Still in the Boys’ Club

Still in the Boys’ Club

Women have been in the life insurance business for more than a century. So why are they still on uneven footing with their male colleagues?

“In this work it is not only necessary to have a knowledge of human nature and tact but the power of imparting information. One of the first things to realize when taking up the business is that no womanly qualities are to be eliminated, we want the very truest kind of womanliness in the work.”

A reporter working for the New York Times enjoyed afternoon tea in an uptown Manhattan office building where the above nugget of insurance acumen was bestowed upon him. He sat pensively taking in every detail of the office, from the Roycroft furniture to the Mahogany wood and the rag carpet. He was being exposed to an incipient avenue for selling insurance and the tone of the article conveys that the author was unsure about its validity.

A guest of the head of the Woman’s Insurance department of a “big insurance company” that is not named in the article, the reporter was bombarded by the department head about the value that insurance has to its customers both male and female. However, rather than going on at length about the laudable attributes that insurance provides to society, the reporter was being told of the innate virtues in women that make them a natural fit for selling insurance.

Women, with their compassion, empathy and ability to cultivate nurturing relationships, make them inherently good insurance professionals. Every woman in the industry that was interviewed for this article emphatically stated that the qualities that women posses are they exact qualities that are needed to be successful in the life insurance field. The selling of an insurance policy in the eyes of the department head was a type of “missionary work” where she reaped both financial and non-tactile rewards. She believed with every shred of her being in the work that she was doing. And she was adamant that insurance is the most suitable field for a woman professional (even more so than teaching) she professed.

“Frequently men come in seeing the sign on the doors but we always send them to the regular office. We could never go around into the offices and talk to business men and keep the same prestige. Women work best with women; they are in closer sympathy with them. I can go into a woman’s boudoir and talk to them at any hour,” the department head went on to say.

The article was titled “Women Insurance Agents” and the fact that that qualified as a headline meant to intrigue and provoke readers into the depths of the article says something about where women were in the industry at the time. The article was published on May 19, 1901. Where are women in the industry 111 years on? What hurdles have been cleared and what have been stumbled over? And where do they have to go?

This is a Man’s World?

There is a perception, perhaps more among people outside of the life insurance world than within it, that the business is conducted by men and until fairly recently, marketed to men. The latter has changed because there was plenty of incentive: women are increasingly taking control of not only their own, but their families’ financial destiny and have been for decades.

But ask a person off the street to conjure a mental picture of someone in the insurance industry and it invariably involves a white, older male in a conservative suit. And while this notion, too, may be changing to a more diverse range of professionals, the idea that people in the general public have of an insurance professional is not. The reason for this is that there are simply not enough women in high-profile positions in the life insurance industry.

For a professional endeavor that comes sized and fitted to the natural qualities that women possess, that has a history of women involved in organized sales and marketing, that is malleable enough to have a good work-life balance, why are there not more women in high-profile positions at insurance companies? Certainly, seeing a woman at the pinnacle of power would do more to sway a young woman pondering a career in insurance than any presentation at a college job fair.

There are notable exceptions. Wendy Carlson, CEO at American Equity, is one of them, but the industry still must contend with the perception that this is a boy’s club. Until women are able to break through the proverbial “glass ceiling” and populate more visible, high-profile positions it will remain to be seen as a boy’s club but, women in the industry are proud of where they have come and passionately speak to what a congruous career path this is for them.

Frances Avrett, is the Senior National Sales Director with Primerica. She joined the company in 1981 after a health scare in her family left her unable to pursue a career as a farmer. She believes strongly in the value that life insurance provides and because of her own unique life experiences she knows firsthand that the industry has the capacity to truly help people. She quickly realized, however, that besides one other woman at Primerica when she joined, the atmosphere was completely male-dominated. “If anyone was going to be noticed,” she recalls, “it was going to be the men, no matter what you did.”

That was where a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts began to take hold and Avrett pieced together her notion of why women were not “staying the course” and what impact that had on how men perceived their ability to succeed in life insurance. Some women who were entering the life insurance field at that time were doing so based off of a recommendation from a friend, or a an advertisement that they saw, she recalls. For the most part, they held no passionate convictions about the products they were to be selling, which caused them to give up easily. This, in turn, left an ugly statistic lingering in the heads of the males in the company that there was a high turn-over rate when it came to women employees. This had such an effect on the company, Avrett says, that men would stand up at meetings and say, “Don’t recruit women because they can’t make it.” This resonated among industry professionals to the point where the turn-over rate statistic became disconnected with the “don’t hire women because they can’t make it,” mantra and became, simply, “don’t hire women.”

Avrett feels that era has ended, however, but by 1996,  women remained stuck in middle management positions. With 18% of Primerica recruits being females, the CEO at the time asked Avrett if she would head a project to promote women in the business and bolster women in their ranks. Frances’ response was, “What they need is to see someone successful.”And there were successful women in the industry but what really needed to happen was for women to see successful women as top executives. That era, Avrett notes, still has yet to begin fully.

The National Association of Women Executives (NAFE) compiles an executive summary each year of the top 50 companies for executive women (the summary indentifies companies but does not rank them). Only 10% of the companies that made the top 50 had women CEOs. Of the NAFE top 50, women comprise 19% of the profit-and-loss corporate executives and nearly a quarter of the executives who run billion-dollar divisions. Only five of the companies that made the top 50 were in the life insurance industry: MassMutual, MetLife, the New York Life Insurance Company, the Principal Financial Group and Prudential Financial.

Prudential’s workforce is 53% female. Of that, 32 % of senior managers are women, 26% of corporate executives are women and 24% of corporate executives with profit-and-loss responsibility are women, 29% of executives running divisions with revenues exceeding one billion dollars are women.

MetLife’s workforce is 54% women, 37% of senior managers are women, 17% of corporate executives are women, 17% of corporate executives with profit-and-loss responsibility are women, and 0% of executives running divisions with revenues exceeding one billion dollars are women.

New York Life’s workforce is 52% women, 33% of senior managers are women, 22% of corporate executives are women, 12% of corporate executives with profit-and-loss responsibility are women and no women run divisions where revenues exceed one billion dollars.

MassMutual proved to be one company where women were able to jettison themselves from middle management purgatory. MassMutual’s workforce is 57% women, 41 % of senior managers are women, 34% of corporate executives with profit and loss responsibility are women and 50% of divisions with revenues exceeding one billion dollars are run by women.

The statistics paint a startling picture. The companies listed above are those thought to be most accepting of women in their workforce, they are actually being commended on their dedication to fostering a nurturing workplace environment for women. If these companies are the best examples of “women friendly” organizations in the industry the question of where women have yet to go is easily answered: past the middle manager level and onward to the upper echelon of executives. With the answer a new question emerges. What is stopping them?

For Cynthia A. Tidwell, CEO of Royal Neighbors of America, an insurance firm that since 1895 has been on a mission to support women through its business, the answer is simple. The insurance industry, as a whole, is still very much a boys’ club.

“Women tend to move up in a lot of functional areas but you don’t see nearly as many women at the CEO or profit-and-loss ranks, and to me that is an important distinction.” Tidwell finds there to be myriad reasons why many women insurance professionals idle at the middle management level. One of them is a lack of synergistic mentoring. Women need to see women who break out of the functional tract and inject themselves into positions with more power, she says. Having rotational assignments so that women do not get pigeonholed could be a possible remedy for the problem but a crucial aspect when it comes to getting women into powerful executive positions comes down to how the individual company embraces their diversity programs and whether they only exist on paper.

A Long Way Coming

The onus of motivating women to get into higher executive levels, however, should not be placed solely on the company. Taking tough assignments is something Tidwell would like to see more women take on. She explained how, when she was starting out in the industry, she would go out of her way to take on assignments that no one else (including men) wanted in order to showcase her capabilities.

“Those are great learning experiences and you can really make a really good name for yourself if you take some risks and take some tough assignments,” she says. “Women also need to be more aggressive when it comes to injecting themselves into the hiring process from within the company.”

There are limits to what women can do to self-start, however. It is not unheard of, Tidwell says, to see male supervisors give female direct reports assignments that intentionally do not highlight some of the talents they have, thus stifling their potential. “All you need to do is look at the statistics; almost half of the professionals in the insurance industry are women and only about 8% are in that top tier of executives.”

Harassment, manifesting itself in off-color jokes, physical contact or overt prejudice does not play a strong role in keeping women out of high-level executive positions in the contemporary life insurance field. There is a history of this type of behavior in the industry and it lives and breeds in tandem with the boys’ club feel. However, due to a new generation of men taking the reins at most companies, who were reared in the age of political correctness or have had their most base urges stymied by lawsuits or seminars showcasing the financial and reputational ruin such acts can wreak, it seems to be dying from attrition and not playing the active role in barring women from powerful executive positions that it may have in the past.

Margaret Milkint, a partner with the Jacobson Group, a firm that connects insurance professionals with organizations, got involved in the insurance industry in 1985. Back then, she recalls, there were definitely fewer women at the leadership table “Over the past 25 years, we have come a long way from the days where men wouldn’t shake my hand or pinched me at conferences,” Milkint says.

Katherine Forrester, a Wealth Management Advisor with Northwestern Mutual entered the field as the only woman agent in 1996 to join her newtwork office. Although she was the only woman out of 120 men in the office she got a lot of attention. But as she notes, she considers herself lucky that the attention was not in the form of being called “honey” or hearing whistles when she walked by. Instead, she felt supported by the men in her firm “I was received well and because I was different, they wanted to see me succeed,” Forrester says.

Although harassment is a convenient scapegoat that illustrates a clear-cut, calculated and offensive reason for why women cannot or will not advance into higher-level executive positions it cannot be the unequivocal boundary keeping them out. It is, at this point in the history of the industry, an ugly stain, like all bigotry that is embedded into the history but survives today only in uncomfortable yet somewhat innocuous pockets.

“Did I see it around me in the early 80’s?” Tidwell says. “Certainly more than I see today. I think it still exists but companies are dealing with it more aggressively than they were, You would like to think that it has gone away. It hasn’t, but it certainly is better.”

There are worries though that the momentum that was taking hold in the 1990s is being lost. The forty- to fifty-year-old female executive is a rarity in part because at some point she gets tired of hitting her head on the glass ceiling and she eventually becomes disillusioned with the business as a whole, Avrett contends. At that point, she says, going home and being a full-time mother or working for yourself becomes more and more appealing. This scenario will only become more enflamed as the few women currently in executive positions in the life industry prepare themselves for retirement.

Harassment does not have to be relegated to the sexual realm. One anecdote Avrett recalled harkened back to her days calling on homes in the evening to sell policies. In the agrestic countryside on the outskirts of Savannah GA she came to home where a “burly looking guy” answered the door and said that he didn’t want to do business with a company that lets housewives sell insurance Avrett explained to him that she was in fact, one of those housewives and he was embarrassed enough to let her in and give her a shot. She did such a good job that when she was done selling him a policy he told her that he thought women were better at selling life insurance than men.

The women that currently occupy 50% of the workforce of the industry need to be encouraged and prompted to strive for the most powerful of executive positions. If this does not happen the industry’s evolution will be halted at a crude stage like Homo Hablis; they have the tools but they are not able to implement them to their full potential.

Women have made amazing inroads since the reporter sat in the women’s department of the large New York firm in 1901. They are respected financial professionals in the eyes of their colleagues, their clients and the general public. But the disproportionate number of males concentrated in the most powerful seats in the industry it worrying and has the capacity to thwart all of the momentum the that women insurance professionals have accrued over the years. It seems to be a vicious cycle where too few women get promoted to powerful positions and the ripple effect causes other women who view that to stay in still waters. It is unfortunate for an industry that is built for women to be in.

By Michael K. Stanley   From the March 2012 issue of National Underwriter Life &  Health Magazine
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