Amanda Blanc | Aviva CEO's sexism whistleblowing is the radical honesty we need right now

Aviva CEO's sexism whistleblowing is the radical honesty we need right now

Corporate sexism is alive and well within the workplace, if the alleged experience of Aviva’s Chief Executive Officer, Amanda Blanc, is in any way indicative of the wider professional world. Blanc boldly threw the subject into the spotlight by sharing her own experiences of reportedly fielding abusive comments levelled at her by the company’s own shareholders last week.

Her revelations relate directly to comments reportedly made by as-of-yet-anonymous members of the FTSE100-listed firm’s shareholder group, at its annual AGM on Monday. Among the innumerable deeply misogynistic comments aimed at her include allegations that she was ‘not the man for the job’ and that ‘they (women) are so good at basic housekeeping activities, I'm sure this will be reflected in the direction of the Board in future’.

Another member of the shareholder team questioned if Blanc should be ‘wearing trousers’.

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“In all honesty, after 30+ years in Financial Services I am pretty used to sexist and derogatory comments like those in the AGM yesterday,” Blanc wrote in a LinkedIn post addressing the issues. “Sadly, just like many MANY other women in business, I've picked up my fair share of misogynistic scars whilst travelling on my journey through various companies and boardrooms until arriving at Aviva. We all have our own stories...

“I guess that after you have heard the same prejudicial rhetoric for so long though, it makes you a little immune to it all,” she added.

Tip of the iceberg

Obviously the comments reportedly levelled at Blanc have no grounding; the CEO has been a pioneer of strong and capable female leadership throughout her storied career, with stints at the likes of Zurich, Axa and the Association of British Insurers. Yet the remarks reportedly made to her speak to a much wider issue within female leadership – one which is acutely felt within finance and professional services.

The recent case of Lloyd’s of London handing out a £1million fine to Atrium is a prime example of an historic culture of boys-club-ism; the member firm was found to be complicit in mishandling bullying and sexism issues within its ranks, including an event branded as a ‘boys’ night out’ where some male employees – including two senior executives – took part in inappropriate initiation games and heavy drinking, and made sexual comments about female colleagues that Lloyd’s said were both “discriminatory and harassing” to members of staff, according to a Guardian report.

Even in terms of sheer percentages, these industries are trailing behind in terms of gender equality; an FCA report titled ‘Gender diversity in UK financial services’ discovered that gender diversity is woefully low at the industry level overall, with women making up just around 17% of FCA-approved individuals. Despite several regime shifts, this figure is remarkably unchanged since 2005.

There is a slightly higher share of women in approved roles at larger firms – around 23% compared to smaller ones at 17% – but even these numbers are unacceptably low.

When it comes to assessing seniority, the report assessed a large sample of major institutions and discovered that, whilst the percentage of female senior managers varies, a significant percentage feature extremely low female leadership representation – some as little as three per cent. This is despite an average growth of nine per cent in female representation at these same firms since 2005.

Bigger picture

Sadly, these shocking statistics aren’t contained within the finance and professional services industries. In fact, according to PEW Research Centre data, more than 42% of women have experienced discrimination based on gender at work, whilst the same amount believes they’ve been turned down for a job for this reason. A worrying 23% have been told that they are incompetent based on their gender alone, and ten per cent stated that managers have refused to promote them for the same reason.

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So why is this? Well, in the case of Aviva and Atrium, historic gender bias within the workplace serves as a key impetus for the discrimination that women face, even when simply applying for a job. However, a greater reason exists, as evidenced by Catalys data which found that women hold just 5.8% of CEO positions at S&P Companies. Fundamentally, women have far fewer advocates willing to move the dial and fight for greater equality within senior leadership. The systemic issue with gender bias in the workplace is self-perpetuating, as historic bias prevents progressive female leaders from rising to the top and changing fundamentally broken processes.

In her LinkedIn statement, Blanc noted that she hoped her sector would achieve gender equality and could “slowly eradicate this type of occurrence for the next generation. However, if these same processes continue to inherently disadvantage women, as she states, “in truth that seems a long way off; even with the help of some fantastically supportive men who speak out on the issue.”

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