by Mwangi Githahu

Women making strides in the South African insurance industry

Women are beginning to make significant strides in South Africa’s insurance industry


Even though they remain in the minority in the boardroom and face significant challenges including recognition of their value in the workplace, representation and participation at C-Suite level, women are beginning to make significant strides in South Africa’s insurance industry

To get to the heart of the matter, I spoke to seven leading women in the field about the state of women in the trade and the state of South African insurance in general.

Dr Sybil Seoka, chairperson of the board at the Professional Provident Society Insurance company said, “For many years, the insurance industry was male dominated. We have seen great progress being made in elevating the role of women, but there is still a long way to go.”

Dr Seoka, a pharmacist by training, said she thinks a concerted effort is required to boost the number of women in leadership roles in the industry.

With her wide-ranging experience, including directorships on a number of corporate boards, Dr Seoka is firmly of the view that women are underrepresented in the boardrooms of the South african insurance industry. “Gender equality remains a huge challenge in the South Africa environment, even though we live in a country that promotes a non-sexist society. According to the African Development Bank research, South African women make up 17.4% in boardrooms, with Kenya leading the pack at 19.8%”

Jacqui Jooste, the CEO of Coface Insurance Company, also quoted statistics of the underrepresentation of women in insurance industry boardrooms. She said that “Based on a recent South Africa Board Index report by Spencer Stuart (one of the world’s leading global executive search and leadership consulting firms), women represent 25% of non-executive directors on leading South African boards. Progress in the boardroom is still slow with 18.3% of board members (non-executive or executive) being women and only 6.4% being female executive directors.”

Liza Mare-Harmse, Head of Risk Finance, Corporate and Niche at Old Mutual Insure, thought there could be a number of solutions to the underrepresentation of women in the industry’s C-Suites. “If experience is a reason, I believe that there are a myriad of experienced ‘grey haired gentlemen’ who may have become ‘too old’ to serve on the Boards of their companies who could mentor talented ladies to grow to the next level.”

She added, “In some instances, as women, we need to take the challenge and team up with mentors who could guide us to grow into the roles. I am a strong believer in people reaching levels on merit and therefore believe that it is each woman’s responsibility to develop the skills themselves.”

Dr Seoka agreed saying, “There is a saying in Zulu: Only the one that hunts catches.” She explained that the proverb could be taken to mean that “Women need to intentionally get out there and ensure that they are a force to be reckoned with and are not at the mercy of men.”

Ronel Botha, financial director at short term insurance provider African Unity Life, concurred, “Yes, it is tough [for a woman] in the ‘man’s world’ of finance.” She added, “Women are generally more emotional than men and often [among men] a display of emotion is seen as a weakness. As a woman, one needs to be consciously aware of one’s emotions. When I am part of a difficult discussion, which could provoke emotion, I focus on listening with the intention of understanding, instead of with the intent to react.”

Botha explained, “It is very important to set your boundaries to position yourself in such a way that you will be exposed to growth opportunities. A woman, in a finance career, can easily end up being a person who executes tasks on behalf of a colleague instead of developing strategic business skills.”

She had this advice for women mapping their route to the top, “There is a lot of politics in business. Always keep your eyes on the ball and not the player. If you focus on doing the best you can do, it will keep you clear from company politics. You can build bonds of trust without being part of destructive politics.”

Speaking about the current state of the South African insurance industry in general, Lynette Bisschoff, who serves as the OUTsurance Exco and is Group Chief Risk Officer and head of Compliance, was of the opinion, “People have less money to spend on insurance premiums. We see trends like people driving less and therefore having fewer accidents. This means the economy is impacting on our behaviour and aspects of our risk profiles.”

She added, “But the insurance industry has an important role to play, especially during times where people feel they cannot afford insurance. A significant event, which may be completely out of a person’s control, can cause major financial difficulties to an uninsured person. We must continue to educate consumers around the importance of insurance for long-term financial security.”

Sasha Knott, CEO of Switch2, a division of Clientèle Life, had similar thoughts, saying, “Many industries are struggling in the current climate but insurance seems to be innovative enough with helping consumers sign up easily, with great new products.”

Knott, who was recently nominated for the Businesswomen Association of SA Award, said, “It is a tough industry with lots of competition so success is really more about who can innovate and implement fast enough, not just innovate.”

Jacqui Jooste explained, “The current South African [business] environment is troubled by various systemic risks in various industries that may have knock on effects that lead to protracted default, business rescue and/or liquidation.” However, she pointed out that “The upside to this in the insurance industry is that it makes business sense for prospective clients to pursue credit insurance and reduce their credit risk.” Nevertheless, there is also a downside which is “that this increased credit risk requires increased vigilance in terms of clients’ credit risk management and from us as an insurer in mitigating these risks.”

She suggests, “In order to achieve this, it is important to increase levels of cooperation between client credit departments and ourselves as insurers to ensure proper due diligence is taken and credit risk is proactively managed. There is also a need for increased focus on internal due diligence, as well as reaching out to companies through whom we are exposed to credit risks, to obtain a better understanding of the risks that exist and allowing mitigation of these where possible.”

The insurance industry is always evolving, with new products and technologies, and one of the ways this is happening is that insurers are using technology to make insurance more accessible to consumers. Lynette Bisschoff adds, “ This also gives consumers options around how they interact with their insurance company - some of us like talking to a person whilst others prefer a more digital experience. Product offerings are becoming simpler and more focussed on what consumers need, rather than what insurers find easier to offer.”

Technological innovation and evolution is where Sumarie Greybe, co-founder of Naked - a new generation insurance business - comes in. She observed that, “Africa’s traditional insurers have been slow to embrace the opportunities of digital technology, especially compared to the way banks have embedded mobile and the web in their user experience and operations for years. This is a concern for the wider industry since it means African insurers are at risk of disruption by international companies with lean operations and great digital customer interfaces.”

Greybe said there are great opportunities for new players who use technology to empower customers and reduce costs. “We started Naked because we wanted to be part of a new wave of insurance companies that want to change the insurance experience for the better, while passing cost-savings on to customers,” she said.

Explaining that digital technology empowers customers, reduces production costs and brings about new levels of transparency in the relationships between consumers and providers, Greybe said this innovation would ensure that “insurance will undergo massive changes in the next five years. Artificial intelligence and automation are reducing costs because we no longer need to run massive call centres and back-offices to serve customers.”

She added, “Self-service via mobile apps or the web gives customers more control over their relationships with insurers as well as the ability to compare costs and policies more easily than they could in the past. This is just the start of a revolution that will completely change the insurance operating model in the years to come.”

Dr Seoka agreed, saying that the constant evolution of the industry had left many insurers with no choice but to adapt to the ever-changing environment in order to thrive. “The rise of smartphones, for example, has consumers expecting to use their mobile devices for all purposes including dealing with their insurers. In an era of instant gratification, it’s important that insurers start to provide a digital customer experience where customers can engage with insurers whenever and wherever, in order to remain relevant,” she said.

She observed, “This is a trend that will continue to rise for years to come. Also, millennials are demanding products that suit their needs, and not a one-size-fits-all approach. The result is insurers are continuously working to develop innovative products that meet the ever-changing needs of the customers, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated consumers.”

Sasha Knott recalled her early days in insurance saying, “When I started in the insurance industry I thought it was going to be a bit boring, but things have definitely changed. Some phenomenal companies are allowing you to sign up for insurance all online with no lengthy phone calls. This is a game changer in the industry.” Knott spoke about some of the new products on offer for the technological age saying “Insure-Tech is definitely a growing, fascinating industry to be in now, with a number of brilliant technology innovations and products.”

Speaking of the future of the industry across Africa, but with particular focus on South Africa, Liza Mare-Harmse from Old Mutual Insure said, “What excites me about the future in Africa is the untapped potential. Risk Finance is relatively unknown throughout Africa and this means that the opportunities are vast.” She added, “It means we would need to do a lot of education around what risk finance is and how it can add value to the traditional insurance industry. At the same time, the challenges are huge.”

She explained that besides the challenging regulatory environment, “there are also many monopolies in certain countries of their local players and we as South Africans are not always welcome in some of the other African countries. This means that we need to tread carefully and grow country by country with the right partners and local staff to support the business.”

On how to transform the insurance industry to ensure more women are attracted to it and rise to the top, Sumarie Greybe thinks, “The place to start is with our young girls. Growing up I always knew that I would study and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to because I was lucky enough to be told this all the time as a child. We need to make sure every young girl is built up with the confidence and education to succeed. At Naked, we are passionate about women in tech because women are underrepresented among developers – girls need to be given the opportunities to get involved with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics from a young age.”

Ronel Botha concurs and says the financial sector needs to do more to address the financial needs of women. “There is a need for basic financial education for many women in South Africa. The Financial sector can make a significant difference by educating and empowering women to understand basic practical concepts to become financially independent,” she said.

Jacqui Jooste says that well-constructed boards must by definition contain a diversity of perspectives adding that a diverse board makes for better debate, “which leads to improved decision making and eventually results in better performance.”

She adds, “It is interesting to note that both quota systems and non-binding government-driven targets are effective means of increasing proportions; however transformation is not only the government’s responsibility. Every company should have a strategy in place to focus on gender mainstreaming.” 

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