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Women in MENA Insurance

Hala Abinader Long

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This article was first published in the 2017 January issue of  MENA Insurance Review.

The Middle East is sometimes misunderstood as a
challenging region for women in business, especially in a historically male-dominated field like insurance. For me as a female Energy underwriter, however, working in insurance in the Middle East has been extremely rewarding.

I studied Risk Management and Insurance at Temple University in the U.S. The appeal to me then and now is that, compared to other industries, insurance is exceptionally diverse and offers a broad canvas to draw on. It has a bit of everything. I meet with clients to discuss their risks, understand what keeps them up at night, and come up with solutions. This means that on any given day I am involved in Sales and Marketing, Finance, Engineering, Underwriting, you name it. Each client is different, and the risks they face are different.

The multi-disciplinary nature of industrial insurance is also amplified in the energy sector. The scale and complexity of the facilities we underwrite are often immense. But structuring programs for managing and mitigating the myriad risks in a refinery or petrochemical plant is also tremendously satisfying.

 

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My knowledge and capabilities are what matters, not my gender.

 

And while insurance, like many other industries, has historically been dominated by men, that’s changing.

In fact, the energy underwriting desks at my main competitors in the Middle East are headed by women, and there are quite a few women in senior positions at the broking houses.

Major
companies across the industry have also committed to promoting greater diversity and inclusion in insurance. XL Catlin, for example, has an initiative led by several of our senior leaders that focuses on the attraction, retention and advancement of women at XL Catlin. This includes our ‘Women of the World’ network and global + regional D&I advisory boards. An important element for these has been the Dive In festival that Lloyd’s CEO Inge Beale launched in 2015. “Dive In is helping insurance get fit for the future, highlighting the business case for diverse and inclusive workplaces and providing practical ideas and inspiration for how to bring about positive change.” XL Catlin was the platinum sponsor for this year’s festival which comprised more than 50 events over three days in 16 cities. Although there weren’t any Dive In events in Dubai this year, I am hopeful there will be an event in 2017.

I’m encouraged by this heightened emphasis on gender diversity and look forward to doing my part to support these efforts. Like other people at my level, I was fortunate to have strong mentors, including a few successful women, when I was starting out. One of the things they always stressed was the importance of understanding the technicalities of a particular risk. I also learned early on that not everybody supports your progress as you move up the corporate ladder. But as long as you know your stuff and always come prepared, you stand a good chance of taking on bigger and bigger roles because of your knowledge and capabilities, regardless of your gender. For me, this meant a lot of extra work, as I’m not a petrochemical engineer by background. But I worked closely with engineers and learned a lot from them. That paid off in meetings with clients and brokers when I could participate in, and ultimately run, the sessions with confidence and authority.

Those experiences have served me well here in the Middle East.

While I sometimes have spirited discussions here with clients and brokers with a lot of give-and-take – that’s the nature of the business – they always consider my viewpoints seriously.
My knowledge and capabilities are what matters, not my gender. In fact, my number one suggestion to women just starting their careers is: make it about what you know and what you can do. I also believe women need to start appreciating their own and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, collaborate with, learn from, be inspired by, and overcome challenges and celebrate successes together!

I’ve also found that the work-life balance in the Middle East is excellent. It’s a very family-oriented environment that’s safe and supportive. I have two young boys, and often have to leave the office to attend to something at their school, take them to the doctors, etc. But it’s not a problem; my team is very supportive, and my superiors are very understanding. Obviously, the work still needs to get done, and the deadlines need to be met. But hey, in a flexible working environment, this shouldn’t be a problem!

I recently saw a
research report on the views of millennial women, those born between 1980 and 1995, concerning work and careers. One of the questions they asked had to do with industry sectors millennial women would avoid “because they believe it has a negative image.” Fully 21 percent said they would avoid working in financial services, more than any other industry.

That’s certainly contrary to my experiences. For women who want to work in an exciting, varied industry with exposure to a variety of disciplines, and in a region where so much is fresh and new, there are great opportunities – and rewards – in the Middle East.

About the author:

Hala Long is based in Dubai and is Head of XL Catlin’s energy operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa. She was born in Lebanon and raised in the U.S. She spent seven years in New York with AIG and LIU, then another nine years in London with LIU and Zurich Insurance. After taking a few years off to start a family, Hala joined XL Catlin in Dubai in 2014.

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