It’s not enough to recognise that gender diversity is an issue and assume it will fix itself.

Gender diversity is a business problem, which needs to be attacked in the same way as any other business problem.

This was the key message of Willis Australasia’s Inaugural Diversity Symposium, held in Sydney in September.

The symposium brought together Australian and international industry leaders to discuss issues surrounding gender diversity in business. Speakers and panelists were drawn from the insurance industry and other fields, such as law, construction, human resources and psychology.

Their goal? To inspire the attendees at the conference – all senior people, most of them insurance executives – to go back to their organisations and push for change. And there’s no doubt change is needed.

It’s no secret that the insurance industry – particularly the broking business – is considered ‘blokey’. This perception is grounded in hard data:  statistics from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) show that only 3.7% of females hold the position of CEO or Head of Business in the general insurance industry, compared with 13.7% in all industries. The gender pay gap in general insurance is a massive 30.7%.

This lack of gender diversity has a significant financial cost. Transfield Services Chairman and Wesfarmers Non-Executive Director Diane Smith-Gander says: “Just think of all the money that’s been spent on the training and development of women who have then decided it’s all too hard – due to issues like childcare and the gender pay gap.”

Similarly, Willis Australasia CEO Roger Wilkinson made clear that diversity is an economic necessity.

“More than 30% of corporate insurance buyers in the UK and North America are now women. Diversity is a key need for sustainable business,” Wilkinson says.

So how can businesses bring about change?

Setting Strategy

Attempting to improve gender diversity in an organisation without the active support of senior leaders is practically impossible.

But the strategic perspective of senior leaders, although imperative, it’s not enough. Mechanisms to implement a diversity policy at an operational level are also essential.

The 100% Project General Manager Jenny Simonovska is an expert in the area of gender bias. Speaking at the symposium, she explained the concept of unconscious bias: years of socialisation form habits in people’s thinking, which goes on to affect their decision-making.

But research shows that simply being aware that unconscious bias exists – and consciously trying to override it – doesn’t work. Businesses need to institutionalise strong policies and processes in order to disrupt gender bias.

Donna Walker, CGU Executive General Manager of Broker Business and chair of IAG’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Group, echoed this approach. A panelist at the symposium, Walker was emphatic that relying solely on merit to promote women doesn’t work.

“If it did, we’d have more women in leadership,” Walker says, referring to the fact that, while over-represented in tertiary education, women still remain under-represented in senior roles in virtually every professional sphere. “There’s something intrinsic in organisations that’s making it difficult for women to progress,” Walker adds.

Walker gave some examples of recruitment policies that can be put in place to increase gender diversity in organisations – such as those at IAG: at least one male and one female required when interviewing candidates, and a minimum of one male and one female candidate shortlisted for all leadership roles.

These initiatives work: Telstra, a company known for its innovative diversity and inclusion practices, has set expectations for recruiters to provide gender diverse shortlists.

This led to the female graduate intake at Telstra increasing from 29% to 41% in 2012.

Telstra has also implemented the All Roles Flex initiative, where flexibility is the starting condition of every role.

A line manager must prove why a role can’t be executed flexibly before they refuse a flexibility request. Similarly, IAG is talking about ‘flipping the mindset’ so that flexible working practices will become the default position, with a business case required to explain why a role can’t be done flexibly.

The Way Forward

Although inroads are starting to be made, there’s obviously a long way to go before gender equality is achieved – particularly in the insurance industry. After all, as symposium panelist and lawyer Peter Jones notes: “We’re looking at changing decades of social engineering, so it won’t change overnight.”

But, as Donna Walker says: “The fact we are talking about these issues means we are firmly on the right track.”

Smith-Gander believes that part of the solution is for individuals to embrace diversity of style.

“Women often get style feedback, such as ‘you need to be more assertive’,” Smith-Gander says.

“But diversity of style is something we’re going to have to get used to if we really want difference and diversity.”

At the same time, it’s imperative to understand that gender diversity isn’t a female-only issue. “If you have a daughter or a wife or a sister or a mother, then gender diversity affects you,” Smith-Gander says.