Women in Insurance: Susan Penwarden, Chief Technical Underwriter, Aviva Canada

Women in Insurance - September 8 2021

In this interview series, we profile women who are shaping the future of insurance. This week, we’re pleased to connect with Susan Penwarden, Chief Technical Underwriter, Aviva Canada. Reporting to the Aviva Canada CEO, Susan leads the central technical team, enabling Aviva Canada to achieve its profitable growth ambitions while ensuring technical excellence across the fundamentals of underwriting, pricing, exposure management, reinsurance, product development, insurance risk and governance. She has a strategic focus on driving transformational change across Aviva Canada's commercial technical functions.

Susan, tell us about your path to insurance. What attracted you to the profession?

I started off in insurance with a summer placement. I was studying for a degree in Business and was very attracted to the international aspects of the insurance industry, as well as the opportunity to understand many different businesses. When I graduated, I was recruited back to the same company. My first manager was a great female leader, a real role model and she supported me and inspired me to stay in the field. I started in the specialist area of marine and then, over the course of my career, I have moved into different areas, held many different positions, and lived and worked in five different countries. Insurance is a fascinating business, one that in my mind is critical to supporting individuals and businesses, and I have continued to learn and develop with every new opportunity.

What do you find most fulfilling about the work you do?

Driving transformational change in collaboration with my team and my colleagues, which lifts Aviva Canada to ever higher levels of excellence in service and performance.

We recently published our second annual crowdsourced eBook Underwriting Priorities 2021 & Beyond. How do you see commercial insurance underwriting evolving, and which technologies and digitization initiatives should carriers focus on to empower their teams and make their underwriting processes more efficient, profitable, and responsive to customers?

Commercial businesses range from the very small micro to a very large corporate customer. Technology and automation play different roles as the insurance proposition moves from being very standard to very customized.

At the micro/small end, automation and the speed and standardization of processes is critical in order to manage high volumes and provide the right level of rapid service. Technology can enable managing the rules and the product at a portfolio level. The objective is to enable underwriters to focus on where they need to adjust the solution when it has ‘non-standard’ elements, and avoid rekeying, and administrative tasks that are not high-value work.

Moving across the spectrum from homogenous business, technology needs to consist of an ecosystem of an efficient platform, as well as digitized workflow, supported by data analytics. This guides underwriters through the decisions and processes of new business, renewals, and other activities, which then links together the tools of the trade – whether that be pricing, exposure management, or policy creation/issuance. This supports the underwriter to be efficient and effective, while allowing them the flexibility they need to address each customer’s requirements. In each one of those areas (pricing, exposure management, and product development), digitization and automation can support more efficient and sophisticated techniques, while analytics can support effective workflow routing and provide feedback on operational efficiency opportunities.

Beyond efficiency, leveraging the power of data analytics and machine learning to drive better pricing and underwriting decisions, manage performance and improve our understanding of risk is continuing to increase in importance.

The insurance industry is in the midst of massive change, and the pace of change is accelerating. If you had to pick one technology trend that will fundamentally transform insurance over the next 5-10 years, what would it be?

The game changer, I believe, is the continuing evolution of data analytics and machine learning, which is helping technical teams to analyze at a much faster pace, with greater accuracy and the ability to decern patterns and insights that will result in better underwriting decisions, pricing, exposure management, and customer insight. At Aviva, we are investing heavily in this capability, and can already see the benefits it will drive across all aspects of the business, from operational efficiency to better service, as well as better performance in the face of increased volatility of results.

Throughout the pandemic, insurance leaders have had to manage distributed teams, and everyone has had to learn to collaborate 100% virtually. With many of us now returning to the office, or to a new hybrid model of working, what lasting impact do you think the pandemic will have on the future of work?

I expect the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the future of work, as people will reconsider what the office is used for and make better use of time with colleagues when in the office. An employee likely doesn’t need to be in the office to take calls with vendors but may want to be in the office for a brainstorming session with their team. So, perhaps this means the office will become solely an area for collaboration, and then the home is for solo work and meetings. I anticipate the workplace and location will align to the task more than it did before the pandemic.

According to a special report published by Insurance Business Magazine, 65% of the total insurance industry workforce is female, but only 12% of C-suite officers are women. Why do you think there are so few women in senior leadership roles in the insurance industry?

I think there are a few reasons:

  • Historically, it’s difficult to navigate a career which gets more demanding as roles are more senior
  • The perception (with some truth) that the level of commitment and work required to reach the C-suite was too difficult to juggle with family and other responsibilities
  • A recruitment focus which drew on a senior pool of talent that was historically not diverse, and unconscious leaning towards candidates that “look like me.”

I think this is changing – I know it is, as I see it at Aviva all the time. It does need a different approach, including identifying talent early, supporting that talent through their careers, and supporting the transitions that happen, with flexibility where it makes sense. It is also about looking for that talent and being relentless in demanding a diverse pool of candidates. Finally, strong mentorship and sponsorship are key to ensuring the best and brightest are top of the list for the senior roles that lead to the C-suite.

The insurance industry faces a recruitment challenge with millennials choosing professions they believe to be more progressive, challenging and fun. What can insurers do to entice new talent?

The insurance industry is a dynamic sector that offers rewarding careers and shouldn’t be overlooked. I think there are four key areas that we, as an industry, should be highlighting to attract new talent:

1. Dispelling the myth that insurance is boring

There’s a perception that insurance companies are stuffy and out of date. But when it comes to the technologies and work that our teams do, it’s anything but boring. We’re constantly innovating and learning ways to better serve customers in an industry that is complicated and highly regulated. For example, Aviva was one of the key companies involved in pushing the Ontario government to allow digital pinks slips in Ontario.

2. Making a difference

Insurance is about protecting people when they need it. Insurance professionals are there for people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives. Not only is this an important purpose within society but it also makes for a fulfilling career.

3. A role for everyone

Many people don’t realize that the scope of the insurance industry goes far beyond the roles of an insurance agent or actuary. For example, folks with a degree in anthropology or experience dealing with customers in stressful situations could make an ideal claims professional. At Aviva, we look to hire people with greater emphasis on soft skills for many claims roles, rather than focusing just on technical skills. Hiring people who can connect quickly and authentically with our customers makes the stressful claim process go more smoothly, which helps reduce worry for our customers.

4. A secure industry

As long as people continue to drive cars, own homes, and run businesses, people will always need insurance. The world economy is unable to function without insurance. Every car, construction site, school, delivery truck, and new roof is insurance at work. No matter what, people and businesses will continue to need protection.

What programs and initiatives does Aviva Canada have in place to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion?

At Aviva, creating a diverse, inclusive organization is a fundamental part of living up to our purpose of being with you today, for a better tomorrow. To empower our women in the workplace, we aim to create a supportive environment at all times.

Every year we celebrate and empower women in technology across the Aviva global network during our annual Ada Lovelace event, which includes speakers from Aviva and is open to both our employees and brokers.

We also continuously evaluate our talent pipeline. Are we making the right hires? How can we better support and provide career advancement for traditionally under-represented groups? Over the last three years, we’ve made this a focus at Aviva and we’ve made significant improvements, as we’ve promoted more women to leadership positions and increased the number of women and visible minorities in succession plans for executive roles.

Alongside Mills Brokers Insurance Solutions and in partnership with Ivey Business School at Western University, we offer an insurance scholarship fund, which aims to inspire and advance women in leadership in the insurance sector. The fund honors Christie Mills, an insurance professional who opened her own brokerage in 1979 – at a time when women leaders in insurance were barely heard of.


Susan Penwarden joined Aviva Canada in January 2020 as Chief Performance Officer, Commercial Lines, and assumed the role of Chief Technical Underwriter in July 2020.

 In addition to reinsurance and exposure management for Aviva Canada, Susan is focused on developing and driving commercial technical strategies and technical performance in the areas of risk concentration, governance, underwriting, pricing and reinsurance, and customer to support growth, enabling Aviva Commercial Lines – Global Corporate & Specialty (GCS) and Small Medium Enterprise (SME) – to deliver significant profitable growth while maintaining a robust control environment aligned with Aviva Group and Aviva Canada’s standards and policies.

Most recently Susan was Director General of the General Insurance business in Aviva France, responsible for the General Insurance profit and loss and end-to-end performance including strategy, underwriting, pricing, and claims operations. Prior to that Susan was the Chief Underwriting Officer for Commercial Lines in the United Kingdom, including the SME, GCS and Irish businesses. For a period, she also supported the Global General Insurance Council as Global Chief Underwriting Officer, Commercial Lines.

Prior to joining Aviva, Susan worked for RSA, first in Canada as Director of Commercial Technical Underwriting, then as Chief Risk Officer for the Codan Group in Denmark, and finally as Director, Global Specialty Lines, based in London. After being away for 12 years, Susan and her family are happy to return to Canada on a permanent basis.

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