Being true to herself is Sian Aspinall’s most important value, even if it sometimes means hitting the brakes in the race to the top. Today, she manages BPL Global, one of the world’s leading credit and political risk insurance brokers. For GTR’s Women in Trade Finance article series, Aspinall tells Sanne Wass the story of how she got there.
Having worked within credit and political risk insurance for almost 30 years, Sian Aspinall has countless thought-provoking anecdotes about gender bias in her industry.
As a junior broker, she was once asked to wear a short skirt for a day of meetings with underwriters in the Lloyd’s market to negotiate a policy for a particularly difficult risk.
There was also that time, when a client, having misread her name as Sean, awkwardly had to admit he expected to meet a man after he mistook her for being the tea lady.
She describes the City of London in the 1990s as being ruled by a macho culture: most corporate entertainment revolved around sports such as football and rugby, while networking and relationship building usually involved heavy drinking and long lunches.
“It’s better now, and I think the culture is changing, but when I first started I would say it was 90% male,” Aspinall says.
But this culture never held her back. In fact, she sealed that difficult deal as a junior broker, despite stubbornly – determined to prove a point – turning up in her out-of-fashion foot-length skirt and a serious “don’t mess with me” hairstyle. Being true to herself has been, and still is, the most important value she lives by.
Aspinall’s career started in 1990 as a political risk broker at Investment Insurance International, having just graduated with a business degree. She got a job at BPL Global in 1992, but was recruited two years later for an underwriting role at AIG.
What she didn’t realise at the time was that as an underwriter, not least a female one, in a hard market, she would soon become a well-known name in the industry.
“I had a lot of market interface,” she says about her time at AIG. “There were very few leaders and I was very lucky to be in a department of two. So it meant every broker had to come to see me. And consequently, I had to be accepted, because they had no choice, and whatever stereotype or discrimination there was, was effectively subdued.”
It was also at AIG she had one of those moments which she now thinks of as being pivotal in her career.
“I was 25, had only been underwriting for less than a year, and I got a phone call from my boss’ boss out of New York asking: ‘Is your boss there?’ I answered that he was on paternity leave. His words were: ‘Oh, you’ll have to do then,’” recalls the now 49-year-old broker with a laugh.
Aspinall had to agree to speak at a conference that the boss on the other end of the line was unable to attend.
“I was definitely not a very confident person then, but I didn’t have a choice,” she explains. “I knew, to get on in my career, I had to push myself outside my comfort zone.”
Since that day, Aspinall has become a regular speaker at industry conferences.
Knowing her priorities
She spent five years at AIG, and then moved to a leading role at Zurich, where she was responsible for setting up the company’s London team.
But her career wasn’t just one upward curve. In 2007, after seven years at Zurich, Aspinall, a mother of two, decided to quit her job to become a consultant. It was time to prioritise another important part of her life: her family, in particular her daughter with special needs.
The decision to become self-employed stemmed from her determination to maintain her profile in the industry, and consultancy work allowed her to this.
It also meant that when she was approached by BPL years later, in 2014, she knew her priorities. She took the job only because they offered her what she valued the most: it wasn’t the good salary or the title, but a work-life balance.
“They approached me knowing they would have to offer a job on a flexible basis, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says. “So I had an understanding employer. It made a massive difference, and for me it is worth so much company loyalty.”
She believes the fact that a growing number of companies are now starting to offer more flexibility is what is helping to change the market towards being more gender diverse. But women, she says, still have to force the issue. “If we don’t push and ask, then it will never change, and we owe it to the next generation. Everybody who asks, they just make it that little bit easier for the next person, and it becomes more of an established norm.”
In late 2015, Aspinall took on the of role managing director, which she is sharing with a male colleague. BPL employs around 40% women. Her own leadership style, she explains, is being conscious about gender balance, as long as it does not turn into positive discrimination. “It’s not really my way,” she says. “But I believe in giving people space to showcase what they can do. Sometimes women need to be pushed and encouraged to take on responsibility and to realise they can take it.”
More articles in GTR’s Women in Trade Finance series: