken over from Lehane.

‘For a number of candidates, the CHU position on D&I was the single piece that brought them across the line. Don’t underestimate how important D&I is to most employees and candidates,’ says Lehane.

He adds that all too often insurance is still seen as tired, uninteresting and lacking diversity.

‘I believe there is a gap in terms of cognitive diversity across the insurance industry. There are many people from the same professional background, with the same functional strengths and the same education making the same decisions. 

Attracting and promoting people from less obvious cognitive backgrounds with different skills can have a really positive effect in terms of focus and of relevance to a different future.’

Slow burn

Catherine Dixon, executive general manager of people and culture at Suncorp New Zealand, says change comes slowly, but ultimately pays off.

‘It has taken a while for the diversity and inclusion culture to benefit attraction, because you can advertise a general role — traditionally a male role — and in the past we would have said we’re looking for someone with deep expertise, x number of years in the insurance industry, this kind of background and, in the next paragraph, say we support a diverse and inclusive culture. 

'Well, of course we don’t if we’re going to narrow our thinking so much,’ she says.

‘So, we cast the net wider. We’ve given our leaders the support and the permission whereby if they see something valuable and different in a candidate who may not have the specific capability or experience we thought we were looking for, then they should explore that.’

The result? A more diverse pool of job applicants, fuelling a virtuous cycle of greater diversity.

‘For example, we have an increasing number of women employed in risk surveying and other traditionally male roles and increasing ethnic diversity also in our surveyor teams,’ Dixon says. 

‘There’s still work to do, but we’re starting to see that inclusiveness is actually embracing diversity. People talk to people they know at Suncorp New Zealand and they will hear that we have this diverse and inclusive approach that speaks for itself, so we no longer have to really push it.’

She notes the transition has sometimes been difficult for people already in the team, who see their area of capability or expertise as very precious and valued. 

‘There can be discomfort early on when someone who might be a left-field hire challenges the traditional, but over time it becomes clear the sorts of benefits that diversity brings.’

Strategic imperative

AXA XL was one of the organisations recognised for working towards creating an inclusive workplace by earning a spot in the 2020 Diversity Best Practices Inclusion Index. 

Says Kevin Leong, country leader, Singapore, AXA XL: ‘With over 9,000 colleagues across almost 30 countries, we understand the power of a diverse workforce and inclusive culture. We foster inclusion and diversity because we are convinced that different ways of thinking, backgrounds and experiences will be key for all our success in the long run.’

While Lehane, Leong, Dixon and Whelan all agree that leaders have to have diversity and inclusion as strategic imperatives — and back it up with targets for the leadership team — they also say that employees themselves really embrace and drive D&I progress. 

That’s confirmed by DCA’s 2019 research, which found 43 per cent of workers strongly supported their company taking action to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

AXA has five business resource groups spanning 25 chapters worldwide, managed by employees. 

These include LEAD (engaging women and men to accelerate gender equality); Pride (a forum for colleagues who identify as LGBT+ and their allies); EnAble (fostering the inclusion of colleagues with disabilities); Rise (supporting colleagues from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups); and Inclusion Committees (with a broader focus on all aspects of identity, to support more inclusive workplace environments).

‘Our business resource groups are grassroots and colleague led,’ says Leong. ‘They create opportunities for colleagues to network, be part of the conversation, and help one another to learn and grow to be better allies.’ 

Suncorp New Zealand — which won the inaugural Excellence in Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Award at the 2019 ANZIIF New Zealand Insurance Industry Awards — also has five grassroots-led employee resource groups: for employees who identify as LGBTIQ+ and their allies; supporters of gender equality; digital natives; over 50s; and carers and people with a disability.

‘I think what has made the journey over a couple of years so successful has been the grassroots input. If it had been leader-led, we simply wouldn’t have got to the position we’re in,’ says Dixon.

Taking action

While insurers are clearly taking action to be more diverse and inclusive, the experts agree: there’s still more that can and should be done.

‘What we haven’t necessarily done as an industry particularly well is say we’ll take a punt on someone who is really interested in becoming skilled from outside the organisation in a particular area, and take that passion and interest for doing something differently and develop it,’ says Dixon.

Says Lehane: ‘From a D&I perspective, a simple tip for hiring managers is to try to avoid “like me” bias when filling roles. If everyone you hire is just like you, that’s not very diverse.’

Whelan suggests there are two key areas that insurers can focus on to improve D&I: leadership culture and presenteeism.

‘We need to re-define leadership to value a broader range of capabilities beyond the traditional notions of toughness, drive, command and control. 

Ideas like “manning up” and “not being a princess” need to be thrown out,’ she says, pointing to the importance of perspective, insight, self-awareness, curiosity, resilience — ‘characteristics that are less gender stereotypical’.

The culture of long hours and presenteeism has to change in order for a broader range of people to be able to fully engage at work.

‘We’ve seen significant breakthroughs in flexible work due to COVID-19,’ says Whelan. 

'Hopefully this has provided some proof that work can be done effectively in a wide range of ways and places, and that output rather than hours are more important when it comes to evaluating performance.’

Are you diverse and inclusive enough?

Kevin Leong, country lead, Singapore at AXA XL, points to five ways a business can assess how diverse or inclusive it is:

  1. Job candidates feel welcome at their interview.

  2. The company values employees’ opinions and ideas.

  3. The workplace is visibly diverse (different ethnicities, genders, abilities, ages, etc.).

  4. There’s emphasis on teamwork and collaboration as tools to build a stronger workplace.

  5. Third-party recognition: such as D&I awards, and index participation


Darryl Adams is an IT systems engineer at Suncorp New Zealand and the NZ Lead of Amplify, Suncorp’s employee resource group for LGBTIQ+ employees and their allies.

What does Amplify do?

Amplify brings together LGBTIQ+ employees and their allies through community events, content and information. We focus on three major events each year: Wear it Purple Day, IDAHOBIT, and the Amplify Birthday. It also provides newsletter articles, podcasts and a Yammer community, and provides awareness training and resources for employees.

What have been some of the group’s recent achievements?

One of our achievements last year was to provide guidance to employees on including personal pronouns in email signatures, to create awareness of diverse gender identity. We have also been actively involved in providing advice on transgender transitioning for employees and have assisted in a staff member in Australia transitioning and explaining this to their colleagues. We are currently involved in working through a guide for customer-facing staff around non-binary / gender-diverse customers.

What difference does having the Amplify resource group make to LGBTIQ+ employees?

It gives our LGBTIQ+ employees a voice and representation within our workplace. One of the best parts about the Amplify group is our wider champions network. A lot of the wider champions network is made up of allies who are able to quickly remediate employee behaviour that is contrary to Suncorp’s culture around caring for others.

Why is diversity and inclusion so important in the workplace?

Without diversity and inclusion being championed, workplaces can become environments where people feel isolated just for being themselves. At Suncorp, we focus on the inclusion part of the diversity and inclusion statement, which leads our employees to feel welcomed and valued. Employee resource groups like Amplify bridge the gap between a wide range of communities in both Australia and New Zealand, and I think in these groups Suncorp has embraced a great system to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace.

Do you think Amplify improves attraction and retention for Suncorp?

I think any organisation that celebrates and embraces the different communities of people within our country and is committed to educating their employees about the challenges faced by those communities, is a workplace that people want to be a part of. By doing this, an organisation is promoting positive energy in the workplace and creating a company culture where people are committed to helping and supporting each other.

This helps them better retain top talent and invites a more diverse pool of candidates when hiring.

Refinitiv 2020 Diversity & Inclusion Index

21 companies in the Asia Pacific made the top 100 in the Refinitiv 2020 Diversity

& Inclusion Index, two of which are insurers.

03 | Sony Corp (Japan)

24 | Home Product Center PCL (Thailand)

31| Singapore Airlines Ltd (Singapore)

35 | Singapore Telecommunications Limited (Singapore)

36 | Shiseido Company Limited (Japan)

37 | DiGi.Com Bhd (Malaysia)

48 | Woolworths Group Ltd (Australia)

50 | AGL Energy Ltd (Australia)

52 | Korea Gas Corp (South Korea)

57 | Petronas Gas Bhd (Malaysia)

58 | Blackmores Limited (Australia)

61 | CSL Limited (Australia)

67 | Cathay Financial Holding Co. Ltd. (Taiwan)

73 | Arvida Group Ltd (New Zealand)

75 | Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Australia)

81 | InvoCare Limited (Australia)

84 | Nomura Holdings Inc (Japan)

87 | NIB Holdings Limited (Australia)

88 | Nestle (Malaysia) Berhad

93 | Ausnet Services Ltd (Australia)

95 | Vita Group Limited (Australia)

Deep Dive on Inclusion 

In October 2020, ANZIIF, Liberty Speciality Markets, SURA and Wotton + Kearney released Local Voice, Global Impact: Deep Dive on Inclusion Survey 2020. Produced by Psynapse Psychometric founder and managing director Jennifer Whelan, more than 600 insurance professionals contributed to the research, which followed up on the first industry survey findings and the inclusion index developed in 2019.

The 2020 inclusion index was 3.8, down from 2019’s score of 4.1, with 1 being not at all inclusive and 6 being very inclusive.

Survey respondents were asked how included they felt at work. The results, below, reflect how groups felt in 2019 compared with 2020.

More included:

  • Men
  • Senior managers
  • People with English as a first language
  • Younger people (18 – 25)

Equally included:

  • LGBTQI+ people
  • Heterosexual people
  • People in operational roles
  • People in business support roles
  • Part-time workers
  • Full-time workers
  • Parents and carers

Less included:

  • People with a disability

Whelan noted that 2020 was an atypical year because of the impact of COVID-19, with 64 per cent of respondents saying their work had changed because of the pandemic. While some people said they found it hard to maintain a work / life balance working from home, others said they were more productive and that it had demonstrated to their leaders that they could be trusted to work independently.

Read the full Journal e-magazine here.

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