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Dame Inga Beale: From disillusioned City worker to diversity pioneer

When Dame Inga Beale became CEO of Lloyds of London in 2014, she was the first female to do so in its 326-year history. She was also the first leader to move the company from paper-based to digital. And she was openly bisexual. But while Beale is a pioneer today, it was a status not easily won, with much of her early career spent hiding part of herself, or trying to belong. Here, she tells Cherry Casey how that journey shaped her understanding of ‘inclusivity’, and how crucial it is for both an individual – and a business – to flourish.

 

During Dame Inga Beale’s five-year tenure as CEO of Lloyds of London, she dominated the headlines more than once. She was the first female CEO, she was openly bisexual, she banned the consumption of alcohol between working hours and she moved the company into the digital age.

Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that Beale’s City career almost never got off the ground after she found the ‘lad’ culture too much to bear.

‘At first I wanted to belong and used to adopt male behaviour and drink along with the boys,’ says Beale, ‘but then there was an incident where my desk was covered in posters of women in bikinis and wet t-shirts and I said, “That’s it,” and walked out.’

This was in the eighties and was just one of many indications that the City was not a welcoming place for women. ‘I look back now in horror, like a lot of women do, and think why did we accept it?’ says Beale. ‘But it was just the way it was, we didn’t know anything else.’

After leaving her job, Beale travelled the world, including a stint in Australia, where a receptionist role – taken on solely to pay the rent – would prove to be a pivotal point in Beale’s career.

‘I had had no female role models in London, but at that job my boss was a woman,’ says Beale. ‘She wore trousers, which wasn’t allowed in the City, and no one talked about her gender. I thought, “This is amazing. I can do this”, and returned to London, and insurance.’

 

BACK TO THE CITY

While Beale was by this point at ease with her position as a woman in the City, she was not comfortable with others knowing she was in a same-sex relationship.

Hiding it, however, ‘impacted both me and my partner, although that’s something I only realised looking back,’ says Beale. ‘Every phone call had to go via the receptionist – as this was before mobile phones – so I asked my partner not to call me. I didn’t talk about being in a relationship at all, or if I did, I made sure I gender-neutralised everything.’

When a company she worked at in Switzerland was involved in a hostile takeover, Beale’s PA took her out for dinner and asked how she was coping with it all ‘on her own’.  ‘I thought, “I’m even deceiving my PA. And I’m coming out to dinner on a Saturday night without my partner, so I’m deceiving everybody. This can’t be right”.’

From that moment on, Beale decided to be honest, and at her next job interview told the CEO she was in a same-sex relationship. ‘And he was absolutely fine, as people usually are.’

A weight instantly lifted and Beale felt more free and able to contribute. ‘If you’re hiding this “thing”, it somehow holds you back,’ she says. ‘I wanted to help other people get to that point, so I started to talk a lot about it.’

Beale’s openness occasionally came at a cost however: when she became CEO of Lloyds of London in 2014, she found herself on the receiving end of homophobic and sexist abuse.

‘My coping mechanism then was just to eliminate threats, so if it came in paper format I’d throw it away, if it was an email, I’d delete. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I’d like to have that kind of evidence because I’m much stronger now.’

 

THE BUSINESS PIECE

While Beale’s advocacy of diversity and inclusion in the workplace may at first have been driven by her personal experience, she recognised the wider implications for business also.

‘When I started at Lloyds I knew we had to modernise in terms of tech but to do that, the culture needed to change,’ she says. ‘The market tended to hire people the same as them, and we weren’t getting young or tech-savvy employees.’

And so to drive the D&I conversation, as well as the appeal of the industry, Beale oversaw the creation of Dive In – the festival for Diversity and Inclusion in Insurance.

It started as a four-day festival around the Lloyds building, and although she had some pushback on all the brightly coloured posters and banners, it was instantly deemed an overwhelming success. ‘We realised we’d unleashed a need for people to address the topic of D&I.’

That was in 2015, and by last year Dive In held events in 27 countries across the globe, including Saudi Arabia, covering everything from mentoring sessions to CEO community discussions, to educational speakers.

‘We’ll have, for example, a gay rugby player come and talk about his experience,’ says Beale. ‘So you’d get loads of men in the room, because they’re interested in this person, then they’d hear his story and go, “Oh my god I didn’t realise our jokes could have such a negative impact on people”.’

Appealing to those who may be cynical about the importance of D&I has been integral to Beale’s strategy.

‘When I started the D&I initiative at Lloyds I got a senior guy to head it up,’ says Beale. ‘He was white, middle-aged and had a family so was very reflective of many of the people in insurance. That was my way of getting people who had never even listened to a conversation about how tough it is for women in the workplace, for instance, come and listen to people’s stories.’

And it worked. ‘I had CEOs say – when you started talking about it Inga, I thought it was a load of rubbish but now I realise there are people in my company being held back for whatever reason.’

 

DOUBLE LEGACY

Beale stepped down from her role at Lloyds this year, and today is the board director at London First, a collective that works to give a voice to critical issues for London, such as rail, infrastructure and transport as well as topics around housing and education.

So what does she consider her legacy? ‘The fact Lloyds of London has gone digital and had electronic placing adopted is tremendous,’ she says. ‘There had been decades of failed attempts before me, but I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. I honestly believe it was because we approached it in an inclusive way, and got the whole market involved in designing their own future.’

And of course, the culture change she instigated at a centuries’ old institution. ‘That I was thrilled with. I just hope it continues because I know how important the leadership from the top is. These days, if you’re a leader talking about something you don’t really mean, people can see through it.’

 

Dame Inga Beale’s top tips for creating a genuinely diverse and inclusive workplace:

  1. Try and be aware of your unconscious and conscious biases. People can become tired of this kind of training, but unless you’re made aware of your biases, you don’t notice them. It forces you to have an open mind.
  2. It sometimes takes more effort to engage with people not like you. My shoulders are more relaxed and I’m more positive when I’m in a room full of women, rather than men. But we all have a responsibility to reach out, and it is really enriching.
  3. Put some measures around D&I. We need targets and goals – it won’t just happen naturally by some organic evolution. I wanted at least 40% women and 40% men in the leadership team at Lloyds, and I believe we got up to 37% women before I left.

 

If you work in insurance, why not come to the 2019 everywoman in Insurance Forum, a one-day event bringing together influential industry professionals committed to bringing about change in the insurance industry.