A Pioneer and Trailblazer

Written by: Victoria Wæthing

17.12.2020

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Inga Beale was the first female CEO at Lloyds Insurance during the company’s 330-year history. Being a bisexual woman, she has been confronted with a double bias. She used her position and power to create a global ripple effect in the industry by demanding equality for women and minorities.  

Inga Beale started working in the City of London during the eighties. The city was filled with grey skyscrapers, grey suits, and the only women were the secretaries—apart from a very few women at the forefront of their generation. Equality wasn’t their main agenda, rather they were doing a job they were passionate about. You could see them from afar, as no women were allowed to wear trousers. They had to wear a skirt or a dress. “I never really thought about being a woman. I was actually one of the guys, going to pubs and being a part of a team. I didn’t feel as though I was battling for women’s rights. I was doing my job,” recalls Beale. 

That is until she was confronted with misogyny within the company, discovering that her male colleagues had plastered her desk with posters of near-naked women. She left the company then and there and headed to Australia, where Beale found a temporary job at the BBC. Although she was working at reception, by having a female leader and role model, this would become the job that changed her way of thinking about women in business. “People did not refer to her as woman, but rather as the boss,” says Beale.  

Back to Insurance 

After a year abroad, Beale went back to London and started working at her old job. She refused to sign a permanent contract and  figured that she could work there while deciding where to work next. Finance and insurance are industries that pay well, and it would be a good place to get back into the workflow of London. After a year, the division closed, and Beale would get a job offer at General Electric (GE) in insurance. When she accepted this offer, it felt like making an important statement to herself. She was definitely back in the insurance business.  

The Secrets WKeep 

Beale believes that her time in Sydney both changed and matured her, and coming back to London, she realised that she did not have to be one of the guys.  

Yet, there were still some barriers that were not that easy to overcome.  

At this time, Beale had started a serious relationship with a woman. This was before long before cell phones, and all calls coming to the company would have to go through reception. In order for her to avoid uncomfortable questions and stigma from her colleagues, Beale asked her partner not to call her during work hours. “It became my secret.”  

Finding Her Confidence 

When Beale was offered her first promotion, she declined. Not feeling confident enough, she could not see herself as a leader. Fortunately, there was a Danish woman at a senior position who encouraged Beale to take the job, and asked her: Tell us what you want in order to take this job. Beale answered that she would like to attend a week-long course in assertiveness for women.  

Coming back from this course filled with confidence, she accepted the promotion. GE was in the forefront of proactive actions towards women and minorities. Having initiated targets aimed at having gender diversity, Beale’s boss found himself not receiving part of a bonus if he could not meet his target numbers, in this case promoting a woman to manager level.  

“Real gender differences and social pressure exists. I know from personal experience.” She continues,

“That’s why I also know that quotas and proactive measures can have a real impact.” 

Pushed Herself Forward 

For several years Beale worked in the US, France, Switzerland and Germany before moving back to London where she became the CEO of a mid-size insurance company. At the same time, there were several women working in senior positions in insurance in London. These women decided to found the Insurance Supper Club (ISC Group). Creating their own network, these women would meet and exchange experience and offering support to each other.  

The women met for breakfast and discussed who might fill the role of the next CEO of Lloyd’s, as the incumbent was stepping down. They soon realised that not even one of these women had been approached by the headhunter to provide names of women for the role. Knowing all the female senior leaders in insurance in London, they were confident that no women were being considered for the position. Beale and one of the other women made an appointment to see the Chairman of Lloyd’s. “We left the meeting feeling a bit down-hearted, as the Chairman had told us that if women wanted to be considered, they would have to push themselves forward.”  

New Leader and a New Era 

Pushing themselves forward was exactly what these women did, and a couple of days later Beale received a call from the headhunter. He wanted her to come in for an interview. “At first I thought they called me in for an interview because we had banged the table a bit by demanding that women should be considered as well.”  

However, a few months and several interviews later, it was clear that Lloyd’s was not window dressing. Beale was experienced in the insurance business and had worked in many countries; she was the best candidate for the job. In 2013, Inga Beale was hired as the first female CEO of Lloyd’s. 

When starting her new job as CEO, Beale had all the confidence and support of the board, and her first item on the agenda was how to digitalize Lloyd’s. Not exactly a small task at hand, considering all previous attempts to modernize the company and thus thousands of people, had failed. Beale succeeded.  

Woman in Charge 

Although Beale had the support of the company when she started at Lloyd’s, the headlines in the media were a bit mixed. Although the traditional media showed support, the media outlets that specialized in insurance had some rather misogynist headlines claiming that the Names—the founders of Lloyd’s—would turn in their graves seeing a woman as CEO.  

Beale would only experience more criticism as she became more vocal about diversity. “When you are CEO of Lloyd’s, you are running an entire market, and the ripple effect is huge.  I did not know how it would go down in the market when I started pushing the tough issues like gender and racial equality, and LGBTQ rights.”  

Pushing for gender equality, diverse ideas and creativity in a market where everybody was thinking the same way they had always done, the “Dive in Festival” was launched. A global festival that since its beginning six years ago, includes the entire insurance sector and spans thirty-six countries.   

Old Arguments and Glass Ceilings 

In the autumn of 2017, the #metoo movement swept across the western world. At Lloyd’s there was already a big momentum for women and minorities, yet Beale regrets that they did not do even more to uncover what may have happened earlier. Although there has been a shift, and both London City and global companies all over the world are accepting more women, Beale says she is amazed how we can still debate quotas and leadership. “I am sick of these arguments about meritocracy, because it implies that women are not as competent as men, and that it is not possible to find women to fill 40 percent of a board or top management. It is ridiculous.” 

First the Laws—Then the Culture 

In order to create change – to be a good leader who acknowledge equality and diversity, Beale believes it is crucial that a leader actually believes in what they are preaching.  

“Focusing on women and minority groups, that’s the easy part. It is mandatory, and by focusing on that, we have neutralized the situation. The real work starts when we have the conversation about behaviour. When we start to understand that one door is closed to some groups, but open to others. First, we make the policy laws, then we attack the culture.” 

Leader Listensand Makes the Tough Decisions 

Looking back on a very successful career that is far from over, Beale believes that mentors and sponsors have been the most helpful to her in achieving her goals. “You need to surround yourself with people that egg you on.”  

Beale says she believes in the power of people, and considers the ability to listen as probably one of the most important characteristics of being a leader. She also emphasizes that being a leader takes courage. At the end of the day, the CEO is the one with the power, the one who must make the tough decisions—and ultimately change the company and attitudes. And that takes courage. •