'Sexist and derogatory': Aviva boss blasts comments from shareholders

Aviva chief executive Amanda Blanc

Aviva chief executive Amanda Blanc faced "sexist and derogatory remarks" at the company's annual meeting - Credit: Aviva

Aviva chief executive Amanda Blanc has hit out at “sexist and derogatory remarks” aimed at her at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. 

A major row has emerged after one investor told her in the meeting she was “not the man for the job” while another questioned whether she should be “wearing trousers”. 

A third shareholder congratulated the board on its gender diversity and added: “They are so good at basic housekeeping activities, I’m sure this will be reflected in the direction of the board in future.” 

Responding to the remarks in a post on the social media site LinkedIn, Blanc wrote that after more than 30 years working in financial services she had picked up “misogynistic scars.” 

But she said that while she was used to it, she believed the abuse was getting worse as well as more public as she rose to more senior riles within the industry. 

She wrote: “I would like to tell you that things have got better in recent years but it’s fair to say that it has actually increased – the more senior the role I have taken, the more overt the unacceptable behaviour. 

“The surprising thing is that this type of stuff used to be said in private, perhaps from the safety of the four walls inside an office. The fact that people are now making these comments in public at an AGM is a new development for me personally.” 

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Chair of the board George Culmer said he was “flabbergasted” by the inappropriate remarks. 

He told the meeting: “I am not going to say thank you to everyone for your comments, because I think there were some comments in that session that were simply inappropriate and I do not expect and would [not] want to hear at any future AGM. I’m flabbergasted to be honest.” 

Amanda Blanc became the Norwich-based insurance giant’s first female chief executive in July 2020. 

Blanc, who originally comes from the Rhonda Valley in Wales, was appointed the government's Women in Finance champion in March 2021 in recognition of her career and advancing the role of women within the industry. 

When she was appointed to that role, she said: “Ensuring women have as many opportunities as men in financial services is critical. It’s critical for women. It’s critical to the future of UK financial services. And a successful, inclusive, financial services industry is critical to a revitalised UK economy. 

“There are still far too many barriers blocking women’s progress in financial services. We’ve got to work quicker and harder. Now is the time for less talk, more action.” 

Jeanette Wheeler, a partner and head of employment at law firm Birketts, said: "It continues to be disappointing to hear reports of these kinds of comments. As an employment lawyer I continue to see a steady stream of sex discrimination complaints.

"A recent survey I saw reported that one in 20 UK adults reported suffering from sex discrimination in 2021. Sex discrimination cases in the employment tribunals have seen compensation awards in sex discrimination double in a year from 2018-19 to 2019-20.

"Further in 2018-19 there were only 19 awards of compensation made in sex discrimination cases compared to 46 awards in 2019-20. So is there more discrimination occurring or simply a greater awareness and willingness to call it out like Amanda Blanc?

"Either way it shows that there is still some way to go to create a fair and level playing field in the world of work. There are still many employers and employees, particularly at senior levels who seem to approach things on the basis that the law on discrimination and harassment doesn't really apply to them or their business.

"However this needs to be balanced with the need to approach and deal with complaints of discrimination fairy and properly and get to the bottom of the facts first."

Sarah Howard, Chair of British Chambers of Commerce and director of Sarand Business Software in Haverhill, said: “No female executive should be subject to this kind of outrageous comment directed at Aviva CEO Amanda Blanc at the company's AGM. 

“It was good to see that the Chair admonished the offensive remarks, the only way we will see progress on these issues is by calling out such behaviour.” 

The former past president of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce added: “This incident underscores the fact that the language we use matters in business and that is why we continue to push for government to remove the gendered word ‘chairman’ from official Companies House documents.” 

Bridget McIntyre, founder and director of leadership development business Alitus, said: “One of the most important things is that not only that the woman will speak back to that but I think that observers must comment. People can’t observe it and let it rest they must speak out against it now. 

“I say that from personal experience – even in the most recent year where I've had to take it on, I think it would have been great is someone else who saw it spoke out too. Observing and noticing now isn't good enough – you can't just observe it and say I wouldn't do that or that’s not right, starting speaking up against it. 

“It was good that George Culmer spoke out against it and did so very strongly.” 

Julie Page, chief executive of professional services group Aon said that the type of remarks Ms Blanc faced undermined efforts to “attract female talent” into the financial industry.