Don’t dismiss Aviva’s sexist AGM as a one-off

The sexist comments levelled at Aviva boss Amanda Blanc at the company’s annual shareholder meeting were both shocking and utterly unsurprising. Rare is the woman who has risen through the ranks in business without a few stories about feeling belittled or patronised, overlooked or excluded on account of her gender.

Too often this is passed off as women being too darn sensitive. Too emotional.

Which is the sort of sentiment we might be getting in the comments section of this article online, were it open. But the FT routinely has to turn off comments on stories with a gender element to them.

You see, the sort of chaps present at the Aviva AGM — who were rebuked over “simply inappropriate” remarks by the insurer’s chair George Culmer — don’t stop there.

I’ll let you into a secret of the sisterhood: they may be a small minority but they seem to show up just about everywhere.

Blanc posted on LinkedIn that after decades in financial services she was “pretty used to sexist and derogatory comments” and that the unacceptable behavior had become more overt the more senior she got.

It perhaps also becomes more obvious, or less easy to explain away, as the number of women in the room declines. What Blanc found surprising was that sentiments usually expressed in private (or from relative anonymity online) were being voiced so publicly.

It would be unwise to generalise wildly from comments made by a few men who seem to fall into the category of serial AGM attendees: this is not a representative cross-section of society. The circuit has long been characterised by antagonistic, or downright rude, questioning of directors of all genders, so unnecessarily.

But it’s worth noting that these weren’t off the cuff, unfortunate remarks. One shareholder, who ended a detailed question by suggesting that Blanc was “not the man for the job” submitted one using the same form of words to another FTSE 100 company led by a female chief executive this year (of which there are only eight) .

Nor is it that this type of sentiment hasn’t had airtime before. Transcripts and recollections are littered with questions about tokenism, or female directors of an insufficient caliber — seemingly oblivious to the quality implications from the age-old approach of only selecting from half the population. A question at GlaxoSmithKline’s 2019 AGM asked how long “we have to put up with” chief executive Emma Walmsley, while noting then-chair Philip Hampton’s focus on “trying to persuade other companies to employ more women”.

But it’s clear from the reaction to Blanc’s comments that other women recognised a public manifestation of a familiar private experience. This comes at time when attention is turning from the success in getting the share of FTSE 100 directorships held by women to 38 per cent, and to the question of why the nurturing of female talent through the ranks isn’t resulting in more women in the most senior management roles.

There is plenty of research, doubtless challenged by small sample sizes, that suggest female CEOs are treated differently from their male counterparts. One recent study suggested they faced more aggressive questioning from analysts; another that they are more likely to be dismissed regardless of firm performance; Another that they are more likely to face an activist campaign (this incidentally can be a compliment: Cevian looked at Aviva for years before deciding to invest when it felt the insurer finally had good management in place that was doing the right things).

For one seasoned campaigner, the episode is a reminder — despite the increasing acceptance of the importance of diversity — not to underestimate the hidden tensions and challenges on gender issues.

Culmer has, rightly, had plaudits for speaking up. But Cliff Weight from individual shareholder group ShareSoc, perhaps wary that the dwindling numbers attending AGMs will be tarred as past-it cranks, thinks chairs should be willing to remove people.

The lesson for other chairs and managers could be that Blanc, as it sounds she is accustomed to doing, pragmatically took these comments on the chin while the individuals weren’t stopped, asked to apologise, or asked to leave. There should be zero tolerance for sexist sniping — whether the forum is public or private.

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