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A woman who wants to succeed in the insurance business has to get up pretty early in the morning.

She'll probably have to work a lot of nights and weekends, too.

And when she finally wins that coveted key to the executive washroom, she probably won't have a lot of other women to share it with.

In fact, the much talked-about layoffs in middle management at companies and organizations during the 1990s severely depleted the ranks of women waiting for their chance to grab the proverbial brass ring.

But while most of the women who've made it to the top acknowledge a glass ceiling still exists, in many cases it's moved up a bit higher. In some places, it may even be cracking.

"There's still a sort of 'old boys' network," observed Ellen Thrower, president of The College of Insurance in New York.

"It's still pretty much a male-dominated corporate world," agreed Sheila Small, director of risk management at Bell Atlantic Corp. in Philadelphia.

When Cheri Hawkins was elected the first woman president of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. in 1990, 30% of the key risk management jobs were held by women, Ms. Hawkins recalled.

"I don't know how many women are risk managers today, but I expect it's a lot more," she said.

Even though she retired last year as risk manager for Tacoma, Wash.-based Weyerhauser Co., Ms. Hawkins still is working in the field. As president of her own firm, Risk Management by Referral, Ms. Hawkins is working as a free-lance risk manager for a temporary employment company from her home in Auburn, Wash.

While more women have moved into risk management over the past 10 years, "it's hard to find good positions after the corporate restructuring" that occurred in the past few years, according to Noreen Klink, risk manager of the Helene Curtis business unit of Unilever Home & Personal Care USA in Chicago.

In most companies, risk management is "a middle-management function, and those were cut back the most in the last recession," she explained.

"There's definitely a glass ceiling, but it's moved up a lot higher," said a more optimistic risk management executive who did not want to be identified.

She recounted an anecdote from the mid-1970s when she was awarded her first "office" after a promotion to risk analyst.

"My boss told me not to call it an office. He said to call it an 'alcove' instead," she recalled.

Later, when the director of purchasing was looking for a desk for a newly hired auditor, he asked her: "Do you really need this manager's desk? Wouldn't you rather have a secretary's desk?"

But that newly promoted woman risk analyst didn't back down.

"No, I like this desk. I think I'll keep it," she said.

Assertiveness like that is one of the traits most women find necessary to succeed in the traditionally male-dominated insurance world.

Women need to call more attention to themselves to make their colleagues and upper management aware of their worth, said Paula Gould, senior vp of J&H Marsh & McLennan Inc. in New York.

While younger women are better at blowing their own horns, many older women feel uncomfortable doing that, she observed.

Besides being assertive, women also must see themselves as equals to men in the business world, according to Eileen Jo Brayman, vp of marketing and vp of risk management for Sander A. Kessler & Associates Inc., a retail insurance broker in Santa Monica, Calif.

"Be yourself. There's nothing wrong with being feminine," she said. "But women also must have a comfort level in associating with a man, woman -- anyone -- without an attitude. See yourself as an equal in the business world."

She gave as an example the time she was to take a couple of Hispanic clients out to lunch. "Because of their culture, they had a problem with my picking up the check for dinner," she explained.

But she eventually won them over when they realized she wasn't a "woman," per se, but their insurance broker, which, in effect, is a genderless role.

Career-oriented women also should continue their education, women executives agree.

"Merit is the thing that's going to carry the day," observed Heidi Hutter, chief executive officer of Swiss Re America Corp. in New York.

"Pursue a professional designation. It's a mark of individual achievement," she advised.

Ms. Hutter also encourages women to "get involved in professional organizations. Write an article, give a speech. There are so many ways to get involved."

Indeed, "The women that I know all have a tremendous appetite for knowledge, professionalism and a desire to complete things," said Linda Brooke, executive vp of the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, an intergovernmental insurance pool based in New Haven.

"There also is a growing tenaciousness and competitiveness," traits that not only will enable women to further their own careers, but which also are necessary for risk managers to sell their own programs to upper management, she explained.

"In the past, women were much less aggressive," Ms. Brooke recalls.

"What makes the risk management professional truly successful in most organizations today is a combination of communication skills and the ability to build and work in cross-functional teams," observed Dickie Brooks, director of risk management for E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif.

"This is good news for women who are typically rewarded and reinforced throughout our social and educational systems for communicating effectively and for working in groups," she said.

The new client-focused approach many insurance and risk management organizations have adopted in recent years also is giving women -- who by nature and socialization often act as caregivers -- a chance to shine, points out Ms. Gould.

Risk management is a natural occupation for women who historically have had to handle more than one task at a time, observed Ms. Small of Bell Atlantic.

"You need to have a high energy level, be highly organized and be able to handle a lot of balls in the air at once," she said.

Besides her demanding career with its 10- and 12-hour days, Ms. Small commutes three hours a day to work and back and takes care of four children, the youngest of whom is 7.

"I don't watch TV or sit around having coffee," she said. As for sleep, "I average under six hours a night."

Ms. Small said she believes she is just one of many woman executives attempting to balance the demands of work and family.

"All those women who have made it into the executive ranks have sacrificed something along the way," she said.

"I think everyone who achieves a senior position makes sacrifices," agrees Ms. Hutter, who is single and has no children.

"When you get on a plane to go on a business trip, you leave behind your personal life," she said.

But sacrifice is not the exclusive domain of women in the insurance industry, points out Susan G. Smith, president of Aon Risk Services Inc. of Pennsylvania.

While she acknowledged that "family obligations often inhibit women from moving up higher in the corporate ranks, I don't think we can blame it on the industry. It's personal."

She described her own situation as an example. Earlier in her career, Ms. Smith was asked if she would like to head a new office for Alexander & Alexander Inc., but she was hesitant because she had a small child at the time.

"I was thinking that it would be more stress. But I was already working long hours," she recounted.

Ms. Smith soon had a change of heart after she accepted the challenging new position.

"It was more satisfying than I was expecting," she said. And while Ms. Smith gets into the office around 6 a.m. each day, "that's my choice."

"There is a downside, but it's a very rewarding profession," agreed Ms. Klink of Helene Curtis. "It's a hard job, but it's never boring. That's what makes it stimulating and exciting. There're always several projects going on at the same time."

Ms. Klink also is genuinely impressed with the other women in her field.

"The women I associate with are energetic, interested in life and always endeavoring to make their programs better," she said. "I feel so fortunate to be interacting with with these types of individuals."

In many cases, the management style of many women who make it to the top of the insurance and risk management fields is much different than that of the men they succeed.

"I think women work more easily in teams," observed Stephanie Sparks, executive vp heading up Sedgwick of California Inc. in Orange.

"Women are less likely to view information as something to be hoarded rather than something that's shared," she said.

Furthermore, "they've been on the outside, so they know what it feels like to be excluded," Ms. Sparks added.

"I am far more flexible as a manager," said Lauralee Tillman, president of Salem, Mass.-based Good Weather Insurance Co., a company she formed after hitting the "glass ceiling" as vp-marketing at Commercial Union Insurance Co. in Boston.

By contrast, "men oftentimes feel that giving people flexibility creates disorder," she said.

For example, Ms. Tillman instituted a four-day workweek to save money, as it allows employees to share office space.

"We have a flexible workweek and a flexible workday" in which employees choose their own hours, she explained. "We also have 30 days off a year, and you can take them any way you want. Everyone works here with a great deal of autonomy."

Compensation is based on performance, and goals are established annually.

In keeping with its image as the "Ben & Jerry's" of the insurance industry, everyone who works at Good Weather does everything, regardless of title.

"It's a very flat organization," Ms. Tillman explained. "If you need a photocopy, it's done by whoever answers the phone, even if it's me."

"I see myself as a provider of resources to my employees. That's my only role. It's not to direct them," she said.

And if you ask Ms. Thrower of The College of Insurance, Ms. Tillman and other women, insurance industry leaders are playing yet another role: that of role model for the next generation of women starting careers in insurance and risk management.

"Just a few years ago, the Risk & Insurance Management Society had its first woman president," Ms. Thrower said. "Now we have people breaking through the glass ceiling everywhere. I've seen some women moving into the senior ranks at CNA and Aon, and some companies have been more aggressive at recruiting women at the senior levels."

"I think you're looking at a female talent pool that's increasing. This creates a competitive incentive for companies to be more proactive in recruiting them," Ms. Thrower observed.

Ms. Gould of J&H Marsh & McLennan agrees.

"I think there's a change in attitude. Eight or 10 years ago it was just 'talk' that women were going to be promoted. But they were tokens with little power. Now there's a conscious effort to pull talent regardless of gender," she said.

In fact, now when the brokerage is looking to fill new positions it first taps the membership of the Assn. of Professional Insurance Women, of which Ms. Gould is president.

"There's been more evolution in the retail side than in the insurance company side," concurred Ms. Brayman. "Now if you go into most retail agencies, the CSRs (customer service representatives) and marketing people are mostly women."

"Generally, this business is so desperate for good people with brains that they're forced to use the brains they find no matter what the background or gender," said Ms. Sparks of Sedgwick.

"My best young sales executive is a Korean-American woman. Would she have had this opportunity 10 years ago? I don't think so."

"As with all fields, I think the future will bring an increasingly even playing field for women in risk management," predicted Ms. Brooks of Gallo.

In the future, "the success, or failure, of women in risk management will be more and more based upon their individual skills, talents and efforts and less on stereotypes, or unequal levels of education and experience," she said.

For Ms. Hutter, who became the first woman president of a reinsurance company at the age of 37, the future may already be here.

"I was fortunate in my career that people saw I was talented," she said. "I have never felt that my gender was an issue."

"Attitudes toward having women in the boardroom are opening up," she said, adding, "what also really helps is when CEOs have daughters."

"Then they start to see the experience through the eyes of their daughters," Ms. Hutter theorized.