The Old Daytime-Drinking, Sexual-Harassing Ways Are Thriving at Lloyd’s
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Rising from the heart of London’s financial district along Lime Street is a tower so otherworldly that Marvel Studios cast it as an office building for a highly advanced civilization in the film Guardians of the Galaxy. The building’s guts—air ducts, stainless steel staircases, even power cables—are mostly on the outside, creating the futuristic-looking facade. The reality within, however, is years in the other direction.
The tower’s iconic inhabitant, Lloyd’s of London, occupies the most archaic corner remaining in global finance, where life vacillates between the 17th century and the 1980s. Lloyd’s runs a 331-year-old exchange for the worldwide insurance market, not too dissimilar from the New York Stock Exchange of old. But while electronic trading has transformed exchanges across the rest of finance, including at the NYSE and the Chicago Board of Trade, the underwriters and brokers of Lloyd’s mostly do business the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, using rubber stamps, pens, and sheaves of paper. Thousands pack Lloyd’s cavernous trading floor in the well of the Lime Street tower’s 12-story atrium. Four additional open trading floors reach up the atrium’s sides like balconies over a noisy courtyard. The throngs work for insurers bidding to sell trillions of dollars in complex coverage to brokers representing the world’s largest corporations. If you fly on a commercial airliner, work on a deep-sea oil platform, or occupy a desk at a Fortune 500 company, you’re probably covered by a policy arranged through Lloyd’s.
Beyond the quaint nature of the trading, other rites date to the first exchange Edward Lloyd opened in a 1680s London coffee shop. When a ship is lost at sea, the event is recorded with a quill pen in a leather-bound ledger kept near the center of the main trading floor, which Lloyd’s calls the underwriting room. To mark major disasters that yield billions of dollars in claims, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a man in a red tunic and white gloves rings a golden bell.
Other anachronisms are less genteel, including a deep-seated culture of sexual harassment—the full appalling range, from inappropriate remarks to unwanted touching to sexual assault. Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with 18 women who have more than 300 years of combined experience in the insurance market, and they described an atmosphere of near-persistent harassment. “It’s basically a meat market,” one industry insider says. After a harrowing experience that, she says, involved a senior manager drunkenly attacking her in a pub right around the corner from Lloyd’s, her employer convinced her it would be bad for her career to pursue a complaint. She’s since configured her professional life to stay away from the exchange. It’s a common choice among the women of London’s insurance market, and one reason the trading floor at Lloyd’s is a sea of men.
The vast majority of people who work at Lloyd’s are not employees of the exchange, which has a worldwide staff of about 1,000 people, but the norms of the insurance market are in part shaped there. Inga Beale tried to redirect the industry after becoming the first female chief executive officer of Lloyd’s in 2014. She pushed for modernization of technology, attitudes, and behaviors—and met resistance at every step. She left shortly before her fifth anniversary, last fall. Among the relative handful of women left in the industry’s senior executive ranks in London, many fear that even the modest advances achieved under Beale are in jeopardy. They fear that Lloyd’s, already a deeply backward-looking institution, might actually be on the verge of regressing.
The men of Lloyd’s pride themselves on their dress. Well-tailored dark blue and gray suits are the norm, often with bold chalk stripes. One does not wear brown shoes. A code mandating suits was lifted last year, but it was clear on several recent tours of the trading floors that almost everyone still adheres to it. Some of the older underwriters wear brightly colored suspenders, or braces. Even by the standards of London’s financial district, the vibe is sartorially conservative.
The exchange comprises members—mostly major insurance companies but also wealthy individuals (called “names” by the traders) and some private equity groups—that join together to form underwriting syndicates. They insure everything from global oil shipments to the Mona Lisa and even, famously, David Beckham’s feet. There are roughly 80 syndicates at Lloyd’s, each allotted a cluster of small desks and benches known as a box. When it gets busy, brokers form long queues at the boxes. Veterans use junior employees, known as slip jockeys, to hold their place in line until it’s their turn to sit on a stool next to the underwriter. They can, however, lose their privileges. Underwriters have been known to send brokers away from their boxes for not wearing a necktie.
When some of the current crop of senior executives started their careers, women were still banned from the Lloyd’s floor. The ban was lifted in 1973, but, as with the dress code, changing the rules didn’t seem to change the culture. Women at Lloyd’s continue to be judged by their looks, according to Mairi Mallon, an insurance public-relations specialist writing in her blog, Sexism in the City. “Women at Lloyd’s boxes [are] still being called a host of names including ‘totty,’ ” Mallon wrote in 2017, and they’re rated “from 1-10 on ‘shagability.’ ” Historically, underwriters competed openly to hire the most attractive female assistants, in the belief that the prettiest ones would draw business to their boxes, market veterans say. Traders still call them “box girls” or even “box bitches.”
Beale knew the underwriting business and its culture. Her first job, in the 1980s, was as an underwriter trainee at Prudential’s London office, where she was the only woman on a team of 35. One day she privately complained to her boss about posters featuring women in wet T-shirts and bikinis. “The next day,” she recalled in a 2016 BBC interview, “I came in, I walked around the corner, and saw my desk—and my desk was wrapped up in the posters.” She walked onto the elevator and out of the building, and three days later resigned. That was 1989.
Some things have changed in the 30 years since that morning—there are far more women working in the London market, and these days they’re allowed to wear what they like—but the boys-club mentality runs deep. “Fundamentally, to crack behaviors [and] clubby groups that have known how to support each other over centuries, to kind of really crack that is incredibly tough,” Beale told Bloomberg Businessweek in September. It was one of her last interviews before she stepped down.
Early in Beale’s tenure, she introduced several diversity initiatives, asking the CEOs of the world’s biggest insurance companies to commit to increasing diversity and inclusiveness in their firms. Before long, she faced challenges from within. She was told by the council and the governing board of Lloyd’s that she spent too much time on diversity. Some male executives doing business at the exchange complained privately that they found her patronizing and aggressive. One of Beale’s friends recalls men approaching her to inquire whether she could ask Beale to “tone it down.” From that point forward, Beale carefully tracked her time, making certain she spent less than 25 percent of it on diversity initiatives.
Other critics, particularly the anonymous ones, were much less subtle. The trolling came via email and—this is Lloyd’s, after all—on paper. Some messages went to Beale’s sixth-floor desk, including one that declared she “should go and die”; others were sent elsewhere within Lloyd’s. One said that Beale should stop speaking about her bisexuality—“She shouldn’t be talking about things that go on in the bedroom”—and demanded that Lloyd’s “fire this woman.”
Women in the market faced similar verbal harassment and occasionally endured physical assault at the hands of powerful executives. Having a woman upstairs had changed that almost not at all.
Although London is a global leader in entertainment, media, and finance, the kind of #MeToo allegations that have hit those sectors in the U.S. have yet to surface in a meaningful way inside the U.K. That’s likely a result of a British legal system geared to protecting privacy, which limits the kind of naming-and-shaming culture that’s pushed so many men out the door in America.
Many of the women Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to said pursuing their abusers in the U.K.’s courts wasn’t feasible given the high costs involved and potential damage to their reputation within the industry. All of the women would speak only on the condition that their identity be protected. Bloomberg Businessweek verified their employment records and, where possible, confirmed with colleagues or friends that they had previously shared their accounts. They’ve worked for some of the world’s largest insurers and insurance brokers, including Aspen Insurance Holdings, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., Marsh & McLennan, Munich Re, and more.
“We want women to have every opportunity to build great careers and thrive in a culture where inclusion is a core value,” Chris Lay, CEO of Marsh U.K. and Ireland, said in a statement. “Inappropriate behavior is unacceptable and will face the strongest sanction.” A spokesman for Munich Re said the company “strives for an open, equal culture and takes indications of misconduct seriously.” Aspen and Gallagher declined to comment.
Women with international experience in insurance and other areas of finance say the pervasive harassment at Lloyd’s and in the wider London market is unique. And they all say it begins with alcohol. Deals born on the Lloyd’s floor, or in nearby offices, slosh into the pubs and vice versa. All day long, underwriters move from the trading floor to the pub to their own offices, then back to the pub again. The London insurance market is the last place in global finance where drinking isn’t only tolerated, it’s expected.
The historic Leadenhall Market, an ornate covered arcade, is just a few steps from the entrance to Lloyd’s, and most lunchtimes insurance industry workers crowd outside the Lamb Tavern, a pub that dates to 1780, sipping pints of frothy ale and talking loudly about the morning’s deals. Smartly dressed senior executives drink alongside junior underwriters and their secretaries. In the summer months the drinkers outside the Lamb can number in the hundreds.
Under most circumstances the atmosphere is boisterous and good-humored, but Lloyd’s drinking culture has created an environment in which women aren’t always safe. One female executive in her 30s says a male manager assaulted her after a night out with co-workers. She was new to the insurance industry, having spent much of her career in banking in the U.S., and was surprised by the amount of drinking. But she felt the need to go along. She agreed to share a cab with the manager back to their respective homes. The man was so drunk he was slurring. Suddenly he grabbed her. She was terrified until she managed to break free from his grip and get out of the car, she recalled during an interview at a coffee shop around the corner from Lloyd’s. Wary at first about talking of the attack, she soon becomes angry and her voice rises. “After that, he basically started bullying me, and things got progressively worse,” she says. “I was new to the team and just wanted to be accepted, so I stuck it out.” She became increasingly marginalized. She levied a formal complaint, and then was moved to another part of the business. Her attacker was allowed to stay in his job.
Young women at Lloyd’s “are just cannon fodder,” one female broker says. “Unless you have a rich father, you aren’t going to be able to afford suing. You’re also going to f---ing destroy your reputation, and you basically have to decide that you will never work in the industry again.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Barbara Schönhofer, an industry headhunter with more than 20 years’ experience in the market. “I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed in one form or another in the London market,” she says. A decade ago, Schönhofer started a group for female leaders in the business. The Insurance Supper Club now has more than 700 members worldwide and holds events in seven countries. At every one, she says, sexual harassment comes up.
At a dinner in London last year, Schönhofer says, she asked 10 senior executives which of them had been harassed at work. Nine raised their hands.
“No one should ever experience harassment of any kind at work, and it is distressing to hear that this is still happening,” said John Neal, Lloyd’s new CEO, in a statement. “We take it extremely seriously and will be talking to the Lloyd’s market to ensure that we stamp out these inappropriate behaviors. Lloyd’s has worked really hard to put the broadest inclusion agenda at the center of everything we do.”
Beale didn’t publicly connect the drinking culture at Lloyd’s to sexual harassment, but in early 2017 she sent an email to Lloyd’s employees banning booze during the day. “The London market historically had a reputation for daytime drinking, but that has been changing,” Beale’s note said. “Drinking alcohol affects individuals differently. A zero limit is therefore simpler.” Although it applied only to Lloyd’s employees, it was one of those moves that had the potential to influence the whole industry doing business inside the Lloyd’s exchange.
Complaints deluged the Lloyd’s intranet and were heard across the industry. Some men drew comparisons to an Orwellian Big Brother state; others sneered that Beale was trying to run their life as if she was their mother. “Fury as Lloyd’s of London bans its staff from drinking alcohol from 9-5,” ran a headline on the website of the Daily Express. “Be careful not to take too dim a view of alcohol,” said the headline atop one letter from a broker published in the Financial Times. In the end, it was all noise. The ban has been widely ignored, according to executives from insurers in the market.
Beale did inch Lloyd’s forward in other ways. She did more than any other executive to drive diversity and inclusion to the top of the agenda in the industry. Many of the biggest Lloyd’s insurers now include it as a metric when calculating senior executive pay. Beale also forced the brokers and underwriters at Lloyd’s onto an electronic trading platform. When she took over, everything was being done on paper, much as it had been for the past three centuries. By the time she stepped down, about 16.5 percent of the market’s business was being placed online.
Women working in the London market say Beale’s focus on diversity first, and harassment after that, might have gotten it the wrong way around. Senior ranks are thin on women, they say, because so many are forced out in their 20s and 30s by the constant stream of harassment from male colleagues. Beale seemed to acknowledge as much. “If I look out at the very senior level, it looks a bit bleak, if I’m honest, and it doesn’t feel great,” she said in September. “I’ve seen so many senior women departing their roles.”
Many of those who remain told Bloomberg Businessweek they’re concerned that Lloyd’s was sending them a message with its new CEO pick. Lloyd’s Chairman Bruce Carnegie-Brown had set six criteria for the new CEO, and they didn’t include anything about diversity. A headhunter generated a list of candidates, which was whittled down to five men and one woman. Carnegie-Brown chose Neal, the former CEO of the Australian insurer QBE Insurance Group Ltd., who’d spent most of his career in London. The all-male nominations committee agreed with the choice and sent Neal to the Lloyd’s council, whose 14 men and 2 women concurred on Sept. 7.
Council members knew Neal’s former employer had docked his pay for not disclosing he was in a relationship with his personal assistant. What they didn’t know, according to senior sources familiar with the selection, was that the woman in question had replaced Neal’s previous assistant—after he had married her.
Neal declined to comment on his hiring. He took over Lloyd’s on Oct. 15.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Cam Simpson at email@example.com, Daniel FerraraJillian Goodman
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