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Celebrating strength and uniqueness

08 August 2019 Myra Knoesen
Lizelle van der Merwe

Lizelle van der Merwe

Leanne Jackson

Leanne Jackson

Rianet Whitehead

Rianet Whitehead

Caroline Da Silva

Caroline Da Silva

Lelane Bezuidenhout

Lelane Bezuidenhout

In celebration of Women’s Month, FAnews spoke to a few women who are at the top of their game in the insurance industry, about the challenges and opportunities they have faced, what Women’s Day means to them, how they use their positions to influence change, with some advice.

We have come a long way

“During the month of August, in 1956, women of all races and ages from every corner of our beloved country marched together to the Union Buildings to protest against the pass laws. The march was a huge success and today, I am thriving as a woman because of their bravery. I pay tribute to the 20 000 brave women who fought for my rights,” said Lizelle van der Merwe, Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Intermediaries Association (FIA). 

“Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to think about and celebrate being women - most of the time we define ourselves around all the other roles we fulfil, not our woman-ness,” said Leanne Jackson, Market Conduct Strategy Adviser at the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA). 

“For me, Women’s Day is a day to remember how strong and unique we as women are, and a reminder that we have really come a long way to change the way we are seen in society,” said Rianet Whitehead, Editor of FAnews, Creator of The Insurance Apprentice and President of Gauteng Women in Insurance (GWII).

“Women’s Day is a reminder for me that not all women are privileged to live in a country where their rights are entrenched in a constitution like ours, and of course, the important role South African women played in bringing us to our privileged position,” said Caroline Da Silva, Division Executive of Regulatory Policy at the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA). 

“Women’s Day is a day that marks the importance of equal rights in South Africa. It is also a day that celebrates women across South Africa and reminds us of the power that lies in unity,” said Lelane Bezuidenhout, Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Planning Institute of Southern Africa (FPI). 

Finding the balance

“One of the challenges I faced was having to report to other females who displayed symptoms of the ‘queen bee syndrome’. The best way to overcome this is to focus on what it is that you need to deliver on, and to deliver. Rely on your abilities, skills, knowledge and respect earned by peers to influence change. Continuously upskill yourself. I constantly use my abilities, skills and knowledge to influence positive change to team dynamics, company culture and regulations,” added Bezuidenhout. 

Van der Merwe said she doesn’t see herself as a woman in financial services, but one of 250 000 people who are employed in this important sector. “We all face different challenges depending on what role we play, however for me personally, it’s always a challenge to find the balance between running a business and taking time out with my family and friends. One of the biggest setbacks I faced recently was being told we don’t want a white woman representing us on transformation. It took me some time to understand why my gender and colour would influence my commitment to transformation in the industry. I embraced the comment and will continue to work closely with the organisation to make a meaningful contribution to this key strategic priority of our sector and country.” 

“I have a responsibility to lobby all different kinds of stakeholders to support the interests of intermediaries. Because I was an intermediary myself, many years ago, and I have worked closely with intermediaries over many years, I have a great appreciation for what they do. I also use my position to influence intermediaries to better understand the eco system they operate within and why it is important to support developments and changes in the industry,” said van der Merwe.

All about influencing change

Although she might have had some setbacks along her journey, Whitehead said she always believes things happen the way they should, so she doesn’t think she would have done things very different. “However, I think I would have told my younger self to travel more and do more short courses relevant to what really fascinates you. Added to that – never underestimate the power you have and the difference you can make by changing one life at a time. I am part of a great team who changes many lives each year with The Insurance Apprentice, and we do this with the with the help of the whole industry.”

In speaking of one of the biggest challenges she faced, Da Silva said, “I was retrenched once when I was pregnant, probably because I was pregnant. It took me a while to get back into the industry and I had to start right back at the beginning and climb my way up. Fortunately, our laws now protect us from this type of practice.”

“My job is all about influencing change. It is about working for the greater good of the industry, for its stability and integrity and about trying to ensure it has the trust and confidence of the customer,” continued Da Silva. 

Speaking of the industry, Jackson said she is in the very privileged position that her work at the FSCA, has been all about supporting and implementing new ways of thinking and operating. “From my first task of rolling out the outcomes-based Treating Customers Fairly (TCF) approach, to my current role of supporting the FSCA in adapting to its new Twin Peaks mandate, my focus has been on helping colleagues and financial institutions alike to embed the mind shifts these changes require. In fact, it was the opportunity to contribute to these changes that persuaded me to leave a fairly comfortable job in the private sector in the first place.” 

The voice of experience

Jackson said she should probably have spent more time earlier in her career listening to and learning from experts, and so building support networks, rather than thinking she needed to be able to demonstrate that she could figure everything out on her own.

Van der Merwe added, “I would worry less and live more. I would embrace my mistakes instead of punishing myself for them, after all, they helped get me get to where I am today. I would be less judgemental on others and more open to the diversity of people and their choices. We need to just take a breath to taste the coffee and not just drink it.” 

Bezuidenhout said that we cannot change people or force them to be the way we want them to be. “We can only take responsibility for who we are supposed to be; live and let live. Believe in something bigger than yourself, believe that there is potential in unity - an industry that stands together for the greater good of all, have an inclusive approach – the industry is bigger than just your small circle of influence, allow for difference of opinions to keep conversations alive, and live by the principles of honesty, integrity, consistency and trust.”

Da Silva said, “Don’t stress so much, it will all be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end. Work hard and put your hand up for more work because offering to do the jobs that no one else puts their hand up for, gives you opportunities to be seen and to learn.” 

As women in the insurance industry, Whitehead said we should support each other and share knowledge. “Surround yourself with the best, and the rest will be easy.”

Editor’s Thoughts:
Let us use August, and not just Women’s Day, as an opportunity to think about and celebrate being women; how strong and unique we as women are, how far we have come, the journeys we have all walked and the paths we are destined to be on. “A woman in any form shall be celebrated and honored, be it a sister or a wife or a mother or any other form.” Please comment below, interact with us on Twitter at @fanews_online or email me your thoughts myra@fanews.co.za.

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