At first glance, it doesn’t seem as if there is a lack of women in the insurance industry. At agencies, at industry meetings, among underwriters and carrier personnel—the ratio of women to men seems more than equal.
But appearances are deceiving. Although there are plenty of women in insurance, very few are in the C-suite. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 data, women make up 83 percent of “insurance claims and policy processing clerks.” At the largest insurers and reinsurers, women hold only 6 percent of top executive positions, 12.5 percent of board seats, and 8 percent of inside business, legal or actuarial officer roles, such as chief actuary or division president, according to a recent industry study by St. Joseph’s University Academy of Risk Management and Insurance.
Even women who have nabbed the proverbial seat at the table admit our industry has a problem. More than 400 high-level women from around the world attended the IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference in June. In a digital survey conducted at the event, 65 percent of these high-achieving women said that gender inequality still exists in America—and 82 percent think it’s still a problem in the insurance industry.
The biggest issues holding women back, they believe, are lack of C-suite recognition and sponsorship (49 percent), inadequate or inflexible workplace standards (20 percent) and, tellingly, women not promoting themselves more effectively (26 percent).
“Although I’ve never felt that my gender was a barrier to success, I do see the unbalanced demographics that make up our industry,” said Karen Bailo, general manager of agency sales and distribution for Progressive Insurance. “Whether I’m sitting in a boardroom or at an industry conference, we’re definitely a male-dominated field.”
“While we can look at some excellent examples within our industry of successful women, it’s still a very small number,” said Claudia Mandato, executive vice president, Lockton Inc. “Acknowledging that a gender bias both consciously and unconsciously exists is one way to begin the slow process of change.”
And even when an insurance business makes management diversity a priority, few have formal, measurable programs. In the IICF onsite attendee survey, more than 30 percent said that their companies do nothing to source more female talent.
Several of the interviewed insurance executive women who have been in their careers for 30 years or more concede that insurance has come a long way since the days when management was exclusively “pale and male.” But all of them also acknowledge that our industry still has a long way to go to achieve true balance and diversity.
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“It appears to me, from the outside, that women are represented in C-level or director positions in only a slightly higher majority than they were 20 years ago,” said Michelle Rupp, owner, NRG Insurance, Seattle. “I think I have definitely been discriminated against as a woman agency owner. This is a conservative business and so very, very slow to change.”
The irony of Rupp’s observation is that the agent/broker end of the business is more likely to have female leadership than other segments. TheSt. Joseph’s University study found that a quarter of the top executive roles held by females are in the brokerage business.
“Thirty-five years ago, when I got started, there were only a few women agency owners,” said June Taylor, principal at Wilkinson Insurance Agency in White House, Tenn. “Now I serve on PIA association leadership positions (Tennessee board of directors) where 30 percent are women owners.”
The sheer force of demographics is forcing the industry to pay attention to this issue. “Statistically speaking, the industry has more women than men; however, more men than women occupy leadership positions,” said Lisa Tepper, regional president for the downstate New York/New Jersey region of Travelers Insurance Co. “As social demographics change and more women receive bachelor’s degrees than men, the industry has begun to embrace the fact that the talent pool is evolving and is becoming much more balanced.”
Whether it’s in a small agency or huge global reinsurer, women will advance into leadership roles when the C-suite knows they’re there. At the corporate level, this often starts with one-on-one relationships between mentors and mentees and the formation of women’s network groups before it gets on the agenda for the C-suite.
It’s no exaggeration to say that having mentors (someone providing professional advice) and sponsors (someone in a position of power who actively promotes your advancement) have so far been the biggest drivers of women’s success in insurance. Whether it was the patriarch of a family-run agency, a respected educator or a C-suite stakeholder who recognized a woman’s potential even before she did, mentors play an indispensable role in women’s career advancement.
In the IICF onsite survey, 20 percent said they rely on CEO endorsement and mentoring or sponsorship programs, and about 90 percent have participated in and benefitted from a professional mentoring relationship.
Mentors and the roles they play typically change over the course of a career. “Mentors early in my career stressed the importance of hard work, a positive attitude and developing technical competence in accounting and finance,” said Karen Gilmer-Pauciello, CFO at Philadelphia Insurance. “As I became more immersed in the insurance industry, mentors placed an emphasis on me really understanding the underlying business of business, not just ‘crunching the numbers.’ Later, my mentors emphasized the importance of developing, fostering and nurturing relationships with clients, producers, shareholders, regulators, staff, peers, rating agencies, management or other stakeholders.”
Networking is another important step toward success. Many of these women had organized women’s networks within their businesses. Typical is Seraina Maag, chief executive, North America Property, XL Group, who spearheaded both a formal mentoring program and a women’s network at her company. Being able to discuss leadership issues, industry expertise and work/life balance with other women helps build confidence and pave the way for career advancement, she said.
Others relied on the tried-and-true channels of local and national agency associations to make connections, commiserate with other women and learn the trade. Donna Pile, owner of A.G. Perry Insurance Agency, got into the business in 1977, when a divorce forced her to support her three young sons. She joined the Kentucky PIA and eventually became the state president and later, in 2007, president of the national association. “They told me this association would be my guide, and it has been for 35 years now,” she said.
Although formal corporate diversity programs are encouraging, the industry is embracing women and minorities as part of a larger chase for top talent. “Companies are making diversity a priority because it makes sense to do so,” said Joan Lamm-Tennant, global chief economist and risk strategist at Guy Carpenter. “How can they find the brightest and most talented professionals by fishing in only one part of the pond? Collectively, we are recognizing that success is driven by a variety of people from a range of backgrounds working together.”
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And young women now entering the workforce are a different breed from the industry’s pioneers. Raised by working mothers and accustomed to working and collaborating with a diverse team, they’re generally more accustomed to integrating work and personal life. “Today when I look to my daughter, Kristen, and her husband, Matt, I see that it is never an either/or choice for them—work and life naturally flow together,” Lamm-Tennant said. “Kristen does not see motherhood and her profession as a series of tradeoffs or a balancing act. Instead she allows things to naturally blend in a way that is unique to her and her family. Her wisdom and confidence in life made me realize that our children understand the concept of work/life balance in a profoundly different way.”
6 Common Attributes of Successful Insurance Women
To learn how the women at the top achieved their success, we talked to women insurance executives from all sectors of the industry. Their stories are as different as the women themselves. The executive vice president of a professional services company started her career as a lawyer representing insurers; a CFO at a major insurer learned to love insurance as a public accounting auditor servicing insurer clients. Several were “insurance brats,” born into multigenerational agencies. One is doing double duty as an agency executive and a state legislator. And the chief executive of a major global reinsurer got her start in the industry, as she learned later, because a bird pooped on her resume.
In spite of these diverse backgrounds, some common threads run through all of their success stories, and the stories told at the IICF conference. Here are some of the repeated attributes of successful women:
They have mentors. Probably no other message comes through more loudly than the importance of having mentors (defined more as guides and teachers) and sponsors (defined as people in positions of power who are actively promoting your advancement).
They bite off more than they can chew. Virtually every woman spoke about times they felt unprepared to handle a challenge, but dove in anyway—and succeeded. Joan Woodward, executive vice president of public policy and president of the Travelers Institute, Travelers, began her career on Capitol Hill, most notably working for Leon Panetta and the Senate Finance Committee, where she helped develop the Roth IRA. She believed she was unprepared and unqualified for most of her career advances, but extols the advantages of learning on the job. “Don’t be afraid to ask and to say yes,” she said.
They know the numbers. Seraina Maag, chief executive, North America Property, XL Group, credits knowing her way around a profit-and-loss statement as critical to advancing her insurance career. “You must have P&L responsibility to understand numbers and the economics of the business,” she said. This can come in the role of underwriter, board member or any other area where you’re responsible for financials.
They recognize the power of the board. Whether it’s for a small not-for-profit business, a paid position on a large corporate board, or a spot on an insurance trade association, board involvement is an eye-opening experience. Nancy Mellard, executive vice president and general counsel at CBIZ Employee Services Division, is the sole woman on The Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers’ 40-person board of directors. Her involvement has given her “exposure to the national stage,” making connections on the U.S. Senate and House through lobbying and testifying on insurance issues. “It has broadened my view of the industry and created those national relationships that have been one of the best things the industry has given me,” she said.
They know that “work/life balance” is a myth. Whether single or married, mothers or not, successful women recognize the importance—and understand the difficulty—in giving equal time to work, play, family and community. Most said it’s an issue they struggle with every day. “For those of us who have been struggling with it for years, it’s a freeing thing to say it’s really hard,” Mellard said. “Instead of striving for perfection, strive for excellence; it gives you the freedom to integrate all the elements.” Read "Top Industry Women Find Success at Work and at Home"
They love insurance. Although it wasn’t always love at first sight, top women love the challenges, intricacies and essentials of insurance. “All of us as consumers of insurance should be proud of what our premium dollars do for the economy and how we help rebuild communities after disasters and businesses after losses,” said Michelle Rupp, owner of NRG Insurance. “And as members of the insurance community, we facilitate that.”