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The juggling act

By Cécile Fresneau
Managing Director, Insurance Division

Women’s experiences in the underwriting space reflect the existing gender gap at senior level. As the juggling act rolls on, Cécile Fresneau welcomes men to join the circus too

I’ve heard it asked if women are underestimated, undervalued, underutilised (or even uninterested) in senior positions and opportunities in underwriting.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s any of the above.

There are many, very talented women in underwriting – and at junior levels we’ve got good, equal gender representation. But there is a complex dynamic around progression.


The juggling act

Underwriting is an outward-facing role interacting with clients and brokers – and as such, we may feel like we’re not completely in control of our own time and diary. As we move into more senior levels, Portfolio Manager and above, there’s also an added responsibility for delivering on Profit & Loss (P&L). I think a combination of these factors can make it daunting or unattractive for women who are progressing with multiple demands– particularly if they’re having a family and looking after children. It really does become challenging.

Often, women must weigh competing demands from stakeholders, and if there is a sense of not being able to deliver against all of them, choosing ‘balance’ may mean not going for those senior roles.

This is where we may need to rethink some of the structure of the roles that we have at more senior levels. Undoubtedly, there are assumptions that senior roles must be full-time, with high office hours. While it’s true that underwriting does require facetime with clients and brokers, working culture post-pandemic has seen welcome change to the status quo.

I won’t pretend that if you’ve got a demanding job and responsibilities on the home front, it’s not a lot to handle. But employers can restructure senior roles to help women achieve a realistic balance. Remote working, compressed hours, part-time/job sharing roles can all be accessed at senior levels.

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that if a woman isn’t giving 100% to either work or family, she might feel she’s underachieving. What ‘good’ looks like can be very personal and the benchmark that people set themselves will be different for everyone – but I think it’s so crucial to remember that one person’s 100% could align with someone else’s 80%.

And if 80% gets the job done, it’s enough – work smarter, not harder.


Men should join the circus too

We talk frequently about women juggling or spinning plates. But it’s so important to think about how we can normalise men being part of that juggling act in their own personal and work lives.

It’s telling when I see men taking parental leave, and experience for the first time what women have experienced for a long time. They take time off work and spend time at home with a baby, before returning to the office with the same concerns women have, often without realising that women have been asking themselves those questions all along.

‘What is parental leave doing to my career progression? Will it be hard reintegrating in the team?’

There are some great equalisers, and I think that parental leave is one of them. The more men take it up, the more the conversation can move away from gender-based expectations, at home, in caring responsibilities, and at work.


The leadership mindset

There is a different dynamic at play for women in underwriting. I don’t think a woman has ever entered my office to express a desire for a specific senior position – or really challenged me on how they might get one. But I have plenty of men coming in and communicating the role they want.

I always wonder why women aren’t coming forward and asking in the same way, and I think there is a tendency for women to be quite harsh in self-assessment, with a focus on the gaps rather than acquired knowledge and skills. It’s true that if women don’t consider themselves able to tick every box for a new role they often hold back – but the reality is that the rest can be learnt on the job.

Is it a lack of confidence or a tendency towards perfectionism? We all wonder if these traits are instilled in little girls from the start, but either way, broader societal dynamics play a part. From this angle, we must look at cultivating a leadership mindset in women, rather than the skill sets alone.

My advice is to look for ways to grow your confidence. Confidence will drive you out of your comfort zone and allow you to look at the skills and experience you do have and understand how to make them work for you.

I’m often disappointed when I reach out and tap the shoulder of women to invite them to apply for a more senior role, only to hear: ‘Oh no, that’s not for me. I can’t do this, this, and this – and I’m not sure how well I’d do.’

I don't think I’ve ever had that response from a man. From men, I expect to hear: ‘Help me understand why you think I’m the right person. What should I leverage for the role?’

Actively turn your doubts into positive enquiries: ‘Why are you tapping me on the shoulder? What do you see in me?’ and go for these opportunities, even if you don’t get it the first time.

The worst thing that can happen is that someone says no. But the experience is invaluable.

In the process, you meet people you might not have met before and interview with people who might not have known you or your talents. Here you allow yourself the opportunity to follow up on career discussions, receive useful feedback and improve your skills. Three big wins, just from the experience of applying – not to mention the fact that you might get the job.


International Women’s Day, as always, brings home how important our responsibility is to the next generation of female underwriters. I’m committed to making it easier for younger women coming through the ranks, and those women aspiring to take more senior positions. Engaging in dialogue to share my experience is just one thing I can do to model routes to success in underwriting.




This article first appeared in Insurance Post

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Cecile Fresneau

Cecile Fresneau

Managing Director, Insurance