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More Women in Industry Leadership: Are We There Yet?

When the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA) elected Juli McNeely as its new president last fall, some insurance observers saw it as a turning point.

The owner of McNeely Financial Services is more than just the first woman to hold this post in the organization’s 125-year history. She also joins a circle of women who hold, or who very recently held, top leadership posts at national insurance and financial industry associations all at the same time.

It is hard to think of any such time before  –  not even during World War II when many women worked at all kinds of occupations, including insurance and financial services.

As of December 2014, for example, Caroline A. Banks was president and Michelle L. Hoesly was immediate past president of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT). Barbara Crowley was 2013-14 chairman at the National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies (NAILBA). Daralee S. Barbera was 2014-15 president of the board of GAMA International, and Nancy A. Kistner, immediate past chair of the board at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

Several women also hold executive leadership positions at industry trade groups. These include Bonnie L. Godsman at GAMA, Kim O’Brien at the National Association for Fixed Annuities (NAFA), Janet Trautwein at the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU), Dr. Susan B. Waters at NAIFA and Cathy Weatherford at the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI).


Several observers add that at least four women are CEOs at leading life insurance carriers; a good number of women lead the state and regional insurance associations; many women hold key managerial posts throughout the industry; and a growing number of women own their own advisory practices.

 A woman at the helm was more the exception than the rule until more recent years. Today, it’s a frequent topic of conversation: “Hey, did you notice?” “Could it be that women leaders aren’t tokens anymore?” “Is parity with male leadership close at hand?”

The industry is still perceived as male-dominated, according to a 2012 survey on women in the financial services industry conducted by Women in Insurance & Financial Services (WIFS). Not incidentally, this group is also headed by a woman president – Susan L. Combs – and run by a woman executive director – Deb Duffy.

That is a global trend in fact as well as perception. Men still make up more than one-third of leading financial institution “ExCos” (executive committee members), according to a December report from the global management consultant Oliver Wyman. This is based on a study of senior staff at insurance companies in addition to investment banks, retail banks and money managers.

As for women at the top, they account for only 4 percent of CEOs and 13 percent of ExCos, Oliver Wyman said.
Although women are just beginning to make inroads into leadership roles in the insurance and financial industry, they told
InsuranceNewsNet that they feel encouraged by seeing more women leaders at the top today.

What’s Behind it?
Demographics are one factor that may be helping fuel the shift. For example, there are simply a lot of women employed in the insurance business – an estimated 1.6 million in 2013, according to an Insurance Information Institute analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. This represents 59.4 percent of the 2.4 million workers industrywide (property/casualty and life/health, all occupations), according to BLS.

Some commenters believe that this rising tide has helped, and will continue to help, more women get to the top.
As indicated, some women have made it to the executive level. But on a percentage basis, the sobering reality is that the numbers at the top still remain relatively small.  For instance, a 2012 study by St. Joseph’s University found that just 6 percent of top executive positions at 100 companies across the insurance industry were then held by women, and that 85 percent reported having no women holding top executive positions at all. Women did hold a larger portion of director slots (12.6 percent) and “inside officer” positions (8 percent), however.

In the financial planner field, a 2013 Women’s Initiative study by the CFP Board found that only 23 percent of financial planners are women. That’s higher than 6 percent, but the 23 percent doesn’t necessarily represent women at the helm.
However, in earlier eras, the percentages were even smaller, as evidenced by the very few women holding top association positions two or more decades ago. That is a key reason why the presence of so many women in visible leadership roles in recent times is getting so much attention. Onlookers believe today’s women leaders may help open doors for more female opportunity going forward.

Industry Trends
Trends inside the industry are playing a role as well. This came through loud and clear in an informal email poll that InsuranceNewsNet recently sent to a few of the industry’s top women leaders.

The leaders were asked to rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest, the opportunity they see for more women to reach top leadership posts in the industry in the next three years. The average score on answers to that question was an impressive 9.95.

The reasons the leaders gave for such optimism provide a telling glimpse into trends these leaders are seeing. Several of the women pointed to greater allowance for flexible, family-friendly work environments; the arrival of more women to top positions, which triggers greater acceptance of women in leadership roles; and the increasing efforts by a number of carriers to create more inclusive, diverse cultures and to bring more women on board.

In addition, one woman pointed to deliberate, outside-the-industry “empowerment campaigns” (such as Lean In and Fight Like a Girl). Another noted that more carriers are adopting “gender balancing” initiatives. And one commented on a changing dynamic she is seeing, with more women selling and more women buying, and with more women managers who now have vast experience as well as an empty nest.

There is something else too: This is a changing attitude among consumers. McNeely put her finger on it during an interview.

Today’s consumers don’t want the “hard sell,” she said. They may be accessing information on their own, but they prefer to use the services of a financial advisor with whom they can “build a relationship.” They want to be an active part of the decision-making. In addition, women customers are demanding that the advisor build a relationship with them as well as with their husbands, she said.

Those preferences align well with deep-seated traits and skill sets, such as relationship-building, that McNeely said many women have. This suggests an increased need for women in leadership positions. The insurance and financial services industry needs to “adjust its ways” to attract today’s more relationship-oriented consumers, she explained. 

No Pollyanna Here
Women executives are far from Pollyannaish about their optimism. Take Combs, who is president of Combs & Company brokerage in New York City and the youngest-ever president of WIFS.

Combs told InsuranceNewsNet that although she believes opportunity for more women at the top is a 10 (high), she has not lost sight of the fact that today’s women leaders still represent a very small percentage of all industry leaders and of all women in the industry.

She is concerned that the recent arrival of women to top association positions may be a perfect storm. “I’ve been looking at the succession behind the current women association leaders, and there is not a single woman coming up,” she said.

In addition, not everyone wants to be at the top. Many women feel overtaxed between family life, business life and volunteer life, Combs said. So some who do rise to, say, executive vice president, decide they don’t want to go any higher. “Or they say to offers for advancement, ‘not right now’ or ‘this is not the time.’”

“We need to start with basics,” she said. “We need to attract women at the lower levels – not sell them, but attract them – so they get interested, involved and excited” enough to stay and grow into national leadership.
A number of executives whom we polled mentioned other challenges as well:

» “Men remain more aggressive than women and more willing to self-promote,” and “Our society accepts this self-promotion more when it comes from men than women,” NAIFA’s Waters said.

» Unconscious bias against promoting women still exists, some said.

» “Slow advancements in opportunities for women to grow, but getting much better,” GAMA’s Godsman commented. That is a point picked up in the Oliver Wyman study. Women in the U.S. financial services industry are only 45 percent as likely to progress from middle to senior levels of management relative to their male counterparts, the researchers found.

» Taking time out to raise a family can be a challenge, NAFA’s O’Brien said. When a woman returns to the workforce, “you are perceived as a ‘new entrant,’” she explained.

» The oft-cited wage gap can be a hurdle too.  In 2011, for example, women in the financial sector were earning about 70.5 percent of what men earned, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to expand opportunities for women in business. The lower pay scale makes it more difficult for women to pay for support services that would help them meet family needs while they take the reins, say some leaders. Lower comparative pay also can weaken incentive.

Bottom Line
The future for aspiring women leaders appears to be not only challenge, but opportunity – and openness to opportunity.
“The opportunity is there, and there is a tremendous focus on growing women in this field,” MDRT’s Hoesly wrote in an email. “If there is a challenge, it is that some women don’t recognize how valuable their input and leadership are.”
Also, she said, “as many more women have become active in top positions, their talent has been recognized and appreciated.”

Eileen McDonnell, president and CEO of Penn Mutual, wrote that “I’ve seen more women reaching top leadership levels in this industry in the last five years than I have during my entire career.”

From a corporate perspective, she added, “there are women who have worked their way through the ranks and are well-
positioned to assume leadership roles now and into the future.” What’s more, she said, “there is evidence that women have arrived and are continuing to arrive in the C-suite.”

As for the glass ceiling getting in the way, McDonnell said that “if women buy into the idea that there is a glass ceiling, they are setting themselves up for failure. There is no reason why women can’t succeed in our industry today.
“I am an advocate for people taking control of their own destiny. If a woman is in an environment that doesn’t advance women, she has the power to change her situation and take her career and success into her own hands.”


Linda Koco, MBA, is a contributing editor to InsuranceNewsNet, specializing in life insurance, annuities and income planning. Linda can be reached at [email protected] [email protected].

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