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Women make strides in industry, but still face challenges

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At one point during her long career in the insurance industry, Cecilia E. Norat--now director of state relations at New York-based American International Group Inc.--worked for a recently sold managing general agency.

The new owner told Ms. Norat she deserved to be named the MGA's president because she knew more than anyone else there, but would not be.

"If only you were not a woman," he told her, without a hint of irony. "I said, 'I think you're wrong, frankly,"' but he was not persuaded, said Ms. Norat.

The days when a qualified woman would be told something like that are clearly history. But many women in the insurance industry generally agree they still have a long way to go before their representation in the insurance industry begins to reflect their percentage of the general population.

Observers say this is a problem for U.S. business in general, but many believe the insurance industry has been particularly slow in welcoming women into its executive ranks.

However, observers say, the pressure of simple demographics--with the percentage of female college students already exceeding that of men--will ameliorate this inequality, particularly when combined with a more enlightened attitude by many male executives and more flex time, telecommuting, mentoring and diversity programs. (see story, page 16).

Clearly, women in general, and in the insurance industry in particular, still have a ways to go.

According to a report released in August by the U.S. Census Bureau, men earned more than women in each of the major industry sectors in 2005, but the earnings gap between men and women was the largest in the insurance and finance sectors.

The situation has improved from earlier years, observers generally agree. Susan Meltzer, assistant vp-risk management at Aviva Canada Inc. in Toronto, recalls when she first started working in the insurance industry in the 1970s, "I used to have to call all the men in the office 'mister,' and they called us by our first names."

"I would say, as time has passed, the role and penetration of women in leadership roles has increased," said Linda Johnson, executive vp at reinsurance intermediary Benfield Inc. in Minneapolis.

"I've had so many meals over the years where I was the only women at the table," she said. But at one recent dinner, five of the 12 attendees were women, Ms. Johnson said.

Many say, though, that while women have made significant progress, there is still much further to go.

Barbara Schonhofer, managing director at London-based EJS Partners, an executive search firm, said, "Behind closed doors, I've been specifically asked not to produce a woman on a short list (of possible candidates) and I've asked why, and the reaction has been, 'Because they upset the balance of the team."'

"You still don't see very many women running companies at all," said Marsha A. Cohen, senior vp and director of state relations at the Washington-based Reinsurance Assn. of America.

Women in the insurance industry today, in effect, still face the same sort of challenge faced by Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire does, only backwards, she said.

Women who have reached the executive suite include Paula Rosput Reynolds, president and chief executive officer at Seattle-based SAFECO Corp., and M. Michele Burns, Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc.'s chief financial officer, who has just been named chairwoman and chief executive officer of Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

The insurance industry has been particularly conservative, say some observers.

One factor is that women's childbearing years often coincide with a critical period in their career development.

"Women have babies. Men don't. That's the reality you've got to come to terms with," said Ellen Vinck, vp-risk management at BAE Systems Ship Repair Inc. in San Diego, who added she would not be able to maintain her current schedule if she still had small children at home.

"I think that the industry could improve in making itself a more welcoming environment for women that also have other responsibilities," said Alexandra Littlejohn, managing principal with New York-based brokerage Integro Ltd.

"There are ways of dealing with issues around family responsibilities and corporate responsibilities, including job sharing and day care," she said.

"It seems like women get to a certain point, and if they have that conflict, they obviously take family" over their job, said Ms. Littlejohn.

"There's a lot of emphasis on face time: 'I want to see you when I come in in the morning and when I leave at night,"' with lunchtime as the only time when women can be away and even then the attitude is, they "shouldn't be taking it," said Linda H. Lamel, a New York-based attorney with a solo practice.

"If a woman has to drop off her child at day care, or her mother at elder care, and needs to come in at 9:30 instead of 8:45, and you don't allow that, you're basically telling the woman she has to choose between her job and her family," said Ms. Lamel, whose previous industry positions have included executive director of the New York-based Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

Ms. Lamel said she recently proposed introducing flex time to a male workers comp executive in his 40s. His response was, "'I don't see it. It wouldn't fit in with our culture,"' she said.

It is difficult to convince men who have stay-at-home-home spouses that flexible work schedules "are both do-able and important," said Corbette Doyle, who was named Chicago-based Aon Corp.'s first chief diversity officer earlier this year and is chair of its national health care practice.

"There are very few companies that have taken aggressive positions on building flexible options for people with line level jobs" in insurance compared with other industries, including financial services firms, she said.

Another factor impeding women is "lack of access to informal networks," said Ms. Doyle. "I can't tell you how many stories I've heard from women cut out from critical decisions because they happen in the men's room."

This also often happens on the golf course, she said. "Almost all of our really successful saleswomen play golf," said Ms. Doyle.

However, Ms. Lamel said, "I know women who have learned how to play golf to be part of the social goings on, but it's never quite the same," she said. "I think even when women make it to senior ranks, or into the boardroom, there's still a difference" in how women are regarded.

Male board members often go on vacation together, she said. "I would bet no woman board member does that, so those things still create barriers."

Maryanne Sherman, president of Lawrenceville N.J.-based Sherman Think Tank, who is president of the Assn. of Professional Insurance Women Inc., an organization dedicated to the advancement of professional insurance women, said "When a merger occurs, (men) stick together and protect one another. Women tend to be on the outside of that and they lose out."

Men have an advantage over women in that "they have grown up more working on teams, and doing things as part of a team," where women have not, said Karen M. Clark, president and CEO of Boston-based AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk modeling company.

A company leader "really has to have the confidence and trust of other members of the team, and inspire and really lead and drive the team." But some women "feel like they have to do it all," said Ms. Clark.

Teresa L. Pahl, managing director at Hilb Rogal & Hobbs in Chicago, said part of the problem is insurance has "a very defined cycle that is probably more pronounced than in most industries, and that sometimes results in a decline in investing in some of the fundamentals of training and development at the early stages" of people's careers.

Some observers say the women themselves should take some responsibility for their failure to more thoroughly crack the executive suite.

For a risk manager to rise through the ranks of her company to become chief financial officer or treasurer, for instance, "you probably really need to leave risk management, go into the operations, get experience and understanding, and come back into risk management," said Ms. Meltzer.

But women have not tended "to do that kind of career development. I don't know why," said Ms. Meltzer. Now, though, "There is new generation of women behind us that is doing it right."