Workplace equality: Why change is a non-negotiable for the insurance industry in 2021

  • Workplace equality is essential to business sustainability in Australia
  • The insurance industry has the opportunity to drive positive change to meet the expectations of the communities and customers we serve
  • Conversations about family domestic violence and gender-neutral parenting policies are key to challenge outdated gender stereotypes and societal norms.

The concept of a workplace where everyone can expect to be valued and respected for who they are is a familiar one.

Yet many organisations continue to face challenges when it comes to putting this belief into practice, says Catherine McNair, QBE’s Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing.

An inclusive workplace is a non-negotiable in 2021, she says.

“It’s a missed opportunity if businesses aren’t actively seeking to make changes when it comes to embedding inclusivity and equality in their workplaces,” says McNair.

Research shows that companies with an inclusive culture are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, are three times as likely to be high-performing, are six times more likely to be innovative and agile and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes1.

To create and foster inclusive workplaces, businesses need to understand where they are, where they want to be and how to get there, says McNair.

Equality in the insurance sector

The insurance industry has a unique set of challenges when it comes to equality.

While women account for just over half of Australia’s workforce, in insurance and finance that percentage is higher – 54.3%, the fourth-highest industry percentage2. However, only 41.8 per cent of managers in insurance and finance are women.

Creating equality requires cultural change to remove the barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce, says McNair and, visible symbols and role models are key.

“It comes down to, ‘can I see what I can be?’,” McNair says. “Visible role models are power symbols of whether an individual feels they can succeed in an organisation and whether they feel safe to be themselves.

“For example, one immediate opportunity is the diversification of speakers at conferences to ensure male and female emerging talent are included. Having equal voices at the table enables the breadth of the community to see a positive future for themselves.

“We have to be very conscious of the symbols and messages we’re sharing, and about the stories we’re telling about the experience of working in a company and in an industry.”

The key to change: inclusive culture

Ultimately, for true change to happen, an inclusive workplace culture needs to be driven from the top, and behavioral expectations must be well defined, says McNair.

Companies also need to hold themselves to account and they need to be courageous in the decisions they make. Leaders play an essential role and must set the example.

“Like other organsiations, we recognise we’re on the journey and remain committed to making positive changes to further improve our workplace culture,” says McNair who adds diversity and inclusion is a priority for QBE leadership.

How QBE leaders are choosing to challenge inequality


To mark International Women’s Day we sat down with some of our QBE leaders who shared how they have chosen to challenge gender inequality in the insurance industry.

Stepping up – leadership in 2021

Many businesses have been working hard to present equal opportunities, create balanced workforces and foster inclusive workplaces for some time. So, what’s next?

McNair acknowledges the significant effort organisations have continued to make but suggests there is an opportunity to think about gender equality in different way. “When we consider what holds women back in their careers, there is no end of research that tells us its career breaks and working flexibly, so what if that became mainstream for both men and women,” she asks.

“It’s an ingrained social norm that women care and men work,” she says. “As a result, some men have shared with us they didn’t know they could access leave beyond the secondary carer’s offering of two weeks.

“Even when they do, the social attitudes are so strong that the response they get – whether it’s verbal or body language – is ‘why would you want to do that?

“We need to mainstream caring as something both men and women do.”

A simple deconstruction and repositioning of QBE’s parental leave policy – removing terms such as primary and secondary caregiver and talking instead about shared care – saw a significant uptick in people making use of the policy after the birth of a child at QBE.

Rather than thinking of parental leave as a 12 week block we repositioned it as 60 days’ available over two years and made it available on a flexible basis. This saw an immediate uptake of employees making the decision to access paid parental leave 1 day a week for 50 weeks with an overall 300% uplift in men taking leave.

“This was an immediate equaliser for our people as parental leave is something men and women do,” says McNair. “It also prompted an openness to share stories and start new conversations where both men and women talked about their parenting experiences.”

McNair also calls out the systemic social norms that underpin gender equality. “There are some powerful social norms that we receive from an early age that underpin very negative attitudes towards women,” McNair says. “And if we’re going to tackle gender equality at its absolute root, we’ve got to tackle the cause.”

Conversations around family and domestic violence may be uncomfortable for some, but McNair says encouraging discussion is essential to promote greater understanding and awareness of the issue for ourselves, our families and friends.

Family and domestic violence is complex and may include financial abuse, coercive control, physical and emotional abuse. It requires a comprehensive workplace response to signal commitment and an understanding of the unique needs of those affected.

“Of course, it’s about supporting the breadth of the community that are affected by domestic violence – the LGBTIQ+ community, Indigenous communities, men, women and children, people in existing relationships and people who’ve left those relationships.

Ultimately making changes and actively seeking progress, defines the identity of an organisation, concludes McNair.

“It's not just about the workplace experience. It's about who you are as an organisation, the experience we expect customers to have - and how organisations want to be represented in the community.”

And when all of that’s aligned, organisations are not only creating a better world for everyone but creating sustainable workplaces and businesses.

Top tips for business to address equality in 2021 
  • Drive a workplace culture where everyone can feel a sense of inclusion and belonging
  • Encourage and value contributions and respectful challenges from all
  • Mainstream parental leave for men and women, remove gendered terms and provide flexibility in how the policy can be accessed
  • Establish a family domestic violence policy, but more importantly, focus on raising awareness and understanding so people have confidence to access the support
  • Promptly address inappropriate workplace behaviour
  • Be deliberately curious about others and debunk stereotypes
  • Promote inclusion champions across the organisation. 


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The advice in this article is general in nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You must decide whether or not it is appropriate, in light of your own circumstances, to act on this advice.