Jennifer Thomas, Direct Line: 'There's no-one who looks like me in insurance'

Insurance is one of the UK's most traditional, monolithic industries, dominated by white men. Direct Line's Jennifer Thomas is trying to change that.

by Claire Sweeting
Last Updated: 21 Sep 2017

Jennifer Thomas, head of internal communications at Direct Line Group, is confident and self-assured. But when asked about her first role in the mainly white, male world of insurance, she says, ‘I can’t even tell you how daunting it was.’

Thomas (a speaker at MT's Inspiring Women Edinburgh event on 9th March) moved from the US to London in the 1990s to work at a tech start-up during the dot-com boom. She became marketing director straight out of university and did it all: ‘Pure marketing, guerilla PR, trade events; it was a mish-mash of everything I needed to know.’

After a stint in corporate PR at the adapted-vehicle company Motability, Thomas landed a media-relations position at Lloyd’s of London. ‘It was my first job in financial services, and what a way to start,’ she says. ‘I realised that I was good at taking complex information and distilling it – and you need to do that a lot in insurance.’

‘Lloyd’s was an amazing experience but it was challenging. It’s better now, but back then it wasn’t diverse. Within marketing, the gender split was pretty much 50/50, but senior management didn’t reflect that. And in terms of being an ethnic minority, I was one of the few… one of the only! It built up my resilience though – that’s how I choose to see it.’

Thomas is clearly driven, which she partly attributes to her background in competitive running; while working at Lloyd’s she was sprinting at a national level. ‘A lot of how I operate comes from sport – I need to have a target and then I plot how I get there. It’s like training.’

But while Thomas was always aiming for the board, she saw that other women, especially those from ethnic minorities, were not progressing. ‘When you walk into a company and think, "there’s no one who looks like me", you limit yourself and think that senior roles are unattainable.’

After four years at Lloyd’s, Thomas accepted a corporate PR role at what was then RBS Insurance, and she stopped running, as the training was becoming too demanding. Then the banking crisis hit and Thomas found herself with the task of managing RBS’s media relations through its IPO. In 2012 the company became Direct Line Group and Thomas felt like she’d done all she could in corporate PR. She told the CEO she wanted to move her career forwards, and in 2013 she was promoted to head of financial communications. She rose up the ladder again earlier this year to become head of internal communications and experience. 

Now as one of the most senior women at Direct Line – and chair of its Gender & Working Families strand – she's doing her bit to push diversity and inclusion up the boardroom agenda. ‘There’s now a real business case for diversity,’ she says. ‘There’s research that says this isn’t just a "nice to have", it’s crucial to the survival of our business. You’re limiting yourselves if you’re not widening the pool of talent.’

Direct Line Group was one of the first insurers to sign up to the government’s Women in Finance charter; it now have measureable targets for appointing women in senior management posts. ‘That’s key, otherwise it becomes a talking shop and doesn’t lead to real change,’ says Thomas. Ethnic diversity is next on her to-do list: ‘But you can’t conquer the world in a day.’

Thomas will be talking about why businesses must stop recruiting 'lookylikies' at MT's Inspiring Women Edinburgh conference on 9th March; she has also signed up to be a mentor for the day. Her own mentor is Karen Blackett, chairwoman of MediaCom and the first businesswoman to top the Black Powerlist. ‘When I was looking for role models it was really hard to find a woman of colour in a senior position. Karen is amazing – she’s only been mentoring me for about a year, but it’s catapulted my career. Helping other women has now become my purpose and passion.’ 

Book your tickets for MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh on 9th March here.

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