The Feminine Mystique And Insurance

In a world where the latest technology is bested within a matter of months, and an application to file a claim is just a click away, it's hard to believe that any aspect of our ever-advancing present might have remained at a stand-still. Despite the whirlwind of upgrades and developments though, there are some issues concerning equality in the workplace that may need a few updates.

While it may not be the most comfortable topic to address, gender issues remain a part of our society, even within the professional realm. The days of suffragists may be behind us, but women continue to work toward a completely even playing field by tackling any challenges that might come their way. A few women in the claims industry were willing to discuss what those challenges are were in the past, what they are now, and how they've dealt with them professionally.

Starting Off Somewhere

Elise M. Farnham, CPCU, ARM, AIM, CPIW, began her career in the claims industry in 1973. Though she is she is now the President of Illumine Consulting, and has been named National Claims Professional of the Year by the NAIW as well as Atlanta Insurance Woman of the Year, there have been a few bumps along the road to her success.

"When I was starting out in the 70s, there weren't very many women in claims so I was rather unique," Farnham explained. "Some people didn't even believe I was an adjuster."

"Unique" is an understatement. When Farnham started as a multi-line adjuster, she was the only female adjuster in all of eastern Texas. Having a woman come out to a scene to conduct a report was a rarity, to say the least. Farnham, however, was just as prepared for the job as anyone else, even during sticky situations.

"One time I had a truck out in the country in an area where they had oil-topped roads," she continued. "The roads weren't asphalt; it was oil that was used to form a crust over the dirt. One of my insurance drivers had gotten lost so he had pulled his truck into a parking area, which was a parking lot for a carpet distributor. Of course, the weight of the truck damaged the oil film and really ruined the whole parking lot. The owner of the carpet distributor came out with a forklift that had a carpet roll tube on the front of it. He ran down my truck and had that tube pointed at my driver.

"So that's how it was when I arrived: my driver with a tube pointed at his face, and the owner of the parking lot angry about the truck damaging his parking lot. So here I am! I get out of the car with my little clipboard and everything, taking a look, and I go up to the owner. He takes one look at me and says, 'I don't appreciate a company that sends out their secretaries to handle these problems.' It was even more insulting to me because I had been working in claims for about seven or eight years already at that point."

The assumption that being out in the field was a man's job may seem very dated, as we're now living in a time when women like Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton have taken on (and have been successful in) political roles traditionally held by men. However, as Farnham continued, she recounted a more recent instance in which she experienced a similar (antiquated) sentiment. "Even five years ago when I was working Hurricane Wilma claims, I would call people up and tell them I was going to come look at their roof," she said. "They would tell me things like, 'We're waiting for the insurance man.' I would just say, 'Well, I am the insurance man.'"

Farnham wasn't the only woman who faced some discrimination during her career. Georgia Taylor, SCLA, AIC, CPIW, RPA, has worked for more than 35 years in the insurance and art industry. She now owns Shooting Star Claims and although she has received numerous awards from various associations, one of her first experiences with a national insurance association was less than stellar.

"At my very first meeting at one of [the association's] conferences, they supplied tickets for us to attend the various activities at night," she said. "One of the tickets said 'member' and the other said 'wife,' instead of 'spouse.' I made a comment about that and was told, 'That's because they are wives.' So I said, 'Well not in my case.' I really felt like it was a good ole boys thing."

Farnham clarified that while this attitude was prevalent throughout the 70s and 80s, it started changing after that as more women took on management positions within the insurance industry. "That glass ceiling seemed not so firm later on," she said.

Moving Onward and Upward

The "glass ceiling" is nothing new--it was less than half a century ago that the Equal Pay Act was passed, making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for the same job. Unfortunately, just because there are laws to correct unfair practices doesn't mean that those laws are always followed. The National Committee on Pay Equity reports that in 1963, women who worked full-time made 59 cents on average for every dollar earned by men. More recently in 2008, it was reported that a woman earned 77 cents to every man's dollar.

While equal pay remains something of a hot button issue, money matters seem less significant when compared to the notion of equal opportunity in the workplace. The claim industry is full of opportunities to learn and to put knowledge and skills to work, whether a professional is male or a female. Donna J. Popow, Esq., CPCU, AIC, was not afraid to take advantage of those opportunities, even if others might have had some reservations about whether a woman would be taken seriously.

"I was the first female workers' comp field adjuster that my office had ever had," she said. "When supervisors showed some concern about that, I said, 'Well I don't see a problem because when I go to interview the supervisors and managers, I just ask them the right questions like anyone would and they'll tell you just about everything you need to know.' I truthfully never had an issue with getting people to act professionally when I did."

Popow no longer works directly in the field of claims, instead writing textbooks for people who are in the claim profession working toward earning a designation. Having earned several designations herself during her 25 years of experience handling P&C insurance claims, it is clear that she didn't let any skepticism get in the way of achieving success.

Jane Tutoki also addressed the issue of being a female claim professional, stating that, "I don't believe it's a disadvantage; I believe sometimes it is just another challenge for you to get around," she said. "If you look at it as a disadvantage, [then] you may start thinking of it as one. I just don't believe that."

Perhaps it is that mindset that has made Tutoki so successful as the chief claims officer responsible for Zurich's claim operations in North America. Though she has risen through the ranks of the claim industry to a position that any man or woman would envy, the disparity between the numbers of women versus men in high-ranking positions has not gone unnoticed.

"I've certainly seen women underrepresented or more represented in certain areas," noted Tutoki. "The specific line that comes to mind is property, where women have always been traditionally underrepresented. It seems like in this area women are still an anomaly, which is absurd for today."

Of course there are no definitive answers as to why there are more women employed in certain areas of claims than others, but Tutoki offered some insight into some of the demands that women still contend with that might contribute to the incongruity in the numbers.

"I'm not sure that it's any different for a woman in claims than anywhere else, but it's the bigger issue that women are still the traditional caregiver in many families," she said. "It takes them out of the field or changes the game that they're playing a little bit sometimes, and that just makes it more difficult for them. I think companies need to adjust to make sure we can take care of all the talent that comes to us and make the most of that talent no matter what our employees' needs are. So I think companies have to be more flexible."

Looking Ahead

Companies are going to have to adjust, and soon, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data from 2009 indicates that 155,000 of the 253,000 employed claim adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators were women. With resources like national associations, committees, and their fellow female workers to support them, women will continue to be a dominant force in the industry.

Farnham commented about the increase of the female presence in the industry. "I think men still have the advantage and move up faster," she said. "Even though you look out and most of the claim department is women, you look in the executive offices and a lot of those include just men. I think there is still a reluctance to put women in the really big seats, but there have been some women move up and they have done well. Also, we're seeing more woman supervisors, which represents a start."

What would it take for women in claims to move up that ladder more quickly? Tutoki offered up some advice.

"I tell women to network more than they think they need to," she advised. "It's something that I don't think we have traditionally done as much as men, and it is really the key to success I think, besides the essential things of being good at your job and having talent. You need to really network so that people know you are there."

These women have certainly made their presence known in the claims industry, and there is hope that many more women will do the same. Taylor is one of many women who are glad to see the number of females increasing.

"I do think that more and more women are taking management positions now and it's nice to see," she said. "I think that part of that is due to excellent associations like the National Association of Insurance Women, which encourages growth, and the fact that women are looking at insurance as a career rather than a job."

Whether it is because of the encouragement of associations or personal perseverance, women have already made an impact on the insurance industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 7-percent increase in claim adjuster employment growth in the next decade, and if current patterns continue, a good portion of those jobs will be taken by women. With their strength in numbers, and individual strengths as professionals, more women today see limitless opportunity in what is rapidly a world where both men and women can succeed and grow.

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