Aviva chief warns of worsening sexism after ‘appalling’ AGM comments

Aviva’s chief executive Amanda Blanc warned that sexism she has faced as a senior executive has become more intense, after comments made at the insurer’s AGM this week triggered a swift backlash across the sector.

Remarks leveled at Blanc, appointed in March 2021 as the UK government’s Women in Finance champion, drew condemnation from senior executives across the industry, who described the episode as “appalling” and “more frequent”.

Aviva’s chair George Culmer rebuked individual shareholders at the end of the meeting on Monday after comments, first reported by the Financial Times, including that Blanc was “not the man for the job” and that she should be “wearing trousers”.

After a fierce backlash against the remarks on social media, Blanc took to the networking site LinkedIn late on Tuesday, writing: “I would like to tell you that things have got better in recent years but it’s fair to say that it has actually increased – the more senior the role I have taken, the more overt the unacceptable behavior.”

She added: “The surprising thing is that this type of stuff used to be said in private, perhaps from the safety of four walls inside an office – the fact that people are now making these comments in a public AGM is a new development for me personally. “

Blanc, who became the FTSE 100 insurer’s first female chief executive when she joined in 2020, drew support from other industry bosses as well as hundreds of well-wishers on social media.

Penny James, chief executive at fellow insurer Direct Line, told the FT the comments “brought into the open the sexism we know still exists” and credited Aviva’s senior staff for calling out the behavior.

“When I started out in business you were expected to just tolerate such remarks,” James said. “It’s up to all of us to speak up as that’s how you change the culture, champion diversity and make it easier for the next generation who will follow.”

Mastercard’s Ann Cairns, global chair of the 30% Club, added that the comments “should have no place in today’s corporate Britain. But sadly they persist.

“Amanda’s experience is shared by other female leaders, corporate and political. . . I was reassured by George Culmer’s rejection of the inexcusable language and behavior. We need men to lead by example and stamp on this quickly and effectively. “

Sheila Cameron, chief executive of the Lloyd’s Market Association, a trade body representing underwriters, said the “disgraceful” comments proved efforts to improve culture had “a very long way to go”. She added: “For those in the public eye like Amanda, it’s clear that those types of comments have become more frequent, particularly on social media and below online press articles.”

Julie Page, UK chief executive at professional services group Aon, said such comments undermined efforts “to drive gender diversity and attract female talent into the financial sector”. Meanwhile Hannah Gurga, director-general of the Association of British Insurers, said: “These comments are appalling and there is no place or grounds for such language in society.”

Romi Savovachief executive of pensions company PensionBee, said the “derogatory comments. . . remind us that sadly, much remains to be done to achieve gender equality and respect for women’s successes in the workplace “.

The insurance sector has struggled to stamp out sexism despite drives in each part of the industry to improve culture. In March, the insurance market Lloyd’s of London handed out its first fine for personal misconduct, sanctioning behavior at underwriting group Atrium that included sexual harassment.

“Just like many MANY other women in business, I’ve picked up my fair share of misogynistic scars whilst traveling on my journey through various companies and boardrooms until arriving at Aviva,” Blanc wrote on LinkedIn. “I guess that after you have heard the same prejudicial rhetoric for so long though, it makes you a little immune to it all.”

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