Women In Insurance… Breaking Down Barriers

With so much change afoot in the insurance industry, it is refreshing to see diversity on the immediate agenda of forward-thinking companies. The advancement of women in insurance will be a common theme this year and beyond.

The case for leadership equality is apparent. According to a recent study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women, companies with three or more women on their boards of directors typically outperformed compared to companies with none by 84 percent return on sales, 60 percent return on invested capital and 46 percent return on equity.1 Those numbers are too large to ignore!

Did you know that women control slightly more than half of all personal wealth in the United States? Further, females make 83 percent of all household purchasing decisions!2 Today’s consumer market is just one motivator for diversity at the executive table. Organizations will be wise to make sure their decision-makers reflect the demographics of their customer base. The wider range of perspectives and deeper client connection ensures that firms are ultimately better positioned to address changing customer demands.

It is clear that in the quest for equality in leadership, women are not fighting the same war as their grandmothers and mothers did.

Historically Speaking

In early 2010, for the first time, there were more women than men in the United States work force.3 Women have made their impact on the market, but it was not always that way.

Droves of women entered the work force during World War II, igniting a new movement of working women. For years, females struggled to find their voices in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed less than 50 years ago! Since that time women have slowly made their mark on business, politics and education—yet disparities are still too common.

There are many industry women who will tell you they very clearly remember a time when they could not advance in their roles, interface with clients or venture into sales. Today females are blazing new paths and setting new standards in the industry.

Though women have come a long way in America, women currently hold only 18 percent of the highest leadership positions.4 There are many barriers holding women back—but they aren’t undefeatable. Recognizing that these barriers exist is the first step.

Breaking Barriers

Sometimes in the journey to the top, women discover that “they are their own worst enemies.” It is vital that women refrain from playing the blame game and proactively ask themselves and their trusted network what they may be doing that is hindering success. Oftentimes women eliminate themselves! When women lack the confidence to put themselves out there or don’t speak up due to fear of retaliation, they miss out on an important opportunity to be heard.

Further complicating the situation, sometimes women hold each other down. Unfortunately, females in the workplace often view each other as competitors. Women must adopt the ideology that a team can accomplish more than any one individual. Embrace this notion and work to empower the women you work with. Their successes are your successes.

The struggle to find a healthy work/life balance continues to be a top concern for career women. This is not to say that men do not have the same concern, but women more often find themselves having difficulty finding a balance. Many women are afraid to ask for the flexibility they need for fear of losing their reputation as a hard worker. Increasingly, we are seeing that employers understand the importance of flexibility. With the rise in work-at-home programs and technologies that make geographically remote work possible, there are new solutions with which to tackle this issue.

Women need to think outside the box. Perhaps even change their paradigm from work/life balance to “one life,” a concept coined by Peter Arnell in his book Shift.5 Arnell reasons that women should maintain a singular attitude about living life—both home life and work life—allowing them to create much more momentum in their lives!

Sponsorship

When I speak to men and women alike on the topic of leadership development, the first topic that comes up naturally in conversation is mentorship. Everyone knows the importance of cultivating the next generation. I propose women take sponsorship one step further. A sponsor must advocate for women, back their ideas, endorse them and put them on the greater corporate agenda.

A term I like to use is “enlightened male,” meaning he who understands the importance of diversity and equality in leadership in the insurance industry. Diversifying the workplace requires male allies and champions.

This population of “enlightened males” will work side-by-side with women to advance women’s issues and to help their collective voices be heard. At the same time women must welcome this advocacy and nurture it. It is important to stress that the push for women in leadership is not meant to create a rift—the common goal must be a leveling of the playing field and workplace equality. Luckily, enlightened males are abundant in the industry, and awareness is only growing!

Most important, enlightened males and industry females alike have a responsibility to sponsor, empower and prepare the next generation of leaders.

In the wake of boomer retirement, the insurance industry will undoubtedly encounter a skills gap. Proactive insurance companies and agencies must build up a talent pipeline of incumbent leaders by embracing a diversified workforce that will understand and represent the ever-changing consumer market and ultimately deliver a competitive edge.

The challenges will continue, but the progress and the voice of the females in the insurance industry is louder and stronger today than ever in our history. Women are making strides toward equal footing: and though they should be proud of how far they have come, the march must go on.

As one of the most inspirational feminists, Eleanor Roosevelt, said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Continue to harness your talents, share them with the industry, and empower younger generations to do the same.

One day, our daughters and granddaughters will talk about us the way that we do those women who blazed new trails more than 50 years ago.

1. Nancy M. Carter, PhD, and Harvey M. Wagner, PhD, “The Bottom Line: Cor­porate Perfor­mance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004-2008),” Catalyst. (Retrieved January 21, 2011, from http://www.catalyst.org).

2. Lisa Witter and Lisa Chen, “The She Spot: Why Women Are the Market for Changing the World—And How to Reach Them,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

3. Anne Doyle, “Powering Up: How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders,” 2011.

4. Ibid.

5. Peter Arnell, “Shift: How to Reinvent Your Business, Your Career, and Your Personal Brand,” 2010.

By Margaret Resce Milkint for March 2012 Issue of Broker World Magazine. Author’s Bio Margaret Resce Milkint is managing partner of The Jacobson Group, the nation’s leading provider of talent to the insurance industry.

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