Linking Lloyd’s market idiosyncrasies to the #metoo debate misses the mark

Do the quirks of the Lloyd’s market make it a breeding ground for sexual discrimination?

That was the question that lay at the heart of a lengthy Bloomberg Businessweek article yesterday. It was a hot topic of discussion in our newsroom and I’m sure other London insurance offices as well.

There is a clear risk that some traditions make it more likely that problems will emerge, most notably the enduring popularity of the lunchtime and after-work pint in market pubs.

However, I think the feeling in our office was that dwelling on Lloyd’s idiosyncrasies was where the article fell into a trap.

It must have been incredibly hard for the journalist to extract stories from women because of some of the issues it highlighted, including the fear of wrecking future careers if complaints are voiced. A lot of the personal testimony in the piece also drew on previous commentary from former Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale in interviews given during her tenure.

But as a result, the stories from interviewees that should have come to the fore were largely sidelined and, ironically, given less weight than a welter of detail on arcane Lloyd’s operating practices.

Some of this detail seemed to be taking market parody at face value (“One does not wear brown shoes” – tell that to the shoe police on Lime St).

Other points raised focused on issues that seem peripheral to the question at hand, such as be-suited bell-ringers and paper slips.

Harassment in the industry is undoubtedly a problem, but whether or not it is any more common than in any other male-dominated industry is less clear, and whether Lloyd’s traditions act as an incubator for bad behaviour is also questionable. We are hearing of instances of problematic behaviour in the US industry as well, where there is no such thing as a slip or underwriting box.

That’s not to say that discriminatory behaviour is excused in Lloyd’s because it exists elsewhere – just that we need to look beyond the surface detail if we want to try to fix it.

As one example, the article hypothesised that the industry has a thin rank of senior women “because so many are forced out in their 20s and 30s by the constant stream of harassment from male colleagues”.

Without knowing more about the stories behind the piece, it seems far more likely that the shortfall of women progressing up the ranks is due to lack of flexible work opportunities for both men and women – a theme common to many industries trying to retain women as they start families.

Ironically, this is something the Corporation of Lloyd’s is trying to address by launching a new family care and flexible working policy.

We at The Insurance Insider are in the odd position of being embedded in the industry but at the same time one step removed – and potentially more insulated from its problems given our own supportive and diverse workplace environment.

But claims of persistent harassment that are “thriving” and “deep-seated” in the Lloyd’s culture are hugely strong statements that I would argue overplay the industry’s problems.

There are undoubtedly some pockets of “old boys clubbers” hanging on in the industry but in general the market that I have got to know over the past eight years is populated both by talented women making their way up and modern men who don’t treat women like objects.

Whether you think that paper-pushing is symbolic of the market’s resistance to change or not, if talking about paperwork comes into this debate then it has failed.

Ultimately, far more valuable in achieving change will be highlighting women’s stories and for all those industry insiders who read the Bloomberg article and thought “this is not my industry” to stand up and make sure of it.

Support colleagues who may be dealing with sexist bosses, introduce HR protocols that manage such situations when they arise and encourage female staff to speak at public events.

And to NOT do puerile things like write phrases such as "How many naked ladies would..." on the blackboard in the Lamb Tavern the day an article like this is doing the rounds, showing your worst selves and making female journalists question why they should stick out their neck to defend the industry. 

It is because of this kind of bad behaviour from a few, letting the majority down, that we want to encourage change from within the industry.

That’s why some of my colleagues have been hard at work pushing forward diversity initiatives that so far have had an incredible take-up.

Treating the Lloyd’s market as some kind of weird anachronism will repel those in the market from engaging with the real issues, instead of highlighting the more prosaic reality that it is another everyday domain where, unfortunately, women sometimes get harassed.

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