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Women have made gains in the insurance industry, but challenges remain

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Women have made great strides in achieving equality in the insurance industry, but still face significant challenges.

While the number of women working in the insurance industry today is roughly equal to the number of men, only a fraction ever ascend into upper management positions, according to a 2012 study by St. Joseph's University.

Only 6% of top executive positions across the insurance industry are held by women, and only 12.6% of board seats belong to women, according to the research.

The findings reflect a survey conducted in June during the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation's 2013 Women in Insurance Global Conference in New York. Of 425 attendees, 65% said they thought “gender equality remains an issue within America” and 82% said gender inequality “still exists within the insurance industry.”

Women also are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, government data shows.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pay disparity is greater in the finance and insurance services sectors than all other industries, with women's earnings averaging 62.2% of their male counterparts, compared with 82.2% for all other industries.

Though demographers might attribute these inequities to career interruptions that occur when women take time off to have children, research says otherwise.

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A February report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women can trace the pay disparity to their first salary negotiation with an employer: Women are less likely than men to negotiate their starting pay rate.

Recent research by New York-based Catalyst Inc. comparing starting salaries of 4,100 full-time males and females with an MBA who had no children also supports this assertion: Men started with higher annual salaries out of college, averaging $4,600 more than women. These gaps in pay continued throughout women's careers, according to the Catalyst research.

Because male-dominated senior management teams set the tone for their organizations and often determine who gets promoted and who does not, they tend to select protégés resembling themselves, other Catalyst research shows.

Such unconscious biases have a tendency to undermine the success of women, challenge the effectiveness of their leadership, and diminish their ability to receive objective performance evaluations, promotions and compensation packages that are equitable to men, according to Catalyst.

Carolyn Snow, director of risk management at Humana Inc. in Louisville, Ky., and a 2009 Business Insurance Women to Watch honoree, said that while the buyer side of the business has become more diverse, the seller side still is somewhat lacking.

“I have always thought of risk management as one of the best professions in terms of being open to women. Of the five major health insurance companies, I believe all five risk management departments are headed by women. I see women leading risk management in real estate, universities, public entities and other major industries,'' Ms. Snow said. “I also see huge strides in women taking senior management positions in insurance companies, but in general I think women are underrepresented in the most senior roles.”

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“While we have come a long way since the '80s and '90s with respect to gender equality, the gap isn't completely closed,” said Ruth A. Hunt, a principal at Buck Consultants L.L.C. in Bloomington, Minn., and a 2008 Business Insurance Women to Watch honoree. “Head counts still show inequalities in some areas of our industry.”

While many insurers, brokers and other related businesses have instituted or are considering women's initiatives and sponsorship programs designed to foster greater gender diversity, the industry for the most part still has a way to go, said Elizabeth Francy Demaret, chief customer relationship officer at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. and a 2006 Business Insurance Women to Watch honoree.

“A lot of companies say they are committed to diversity, but they lack a defined strategy for achieving it or even defining what diversity would look like at their company,” Ms. Demaret said. “Many of the larger companies have had multiple people fill the role of chief diversity officer with little apparent results. Most of the smaller companies do not have the role or policy at all.”