· 4 min read · Features

Case study: Shrinking the gender pay gap at Zurich through 'FlexWork'


Zurich analysed every stage of its recruitment process and launched a scheme to advertise every role as flexible or part time

The organisation

Founded in 1872 as a marine reinsurance company under the name Versicherungs-Verein (Insurance Association), Zurich Insurance Group is Switzerland’s largest insurer. In 2000, after a number of acquisitions, it was unified to form one holding company Zurich Financial Services.

The organisation has three core business segments: general insurance, global life and farmers. It employs almost 54,000 people serving customers in more than 170 countries and territories globally. Mario Greco has been CEO for the past three years.

The problem

Analysis of Zurich’s gender pay gap in 2017 confirmed what its head of HR in the UK Steve Collinson had long thought: the organisation needed to do much more to attract, retain and develop senior women. At that time the company’s median gender pay gap was revealed to be 27.3%. The root cause of the problem, it seemed, was that women felt unable to progress their careers with the firm.

“When we delved deeper into those figures we found that there was an even gender balance [in the company overall]. But when women began to climb the ladder and move into technical and senior roles, after a few years they seemed to drop out of the workforce completely,” Collinson explains.

Collinson was well aware that there was no quick fix for the problem. The financial sector is notorious for a long-hours and high-workload culture. And it’s an issue affecting the UK workforce as a whole, not just financial services.

“The gender pay gap is an extremely complex problem and as such we knew that it would require a multifaceted approach. There’s no silver bullet; we knew we needed to look at the root causes of why women were not staying in the workforce,” Collinson comments.

One of the key issues was a lack of flexibility and part-time roles. Again lack of flexible working is an issue for the UK workforce at large, with two million people in the UK struggling to return to work because they are unable to commit to a traditional nine to five job, according to Acas.

Collinson recognised that to an extent most people did not expect a full separation between life and work. “We had never liked the idea of having a culture where you’re always the last person in the office. At the same time we knew that it was unrealistic for many people to achieve a work/life balance,” he says.

“That term felt outdated, and in a way trying to achieve that created its own pressures. What we really wanted to be able to offer was a work/life blend, and to get rid of that all-or-nothing approach towards work.”

While the cultural element might have seemed like a prominent hurdle, Collinson felt that the shift aligned with what the company wanted to achieve as a business. “In a more general sense there seemed to be no argument against changing the way we recruited and the working models we offer,” he says.

“At this point everyone knows that the more inclusive your company is the better you will perform. Why wouldn’t we want to make our company as attractive as possible to the widest range of people possible?”

The method

Zurich started its initiative from the ground up by combing through every stage of its hiring process. It surveyed applicants, both successful and unsuccessful, and found that many people felt there were not enough opportunities for flexible or part-time work.

“We had introduced informal policies around flexible working, but what became extremely clear from talking to people who had been through the application process was that they didn’t feel able to apply for those more senior roles,” Collinson explains.

Before the firm could begin laying out formal processes around recruiting more women, Collinson knew that there was a chance he would encounter pushback from those who felt that this would amount to positive discrimination, with gender being prioritised above skills and experience. Being well prepared with the facts can help to effectively counter people who might object, he says.

“Despite all the evidence to suggest otherwise there will always be people who think that focusing on a particular group in recruitment is unfair,” he says. “We were not shy about having that conversation. We had to say to people ‘this isn’t about positive discrimination, we would never hire anyone who we didn’t feel was right for the job. This is about making sure we’re not shutting out or excluding people who would be the best fit.'”

After having open conversations with staff at all levels the HR team began to work with a team of behavioural psychologists to delve deeper into the issue of why women might feel unable to apply. They enlisted augmented writing platform Textio to carry out research on the use of language in job descriptions.

The team found that certain words, such as ‘fearless’, ‘exhaustive’ and ‘enforcement’, tended to attract male candidates; while words such as ‘transparent’, ‘catalyst’ and ‘in touch with’ attracted female candidates. Armed with this new information Zurich adjusted the language in adverts to make sure it was not inadvertently discouraging women from applying.

To show genuine commitment to opening up Zurich’s talent pool the team also decided to advertise every role, including senior roles, as flexible or part time. The aim of this new scheme, FlexWork, was to allow employees to work where, when, and how they choose.

While some might have approached offering all roles on a flexible basis with trepidation, Collinson says making this work is entirely possible: “It’s about trust and knowing that your employees will know how they work best. All our managers have been trained in having those discussions.”

The result

It has only been three months since Zurich introduced its new application process. But within this short timeframe the company has already seen an astonishing 25% increase in female applicants.

The move has proved immensely popular with both incoming but also current staff. Already 72% of Zurich employees are using FlexWork.

Like any good drive around diversity and inclusion this initiative is part of a much larger plan. Zurich has already turned its attention to ensuring all interview processes feature a panel of people of different genders and ethnic groups. It is also rolling out diversity and inclusion training to staff across all levels to make sure that everyone is aware of their rights when it comes to flexible working.

Meanwhile Zurich’s youth programme, aimed at interns and apprentices, is designed to attract women to the organisation at an early stage.

In April this year the company announced that its gender pay gap had shrunk to 22%. “I feel as though we’re really at a point where there’s a kind of cultural revolution around flexible working; not just in our own organisation but across the job market,” says Collinson.

“There have been so many changes, even over the past five years or so. It’s not always easy to step up to challenges around D&I, but you genuinely have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Zurich fact file

Locations: 17 offices in the UK

Number in HR: 80

Number of employees: 5,000

Turnover: £38 billion