Being awarded Insurance Professional of the Year, in the Women in Insurance New Zealand 2020 awards, has given NZI’s Angela Schwarz, senior underwriter commercial liability, immense pride and time to reflect on what has been an exciting and varied career as a female in the insurance industry.
From a Dutch background and a first-generation New Zealander, Schwarz started her insurance journey 40 years ago when she was a fresh-faced university student, who had just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Auckland.
“I was ready to go out and conquer the world, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Unemployment levels were very high in Australasia and it was difficult to get a job. I landed a three-month temping position at the Royal Insurance mail room. I was 21 years old and that was the start of what ended up being my lifetime career”.
Since then, Schwarz has had several roles in the insurance industry including a stint in London for 10 years. Once back in New Zealand 20 years ago, she worked in a brokerage before she started her underwriting career with NZI in 2007.
Schwarz has always been a strong promoter of insurance as a profession.
“Most people my age, they often say ‘I fell into insurance’, and although that may be true, we need to lift our profile as an industry, because working in insurance is a profession. We should be proud to say we are underwriters as we have a lot of skilled and highly educated people, and I don’t think we get the recognition we deserve.”
A big part of Schwarz’s upbringing was the importance of education and standing up for herself. Her parents arrived from Holland in the 1950s after the war, and she thinks that’s when her passion for the women’s movement started.
“I was expected, as a girl, to go as far as my brother. It was never about having kids or getting married. I learnt that you can lose absolutely everything, but education can’t be taken away from you. By the time I was 17, it was already in my mind that I had to be financially independent, so I’ve always kept pushing myself.
“This might seem a strange thing to say to the younger women of today, but there was still a significant amount of inequality for women in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To achieve that financial independence, I’ve worked very hard at every job I’ve had, putting a lot of effort on education and training.
“I got my first house when I was 26 and I had to work two jobs to get it. And that was back in the day when you had to have a man sign your mortgage application.”
For Schwarz, being awarded the top gong in the Women in Insurance New Zealand awards is especially poignant, after she was riding the first wave of feminism in the 1970s and marched up Queen Street in 1979 for women’s rights.
“The award hits me more as I go along. I’ve been 40 years in this industry, and it hasn’t always been easy. I’m so humbled and honoured to have won this. I’ve seen sexism rife both in and out of the workplace, but today so much has improved. We can freely talk about mental wellbeing; we are encouraged to speak up and express ourselves; and there’s so much more diversity everywhere you go which is liberating.”
For those who are starting in the insurance industry, Schwarz shares her personal philosophy.
“Be driven to do the best job you can, no matter what you do. Get to know as many people as you can, make friends at work, have fun, keep getting educated and aim higher than you think you can manage. I’ve had my knees knocking together with fear with some jobs I’ve taken on, but just get in there and do it. It does work out. And some good old-fashioned work ethic and integrity helps, too.”
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