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Some industry companies working to create opportunities

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The pressure of demographics, combined with more open-minded senior management and a concerted effort on the part of the insurance industry, will ultimately lead to women having greater success in cracking the executive suite, say observers.

Meanwhile, some firms have already achieved at least some degree of success in this area.

Observers note that women already represent a majority of college students, and this will inevitably be reflected in the insurance industry.

Eventually, the insurance industry will "have to acknowledge the demographic reality," said Linda H. Lamel, now an attorney with a solo practice, whose positions have included executive director of the New York-based Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

Timing is a factor as well, said Janice M. Tomlinson, executive vp at Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Corp.

Equal hiring of men and women did not start until the 1980s, and it will take some time for those women to gain the requisite experience to reach the industry's top levels, Ms. Tomlinson said. "The timing is about now, when you see more and more people moving to senior positions" from that era, she said.

Lori Dickerson Fouche, senior vp- specialty insurance marketing at Novato, Calif.-based Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., agreed. "I think there is a strong pipeline coming into view," she said.

And certainly there is open-mindedness today on the part of senior management, to invest both in their employees in general and to look for opportunities to promote worthy people, she said.

"I think you're going to see much better numbers as we go forward, because the younger women that are coming into the industry are facing a whole different world than we did," said Cecilia E. Norat, director of state relations at New York-based American International Group Inc.

"I think women are a lot stronger now than they were 20 years ago" and have laid the groundwork for those following them, said Alexandra Littlejohn, managing principal with New York-based brokerage Integro Ltd.

Meanwhile, many companies that have been particularly successful at promoting women have formal mentoring programs, said Ms. Lamel. "They make it happen."

"A lot of these things don't happen by themselves," agreed Ms. Tomlinson. "A lot of this has to do with how you look at talent, and a very vigorous talent-management program within an organization really does bring the best players forward and will enable this to happen over time."

Chubb was a 2006 winner of an award by New York-based Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit organization working to advance women in business, for its efforts to develop and advance women through the insurer's "Reach up, Reach Out and Reach Down" program.

As with any diversity issue, "It's something that companies have to continually work at," said Ms. Tomlinson. "Senior management's commitment to making something like this happen is, in fact, crucial. I think a conscious effort needs to be made within any organization to continue to advance women."

Others that have made this effort include Chevy Chase, Md.-based risk retention group United Educators Insurance, where women account for half of the board of directors and 40% of the professional staff, according to President and Chief Executive Officer Janice Abraham.

"We really have looked at diversity in its broadest sense," considering gender as well as age, ethnicity and race and "tried to make insurance, and United Educators specifically, as interesting and as attractive as we can possibly make it."

Hamilton, Bermuda-based XL Capital Ltd., which has several senior women executives--including two members of the five-person Office of the CEO--takes "a very gender-neutral approach to all our hiring," said Celia Brown, its executive vp and head of global human resources.

"The culture here is very much one of equality and respect," and having differentiations based on anything other than performance is just not part of the environment, said Ms. Brown.

In addition, the Washington-based Reinsurance Assn. of America is "top heavy with qualified, bright women," which is a tribute to President Frank Nutter, said Marsha A. Cohen, RAA senior vp and director of state relations.

Aon Corp. plans to roll out a "significantly enhanced" flex time strategy later this year, said Corbette Doyle, the brokerage's chief diversity officer, who is also chair of its national health care practice.

At a webcast earlier this year, in which Ms. Doyle was introduced in her new role as chief diversity officer, Aon executive chairman Patrick G. Ryan said he initially did not think flex time was all that valuable, but now sees it as part of the company's overall diversity strategy.

Some women are providing help on a more personal level as well. For instance, Barbara Merry, chief executive officer of the Hardy Underwriting Group P.L.C., is active in the Lloyd's London women's networking forum and makes herself available as a mentor. "I'm very keen on providing support," she said.

The situation is improving, said Ellen Thrower, a professor and the executive director of the School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science at St. John's University's Peter J. Tobin College of Business in New York.

"I think there are CEOs and boards that are very aggressively looking for women to serve on their boards, not because of tokenism, but because they really have identified the skill sets they need, and in many instances they see women as best suited to fill those needs."

"As with all things, we've got to look at quality rising to the top," said Janice Ochenkowski, managing director at Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a real estate services and money management firm, who is also vp of RIMS.

"I think that given an equal playing field, the number of women who are terrific leaders is equal to the number of men who are terrific leaders," said Ms. Ochenkowski.