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Steve Wardlaw: Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, Emerald Life Limited, equality-focused insurer

Personal experience, or hearing someone’s personal story, is the best way to ‘feel’ the need for a truly equal society.

Steve Wardlaw: Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, Emerald Life Limited, equality-focused insurer

Steve’s website: Emerald UK


How did Steve Wardlaw start his career in DEI or Social Impact? 

Originally I had been a campaigner and activist at university in the late 1980s, at the time of the AIDS crisis and also Section 28 in the UK, a piece of legislation that prohibited any school, university or public organization from talking about homosexuality. So, ironically, it was a very exciting time of change, when we really felt we could make a difference. All change in this area is slow though – Section 28 itself was only repealed in 2003, so 15 years later, but it underlined the need constantly to educate, promote the equality agenda and to keep continuous pressure on lawmakers and other influencers.

Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? 

Personal experience, or hearing someone’s personal story, is the best way to ‘feel’ the need for a truly equal society. For me, it was seeing many friends die of AIDS in the early 1990s and see the second class treatment that gay men got – not so much with the medical sector, but by the press. Barely a day went by when there wasn’t a story about putting us all on an ‘AIDS island’, or that we were paedophiles, should be sacked from our jobs, re-criminalising us etc. Unlike today the gay scene of bars and clubs was very underground, and you knew some spaces only by word of mouth. It was very much the ‘twilight world of the homosexual’ and we lived behind closed doors, rarely open about our sexuality.

I now volunteer for a charity called Diversity Role Models that goes into schools to talk about bullying, language and LGBT issues. It’s always quite emotional to see the change in a generation, where schools encourage and protect students who may be questioning their sexual identity. There’s still some way to go though, particularly in relation to intersectionality – so for example there are still larger problems with LGBT issues within certain ethnic minority groups – but for now the direction of travel is going the right way.

What does DEI mean to Steve Wardlaw?  

Having been an activist at university, I changed tack and became a corporate lawyer, and my DEI work faded away. However, after a career of 25 years ending up in Moscow (where we did some work with women and the LGBT community there), I woke up one morning a realized that we – as a society and particularly those who benefit from DEI – had become complacent. Unlike the early 2000s, over the last five years we have seen in the UK and some other countries substantial pushback on the concept of equality, and also we have not done enough to encourage open dialogue to settle differences rather than entrenching positions (see the conflict of religious freedoms or the LGB groups that are openly anti-trans). The need to educate and drive change is why we founded Emerald Life in a very conservative sector – insurance.

Looking at this pushback is why DEI is important and why our job, if you like, is never over. There are those lobbying government and increasing in government who would prefer less of an emphasis on equality and diversity and more on traditional values. While corporates are increasingly hard wiring the DEI positions into their culture, in the UK we are seeing government bodies moving away from them. For example, the new chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has just ended its support of Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT charity, over Stonewall’s campaign for trans equality, which is a fairly shocking step.

What is your proudest moment as a DEI advocate?

Without doubt, launching Emerald Life as an equality insurer. Insurance is not a progressive sector, and despite calling itself a protection industry it does a great job of providing products designed by and for white, heterosexual men, but not much else. Women, the LGBT+ community and non-traditional families are not marketed to, products do not deal with their particular issues and their customer experience is sub-standard. Emerald’s job is to sell insurance but we have also spoken to most of not all of the major UK insurers explaining how they can better serve a more diverse customer pool. To be frank, we have had mixed results in that regard. Every organization has someone who is keen, but often the internal costs of a change programme are too much, so the drive for DEI just gets lost, or stays as just an expression of good intention.

Why is DEI important to Steve Wardlaw as an individual?

DEI is important to me as an individual because I can see both sides of the equation. I am a gay man, but equally I am white, cisgendered and able-bodied, so often people do not think that I may be part of a minority group. I’m good at calling out direct discriminatory events but often it is interesting to observe culture and group-think when people think that everyone in the organization is the same as them. It’s an eye-opening experience and it’s rare to be able to be ‘hidden’ in that way. It helped me to understand that for most people, unconscious bias is real but quite easily countered with the right question, comment or leadership. 

If you could change one thing in terms of DEI, what would that be? 

DEI works very well with the support of allies. DEI change should not be left solely to those who are directly impacted by these changes, and often the changes have more substance if an ‘independent’ person is leading. Often, for instance, if a company’s LGBT group is leading a change about trans-inclusive language, the pushback can be “Well, they would want that wouldn’t they?” – something that can’t be said if the straight CEO has their name attached to the project. Here in the UK, most major legislative changes have been led by those not affected – particularly in relation to abortion laws and gay crime laws – simply because it was the right thing to do. 

What is stopping your community, organization or company from achieving a more equal and equitable world? 

Inertia within our sector. And the fact that it is too easy to pay lip-service to the concept of DEI. A proper DEI initiative involves more than a few posters, a drinks launch and a celebrity speaker. Many parts of a thorough DEI audit are not exciting (eg looking at company healthcare) but they are much more important to a company’s employees than having a famous person speak. Also a thorough DEI project involves people who are not employees. For example, it might seek to use more racially-diverse suppliers (and have a parallel empowerment program for those small business people) or review minority customer experiences. DEI involves listening to those who are often not listened to, and making sure that what they say is taken in, understood and acted on. DEI has become a business in its own right and so it’s also worth checking reviews before engaging a DEI consultant – some of them are simply not as good as others. 

If you could say one thing to the leader in your community, organization or your company about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what would you say?

Too often DEI initiatives are seen as being led from the bottom up, which means they often get bogged down with middle management as there’s a perceived lack of executive buy-in. DEI involves transforming the corporate mindset, which can only be done at the executive level. The most effective DEI projects are ones where the CEO stands in front of their stakeholders and makes the case for the reform of how the company works. I would also add that in our sector – insurance – companies have been very good at working on these issues with their staff but not as good with changing customer experiences.

Anything you want to share with your readers?

 Don’t be afraid of change. In fact embrace it. The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is about continuous gradual improvement. Some change needs direct action and an earthquake but most change happens more slowly and never stops. Understanding that will help you achieve your DEI goals. And always remember that there will be people who will resist those changes, so you need a strategy for that as well.


How did Steve Wardlaw start his career in DEI or Social Impact? 

Originally I had been a campaigner and activist at university in the late 1980s, at the time of the AIDS crisis and also Section 28 in the UK, a piece of legislation that prohibited any school, university or public organization from talking about homosexuality. So, ironically, it was a very exciting time of change, when we really felt we could make a difference. All change in this area is slow though – Section 28 itself was only repealed in 2003, so 15 years later, but it underlined the need constantly to educate, promote the equality agenda and to keep continuous pressure on lawmakers and other influencers.

Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? 

Personal experience, or hearing someone’s personal story, is the best way to ‘feel’ the need for a truly equal society. For me, it was seeing many friends die of AIDS in the early 1990s and see the second class treatment that gay men got – not so much with the medical sector, but by the press. Barely a day went by when there wasn’t a story about putting us all on an ‘AIDS island’, or that we were paedophiles, should be sacked from our jobs, re-criminalising us etc. Unlike today the gay scene of bars and clubs was very underground, and you knew some spaces only by word of mouth. It was very much the ‘twilight world of the homosexual’ and we lived behind closed doors, rarely open about our sexuality.

I now volunteer for a charity called Diversity Role Models that goes into schools to talk about bullying, language and LGBT issues. It’s always quite emotional to see the change in a generation, where schools encourage and protect students who may be questioning their sexual identity. There’s still some way to go though, particularly in relation to intersectionality – so for example there are still larger problems with LGBT issues within certain ethnic minority groups – but for now the direction of travel is going the right way.

What does DEI mean to Steve Wardlaw?  

Having been an activist at university, I changed tack and became a corporate lawyer, and my DEI work faded away. However, after a career of 25 years ending up in Moscow (where we did some work with women and the LGBT community there), I woke up one morning a realized that we – as a society and particularly those who benefit from DEI – had become complacent. Unlike the early 2000s, over the last five years we have seen in the UK and some other countries substantial pushback on the concept of equality, and also we have not done enough to encourage open dialogue to settle differences rather than entrenching positions (see the conflict of religious freedoms or the LGB groups that are openly anti-trans). The need to educate and drive change is why we founded Emerald Life in a very conservative sector – insurance.

Looking at this pushback is why DEI is important and why our job, if you like, is never over. There are those lobbying government and increasing in government who would prefer less of an emphasis on equality and diversity and more on traditional values. While corporates are increasingly hard wiring the DEI positions into their culture, in the UK we are seeing government bodies moving away from them. For example, the new chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has just ended its support of Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT charity, over Stonewall’s campaign for trans equality, which is a fairly shocking step.

What is your proudest moment as a DEI advocate?

Without doubt, launching Emerald Life as an equality insurer. Insurance is not a progressive sector, and despite calling itself a protection industry it does a great job of providing products designed by and for white, heterosexual men, but not much else. Women, the LGBT+ community and non-traditional families are not marketed to, products do not deal with their particular issues and their customer experience is sub-standard. Emerald’s job is to sell insurance but we have also spoken to most of not all of the major UK insurers explaining how they can better serve a more diverse customer pool. To be frank, we have had mixed results in that regard. Every organization has someone who is keen, but often the internal costs of a change programme are too much, so the drive for DEI just gets lost, or stays as just an expression of good intention.

Why is DEI important to Steve Wardlaw as an individual?

DEI is important to me as an individual because I can see both sides of the equation. I am a gay man, but equally I am white, cisgendered and able-bodied, so often people do not think that I may be part of a minority group. I’m good at calling out direct discriminatory events but often it is interesting to observe culture and group-think when people think that everyone in the organization is the same as them. It’s an eye-opening experience and it’s rare to be able to be ‘hidden’ in that way. It helped me to understand that for most people, unconscious bias is real but quite easily countered with the right question, comment or leadership. 

If you could change one thing in terms of DEI, what would that be? 

DEI works very well with the support of allies. DEI change should not be left solely to those who are directly impacted by these changes, and often the changes have more substance if an ‘independent’ person is leading. Often, for instance, if a company’s LGBT group is leading a change about trans-inclusive language, the pushback can be “Well, they would want that wouldn’t they?” – something that can’t be said if the straight CEO has their name attached to the project. Here in the UK, most major legislative changes have been led by those not affected – particularly in relation to abortion laws and gay crime laws – simply because it was the right thing to do. 

What is stopping your community, organization or company from achieving a more equal and equitable world? 

Inertia within our sector. And the fact that it is too easy to pay lip-service to the concept of DEI. A proper DEI initiative involves more than a few posters, a drinks launch and a celebrity speaker. Many parts of a thorough DEI audit are not exciting (eg looking at company healthcare) but they are much more important to a company’s employees than having a famous person speak. Also a thorough DEI project involves people who are not employees. For example, it might seek to use more racially-diverse suppliers (and have a parallel empowerment program for those small business people) or review minority customer experiences. DEI involves listening to those who are often not listened to, and making sure that what they say is taken in, understood and acted on. DEI has become a business in its own right and so it’s also worth checking reviews before engaging a DEI consultant – some of them are simply not as good as others. 

If you could say one thing to the leader in your community, organization or your company about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what would you say?

Too often DEI initiatives are seen as being led from the bottom up, which means they often get bogged down with middle management as there’s a perceived lack of executive buy-in. DEI involves transforming the corporate mindset, which can only be done at the executive level. The most effective DEI projects are ones where the CEO stands in front of their stakeholders and makes the case for the reform of how the company works. I would also add that in our sector – insurance – companies have been very good at working on these issues with their staff but not as good with changing customer experiences.

Anything you want to share with your readers?

 Don’t be afraid of change. In fact embrace it. The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is about continuous gradual improvement. Some change needs direct action and an earthquake but most change happens more slowly and never stops. Understanding that will help you achieve your DEI goals. And always remember that there will be people who will resist those changes, so you need a strategy for that as well.

This interview is part of the Global Diversity Thought Leader Series™

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About the author

Susanne Ricee

Susanne Ricee is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory