Kirsty Cooper, group general counsel, Aviva

Kirsty Cooper is group general counsel and a member of the executive committee at insurance multinational Aviva. She speaks about the challenges of managing diversity across Europe and beyond, and how Aviva has managed to place diversity and inclusion at the heart of what it does.

Diversity and inclusion is about having a diverse workforce and team, but it is also about being inclusive, not just in terms of gender, LGBT, ethnicity and so on, but of diversity of thought. I do feel that having a wider pool of people with different backgrounds results in different perspectives and better decisions.

We were doing some work recently looking at the statistics from different areas across the business, and in legal we’re probably one of the best. I don’t think it’s something we’ve done consciously; it’s more a function of looking for the best and for people who will add value. For me, it’s not about meeting quotas but encouraging people to be themselves. When I am hiring, I try and put aside my biases and concentrate on the capabilities we are looking for, and for performance at interview. I think that all of my team share this, in that we don’t have a set view in regards to educational background or candidates coming from a certain type of firm.

I have had unconscious bias training, and I do think it has helped. Financial services is generally quite conservative and is still a last bastion of white male Anglo Saxon dominance. In recent years there has been more gender balance in the industry, but not so much ethnic and disability diversity, so we really need to focus on diversity in all its forms.

I think there are two things that have led to Aviva having a strong strategic focus on D&I. Firstly, tone from the top − our CEO has been integral to this. Mark Wilson is a New Zealander and worked for a long time in Asia. When he came to the UK, he was surprised by the lack of diversity. He found the lack of women in senior management quite strange and worked to change that. A third of our executive committee today are women, and on our board we have three female directors out of 11. Mark’s commitment is backed up by strong sponsorship from our main board and the chairman.

We have more to do in the layer below the executive committee. At the lower levels we have more women than men, but as you become more senior you see the gender parity drop off. There’s obviously a lot more to do in terms of ethnic minorities, disability and sexual orientation. When we interview candidates and are looking for promotions, we’re looking for diverse shortlists. We really had to ingrain this in all our processes and thinking. Partly it’s just plugging away so that it is raised in all the right forums, but there is also a place for the occasional ‘iconic move’, for example, moving someone from a more diverse background into a very senior role. When you see someone you wouldn’t necessarily expect getting a high-profile role, it sends out a very strong message. Our four key values are ingrained throughout the organisation and one of those four core values is ‘care more’. D&I falls quite nicely within that.

I think the legal team plays a role in helping to promote D&I both through supporting other functions with our specialist knowledge and by driving from the front. I have a small employment team that partners terrifically with our HR function on working with transgender employees − from employment contracts down to which bathroom to use. That’s an obvious way in which our legal training helps, and by being a diverse function ourselves, we help promote diversity and inclusion.

Obviously Aviva is a global organisation and our cultural positioning on diversity has to be quite thoughtful. Cultural norms can be very different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We do need to be mindful when navigating through that: in North America, for example, you can almost have positive discrimination in regards to ethnicity and gender, but that is certainly not the case in many EU countries. Sexual diversity in the context of religious issues is also something to consider. It is difficult to impose one set of standards everywhere − for certain countries you just have to use your judgement and make progress where you can. In Europe, some countries are very progressive on gender, but ethnicity is very far down the radar. We think that an ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’ approach works better − using legislative guidance to try and change cultural norms, rather than leaping straight to legislation itself.

In Aviva, we’ve tried to make sure that we’re not just focused on gender. We have a big drive on LGBT allies at work, which helps in countries where there is less acceptance of LGBT identities. Even in countries where they are more accepted, it can be difficult for people to be completely open, and it can be a very individualistic play.

There are a few specific initiatives that are unique to the legal department. Recently we have raised mental health as an issue, and we have also run our ‘health heroes’ initiative about being healthy at work, with people being focused on well-being, and then taking holiday entitlement, and so forth.

Obviously as an in-house legal team we have our power as a client to effect change among suppliers. When we have our panel review, it’s one of the criteria we look at quite seriously, and it is part of ensuring that panel firms reflect our values. It goes back to the importance of diversity of thought, and that means we value diverse teams. We look at overall statistics, but also at who is actually doing the work for us.

As a UK-based company operating in Europe, there are some key questions in regards to diversity and inclusion in the near future. At the moment, the UK has a diverse population because we are very open to immigration. I hope we can continue to be more open as a society and don’t become more closed post-Brexit.

In addition, I do worry that the EU will legislate on gender diversity, and I’m not sure that will bring the right outcomes regarding women on boards. For example, legislation can increase representation, but if you have a lot of the same women being asked, it doesn’t widen the pool! One of my main worries is that the pace of change is too slow, but if we try and force it by legislating, it could make things move backwards.