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Women urged to pursue leadership ambitions

Conference panel: Sophia Greaves, left, Laurie Forkas, and Stacey Apter, who spoke about women in the captive industry at the Bermuda Captive Conference (Photograph by Scott Neil)

Be yourself, know your self-worth, have trusted confidants and have a passion for what you do. Those were among advice and thoughts shared by three women who work in the captive insurance industry.

They spoke at the Bermuda Captive Conference, which started yesterday and this year has the theme of diversity in risk, talent and products.

Stacy Apter, Laurie Forkas and Sophia Greaves were on a panel titled “Women in the captive industry: empowering industry awareness”, that reflected on anecdotal evidence indicating there is a dearth of female leadership in the captive and related service industries, but also noted that some women have made it to the C-suite.

Ms Greaves, director at Conyers Dill and Pearman, said that at a very young age a sense of self-worth was instilled in her. “Our role is to pave a path that aligns to our own sense of identity as well as our own sense of fulfilment,” she said.

Identifying a leadership value that has been most impactful in advancing her career, she said it was important to be honest with yourself.

“You have to have the fact-chat sessions with yourself; who am I really, what do I really want, and am I really willing to put in that sort of work? Those very honest conversations are hugely important,” she said.

While Ms Apter, assistant treasurer at The Coca Cola Company, advised: “Find what you are passionate about and be good at it.”

She said it was important to be free to pursue your passion rather than do something because it is what a woman or a man “is supposed to do”.

Ms Apter said organisations are becoming smarter about how to create a work environment that delivers better results by having diversified teams, whether that is diversity of gender or nationality.

“If you are in a predominantly male environment what you do from a team standpoint is you do what is natural. Women and men are different; the natural thing that a guy might do does not encourage that open diverse thought and contribution. We are getting smarter about that, but companies are still learning how to do that and overcome some of the natural biases that we all have,” she said.

Moderator Dawn Simons, executive vice-president, Aon, asked the panel how they would describe the current state of the gender balance and diversity, and what challenges women face.

Ms Greaves said: “Notwithstanding the strides that have been made, there remains significant gaps in terms of balance and equity.”

One challenge is the pressure “to fit a certain mode”, which she felt was defeatist. “It is incumbent on companies to encourage authenticity, and for people to pursue their passions and identify what their weaknesses are and what their strengths are,” she added.

On striking a work and life balance, Ms Apter noted that when she worked in accounting during the 1990s and had children, she had been allowed a flexible work schedule. This was something she has also been granted at The Coca Cola Company.

She explained: “I needed a flexible schedule so that we were at least having dinner together as a family.” Once her children had been put to bed, she would fire up her computer and continue with her work.

“It was very awkward initially, because if I’m leaving the office at 4pm, everybody’s looking to say, ‘Well, she’s not really committed or working hard’. That has completely changed and in that way we have made tremendous strides with flexible work schedules and working from home. All of the things we enjoy now was certainly not the norm back then.”

Offering advice for anyone finding themselves at a sticking point in their career, she said: “Have trusted confidants that you can have conversations with, and that will be honest on where your shortcomings are, what you need to be thinking about, what you might do differently. Have someone that you can ask those questions with and be vulnerable with, and [know] they will be honest and give you the feedback.”

Ms Simons asked if companies that already have women in leadership roles “have got it and are there?”

Ms Greaves said that it was one thing to check a box, but another to have diversity of thought. Regarding the latter, she added: “That is hugely important — that cognitive diversity. It is important to have people that are genuinely thinking about things differently. It’s not just enough to have your gender boxes checked or your racial [diversity] boxes checked.”

The third member of the panel was Laurie Forkas, senior assistant general counsel at Omega Indemnity (Bermuda) Ltd. On the question of what business leaders can do to advance and empower women, she said top-level managers need to understand why their female talent or diverse talent is leaving.

“They need to understand what their needs are. They need to have the courage to change things. All leaders in companies need to speak up and change things.” She said this included changing policies and practices, and addressing pay equity and advancement in careers.

In addition, when asked what advice she would give to others who are starting out or looking to advance their careers, she identified the quality of patience. “You can’t rush patience,” she said, adding: “It’s okay to speak up and be inquisitive and ask questions.”

Ms Greaves, of CD&P, offered the advice of understanding your uniqueness and your value proposition to an organisation.

She concluded: “Kavita Ramdas, executive at the Ford Foundation, summed it up fantastically saying that ‘We need more women that are so brave, so strong, that they are gentle. So educated that they are humble, so fierce that they are compassionate, so passionate that they are rational, and so disciplined that they are free’.

“It’s okay to be the sum of all these contradictions, because that’s what makes me, and that’s what I bring to the table.”

The Bermuda Captive Conference, now in its fourteenth year, is being staged at the Fairmont Southampton. It has attracted a record 845 attendees. The event concludes tomorrow.