Reflecting society: why we need more women in distributionOn March 2, 2016, at 9am, Nathalie Nerhot-Gantelet arrived at the Paris headquarters of AXA. Like 23 of her female peers in Europe and Morocco in the Distribution business, this Swiss sales consultant came to participate in the Women@Distribution Day. The objective of this female-only workshop? To exchange ideas and debate about the face of this business today, and to brainstorm solutions so that AXA Distribution can move toward more gender equality. ALL ARTICLES | Innovation
“Distribution is still a man’s trade.”
Smiling and determined, Nerhot-Gantelet approached this day with enthusiasm, acknowledging that, "today, it's true that Distribution remains a male-dominated profession." This charismatic woman is particularly well-placed to testify. With only 5% females on the teams, Switzerland has the lowest percentage of women in its distribution network.
"Being a woman in Distribution is an experience in assertiveness. We must fight more, prove ourselves more in a male environment….and sometimes be a little macho."
When asked about the reasons for this imbalance, Nerhot-Gantelet responded saying that it is, above all, the consequence of a culturally pre-conceived idea. In the collective imagination, an agent or broker is still "an austere man, always wearing a gray suit, and with sales methods that are a bit old-fashioned."
This idea is far from the on-the-job reality, in which Distribution team members are the most directly in contact with customers. They should be expected, therefore, to be in perfect tune with the image of the company.
In Asia 50% of these jobs are held by women, and disparities are much stronger in Europe. In France for example, women represent only 25% of the Distribution workforce.
Reflecting civil society
Thierry Ponsada, organizer of the Women@Distribution Day, said: "When we fill positions in Distribution, people think that the vast majority of our candidates are men, so we wanted to think of ways to change the situation."
For AXA, successfully opening positions to more diversity is crucial. AXA Group CEO Henri de Castries summarized the challenge clearly:
A company closed to diversity will soon no longer resemble its customers. We cannot claim to be listening to those who trust us, and then at the same time, cut half of them off as potential employees.
Jobs in which one can thrive
It is difficult to understand why women avoid the Sales and Distribution field when you see the enthusiasm with which Nathalie Nerhot-Gantelet discusses her job.
"These are jobs that can be very well-suited to women, and women may well succeed at them.” As a living example of this success, Nerhot-Gantelet has consistently ranked among the best AXA sales consultants in Switzerland for 25 years.
Her satisfaction is not just about performance. For Nerhot-Gantelet, women can also thrive by reconciling work and family life: "For example, we choose our own schedules. Obviously, you need to be very well organized, but our job offers a freedom that is almost unrivaled. I believe our industry is quite compatible with a busy personal life. "
So why the general disavowal? According to Nathalie "There is the belief that we mentioned earlier. But I also think that our jobs are still little known. The vagueness surrounding them contributes to their lack of attractiveness. " It is true that Distribution is a vast universe, with roles as diverse as Business Development Manager, Client Advisor, Head of statistical studies, Agent, Project Manager, Sales Supervisor, Head of Partnerships, and the list goes on. From the analysis of customer needs to selling banking and insurance products, the range of Distribution jobs is particularly wide.
It would be shocking to imagine that among all these opportunities, there would only be room for men.
Better address women
With teams that are more gender-balanced, AXA would better reflect society. And it could also better meet new needs.
This issue is particularly important in a world where women are more likely to subscribe directly to insurance and pension products for themselves or for their families. It is therefore vital that the Sales and Distribution teams understand and know how to talk to them.
For Nathalie, being a woman in this context is a definite asset:
"As women, we easily put ourselves in the shoes of our female customers and identify what they may need. But above all, we take the time to find the best ways to accompany and advise them individually. "
With women who know how to talk to women, the equation is appealing. But it is not about segmenting sales. "The idea is not to ‘reserve’ our female clients for our female teams, and or to keep our male customers for men,” said Thierry Ponsada, however, “We want men to develop their skills to better address a female clientele. Success will come from diversity, and by the joint action of men and women.”
For this reason, AXA has created new tools. At the local level, for example, AXA France has just developed L, a comprehensive program of sales team training, new equipment, and business meetings that will be launched on Women's Day. Its goal is to address the female audience differently, by better identifying its challenges and providing customized solutions.
A year-round commitment
Many ideas emerged during the event, such as early coaching or mentoring; teleworking facilitation; the digitalization of business; flexible and digital training; virtual classrooms and e-learning; increasing the proportion of women among recruiters; and speeches by women who thrive in Distribution. "We will now collect all the material produced and propose local action plans in each country," concluded Thierry.
Natalie Nerhot-Gantelet returned to Geneva satisfied with the exchanges and meetings, and optimistic about the future. "I'm excited to see what concrete steps will emerge from this workshop. I see in female recruitment a unique opportunity to enable mentalities to evolve."
We didn't want it to be a theoretical event to be renewed once or twice a year. Rather, we want to work on these issues continuously, regularly drawing on the experiences and concrete ideas of employees. It's not a mystery: all successful projects for change, particularly in Sales, come from voices within the field.