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Women Agents Say They Are Breaking The Glass Ceiling

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Women Agents Say They Are Breaking The Glass Ceiling


Caroline McDonald

Hard work and opportunity have helped women establish themselves in the upper levels of the independent agency world and, female agency principals say, those who have made it are individuals who don’t believe they should be treated any differently than men.

“It’s no longer unusual and it’s no longer the exception to have women in top positions within the insurance agency ranks,” says Louise Canter, senior vice president at Patterson-Smith Associates in Falls Church, Va., who is the incoming vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Independent Insurance Agents of America.

Women, she said, are much more dominant in the industry today. “More women are in sales and many women own agencies, either their own or with a group.

“There is no magic to it,” Canter says. “It’s just a lot of hard work over many years and sticking with it.”

Canter, who has been with Patterson-Smith for 21 years, says she started out 29 years ago as “one of the very few women in sales.” Although agencies have always been female-oriented “in the sense that many of the people who worked in the agencies were women,” she notes, “I would say there have been incredible changes for women over those 29 years.”

IIAA’s Future One “Agency Universe Study for 2000″ found that 33% of agencies employ women as principals (26% have both men and women principals and 7% have women only). The study also found that 58% of agencies with more than one producer have one or more women in that position–an increase of 13 percentage points, up from 45% in 1996.

“It has not been a quick or easy process,” Canter says, adding that the proverbial “work twice as hard” refrain is often the case.

One development that has helped women is the opportunities for jobs and training in the industry, which “women recognize and want,” she adds.

Women are willing to take advantage of those opportunities now because “there is not the sense of anything holding them back,” explains Canter. If anything discourages them from moving up in an agency, “it’s their own perception more than anything else,” she adds.

In the agency ranks, Canter notes, “if you can sell and bring in commission dollars, the sky is the limit. From an agency principal’s viewpoint it gets down to the bottom line and that’s how women will succeed more and more.”

At the same time, women have much to offer. “They’re more detail-oriented, more relationship-oriented and they relate well to clients,” Canter says.

Something that women could do more of, Canter suggests, is network. An agents association “can be very helpful,” in terms of meeting and getting to know insurance company people, she says.

“Women haven’t taken as much advantage of this type of thing as men, but they’re starting to,” Canter observes. “In the past they may not have felt as comfortable as they do now. But as they move into positions where they have more authority there is the feeling that they do belong, and they have more freedom to participate.”

Danielle Duerr, owner of Danielle Duerr & Associates in Darien, Ill., who started her own agency in 1996, said she did so because most agency owners she knew either “were not as progressive as I felt I would like to be,” or had inherited the agency, “which today is about the only way you can actually have an agency and get the contracts you need.”

Duerr was able to start her agency, even though insurers typically “do not give the contracts to an individual just starting from zero” because of her years in the business and the contacts she had built up in the insurance industry. Her agency, which is 80% commercial property, has two full-time employees and one part-time, she said.

Throughout her career, Duerr says she has “never felt that being a woman was a drawback for me.” If anything, being a woman in the insurance industry has been an advantage, she adds. For example, she says, if she were competing against several men for a job, it is more likely she would be listened to initially.

“They say, ‘Let’s see if she has any brains,’ and they listen very closely to what I say,” Duerr explains. “If I can get them to listen, I have it made.”

Duerr expresses the same opinion as Canter, saying that women could help themselves by doing more networking and getting organized.

“Men have their Lions clubs and other organizations, which were established by men and [are] attended by men,” she says. “I believe it is the matter of a couple of [women] organizing and then motivating other women to attend.”

Darlene Penfold, principal of Penfold-Leavitt Insurance Agency, Inc., an “all lines insurance agency with no specialty” in Eureka, Calif., says she started out from scratch in 1979 as the owner of an independent insurance agency, and in 1999 affiliated with the Leavitt group.

“I started…with nothing,” she says. “It was a tough row to hoe, but I hit the deck running and didn’t stop.”

The notion of things being more difficult for women “is a misnomer,” Penfold says. “Some people use that as an excuse. If you get out there and work and hustle,” writing business is no more difficult than it is “for a man in my situation,” she adds.

“One of the issues I have is that in our society we’re trained to think women have it tougher because they’re the weaker sex and that it’s easier in business for men,” Penfold observes. “If you work hard and you try to do things right, the business will follow.”

Caroline McDonald is an associate editor of NU’s Property & Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management edition.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 5, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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