Inga Beale becomes first woman to lead Lloyds of London in its 325-year history

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A woman with no degree has smashed through the glass ceiling of an organisation regarded until recently as one of the last bastions of the old hidebound, male-dominated City of London.

Inga Beale, a 50-year-old insurance executive and former rugby player with the Wasps women's team, has been named as the first ever woman chief executive of the 325-year-old Lloyd's of London insurance market.

Ms Beale, who is unmarried and has no children, succeeds Richard Ward, who will leave on 31 December.

She began her career as a trainee with Prudential straight from Newbury sixth form college and spent 30 years working her way up the insurance world's conservative hierarchy.

She runs Canopius, an insurance managing agent firm, which is shortly expected to be on the receiving end of a £595 million takeover bid by a Japanese insurer, Sompo Japan Insurance. She previously served spells at Zurich Financial Services and GE Capital.

Her big break came when under her leadership she turned around the Zurich-based reinsurer Converium in 2006 and 2007, scooping a SwFr4.2 million (£2.9 million) pay-off package when she left.

At Lloyd's she is expected to be paid a base salary of about £700,000 and will be eligible for a big bonus. Mr Ward received a £1.7 million package last year.

Lloyd's, which was founded in in a City coffee house in 1688 to help merchants buy insurance for their ships, was until the 1980s a byword for male-dominated conservatism. For 285 years, there was not a single female broker on the dealing floor, a record only ended in 1973. Women were banned from wearing trousers in the underwriting room until the 1980s.

Today about 37 per cent of the staff in Lloyd's managing agents are women. Ms Beale's appointment will double the number of women on the 12-strong Lloyd's board from one to two.

Running Lloyd's is one of the most senior jobs in the City. The market made a profit last year of £2.77 billion, takes around £25.5 billion in premiums and insures a large chunk of the world's ships and buildings, as well as more arcane items like Old Masters and footfallers' legs.

Senior City women remain comparatively rare. Exceptions include Chartlotte Hogg, who was hired this years as the Bank of England's chief operating officer, and Ana Botin, chief executive of Santander UK. Other women who have made it to the top in the City include Helena Morrissey, head of Newton Investment Management, Virgin Money's Jayne-Anne Gadhia and Val Soranno Keating, who runs Barclaycard.

Ms Beale is a committee member of the Insurance Supper Club, a network of senior women in insurance who dine once a quarter to network, encourage and mentor one another.

She has argued in the past that hard work alone will not get women to the top. They also need to focus on boosting their image and exposure, she says. "When I started out in my career I just worked and worked and thought that was enough. I kept my head down and thought, ‘Well of course I'm going to get recognised because I'm working hard and doing a good job.' But it isn't enough. You do have to work hard on those other things such as image and exposure."

She also argues that women executives must not skimp on small talk . "This is a very general comment, but women tend to focus on their job and often don't take the time to do those soft things like just having a chat or spending time after a meeting to talk to people. As soon as a break comes we tend to get on to a job we hadn't quite finished and that can make it tough to get on," she says in an interview published on the Lloyd's website.

Her management philosophy, she says, is "getting the noisy people to shut up to allow others to open up."

John Nelson, the chairman of Lloyd's, said: "I am absolutely delighted that we have appointed Inga as chief executive. Her CEO experience, underwriting background, international experience and operational skills, together with her knowledge of the Lloyd's market, make Inga the ideal chief executive for Lloyd's."

Ms Beale said that Lloyd's had "an extraordinary opportunity to increase its footprint and to cement its position as the global hub for specialist insurance and reinsurance".

Among UK blue chip companies headed by women, Liv Garfield is the chief executive elect at Severn Trent, Carolyn McCall runs EasyJet, Alison Cooper is in charge at Imperial Tobacco and Angela Ahrendts heads Burberry. Vince Cable, the business secretary, wants to see women taking 25 per cent of board places in FTSE 100 companies by 2015.

America has seen several very senior women hires in recent weeks, iincluding Mary Barra, the first woman to head a major automobile company, General Motors, and Marillyn Hewson, who has been promoted to chairman of the arms-maker Lockheed Martin.