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Diversity efforts court talented prospects

Programs usually tap mentors to share their industry expertise


Programs that foster career development for women are gaining traction among insurers as the industry seeks talent to improve its competitive edge, observers say.

The growth of such programs—ranging from grass-roots networking efforts to global initiatives—is a positive sign for the historically male-dominated industry that faces the challenge of developing its next generation of leaders, experts say.

According to a recent report by Deloitte Development L.L.C., women comprise 71% of the underwriting roles in the industry and 87% of the claims and administrative roles. Women also make up 45% of the sales agents nationwide. However, the number of women in senior roles falls short, with less than 20% serving as either corporate officers or on boards of directors.

The percentage of women chief executive officers in the insurance industry rounds to 0%, according to the report. Advocates of diversity programs are trying to change that.

“Our goal is to increase the percentage of women in senior roles, as well as cultivate a new crop of talent who can succeed those women,” said Denise Berger, managing director of Aon Global, a division of Aon Risk Services, in Los Angeles and global chair of the broker's Women's International Network.

Chicago-based Aon Corp. launched WIN in 2007 with the goal of promoting its talent pool via a global platform for networking, professional development and mentoring. What began as a grass-roots effort has grown to more than 30 chapters in 11 countries, Ms. Berger said.

Other companies including Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Corp. and Zurich-domiciled ACE Ltd. also have strong women's initiative programs in place. Meanwhile, organizations such as the New York-based Assn. for Professional Insurance Women and consulting firm Deloitte L.L.P., which organize monthly networking events for women in the insurance industry, have experienced a boost in participation.

“Women want this. The appetite is very strong right now,” said Rebecca Amoroso, vice chairman and U.S. insurance industry group leader of Deloitte L.L.P. in Parsippany, N.J. Ms. Amoroso, an advocate of workplace diversity, said she also has seen a spike in interest from insurers considering starting their own programs because they “recognize that diversity makes good business sense.”

“Companies that can draw and retain the best possible talent will be better positioned for the future,” Ms. Amoroso said.

Early in its development phase, the ACE Women's Forum won top-level support because ACE Chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg recognized the value of diversity in an organization and wanted to support an initiative that fostered that, said Julie Schaekel, executive vp and chief auditor for ACE Group Holdings Inc. and director of the ACE Women's Forum.

“The focus really is not on achieving specific numbers, but rather on getting the broadest population of talent from which to choose our leaders,” Ms. Schaekel said.

Although programs vary in structure and style, one consistent essential feature is a program's ability to offer networking and mentoring opportunities, experts say.

“Creating access to senior women is critical” Aon's Ms. Berger said.

Networking activities generally are run through local chapters. They include lunchtime seminars as well as panel discussions, webinars and leadership training.

Organizers also are getting creative in their approach. For example, Aon's program tapped an online tool much like that used by a Web site dating service to connect professionals and match employees with suitable mentors. Individuals can be matched based on a variety of factors, including goals, geography or area of expertise.

“From a career-development perspective, mentoring is one of the most critical things that a company can do to help someone feel like an important part of the organization,” said ACE's Ms. Schaekel. When AWF launched two years ago, more than 150 executive-level women volunteered to be mentors.

“While one person might be interested in finding out about opportunities in a particular department, another person might want a mentor to get advice on balancing their work/life responsibilities from someone who has been there,” said Carol Frey, vp of ACE Risk Management, the large-account unit of ACE USA, and co-chair of the joint AWF/Aon fall leadership conference. Ms. Frey also mentors several young professionals.

The industry also is extending networking opportunities to external partners to bring clients, brokers and other industry groups into the fold. For example, at a recent ACE leadership conference, ACE and Aon teamed up for a networking event that featured a panel of key executives who discussed the state of the industry, including a keynote speech on diversity fostering innovation.

ACE also invited about a dozen clients to join the discussion, something organizers say works toward the broader goal of forging relationships with business partners. “These were some of our most important business partners, and we had the opportunity to connect on a whole new level,” Ms. Frey said.