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The life insurance industry continues to be dominated by men–with only 20% of the agent population consisting of women, according to figures recently released by LIMRA International, Windsor, Conn.

For women starting out in this business, it can be difficult for them to find other women they can look to as role models, or find peers that they can confide in. Many women entering this career are single mothers who are trying to balance a new career with raising a family, taking care of aging parents and performing community service, says Susan Sweetser, second vice president, women’s initiative at Mass Mutual, Springfield, Mass.

“In agencies where there are no other women, it’s hard for her because she has no one else to talk to who is like her,” says Sweetser.

She adds that the men in the office are always willing to help or provide mentoring opportunities, but they may not be as empathetic towards the demands on a woman’s time–especially for single mothers.

“They do start to feel isolated, even though they may be in an agency with many people,” she says.

To overcome this, Mass Mutual has started to put its female agents in touch with other women producers. Through networking opportunities at company sponsored educational seminars, Sweetser encourages women to keep the lines of communication open between them.

“We want to put them in touch with someone, whether it’s a mentor or just somebody to listen to them–somebody who has been through what they’re going through so they know they are not by themselves,” she says.

Guardian Life has implemented a formalized program to help their female agents form study groups. Through their program, a small group of 4-5 women with different strengths and weaknesses become part of a study group, explains Emily Viner, director of agency distribution and development for Guardian, New York. The group then works with a professional performance coach on issues they are facing.

“These women may be at different life stages, or have different types of practices, and may be in different geographical locations,” says Viner.

Women who have participated in the program have been successful in sticking with the career. “Many of these women feel that they would have been out of the business a long time ago because they didn’t have the support internally,” she says.

Not having a successful female role model to follow is a central issue for women entering the business, according to Kim Michel, a Mass Mutual general agent with Michel Financial Group, Century City, Calif.

“I didn’t have one, and that’s probably one of the reasons why it took me 21 years to become a general agent,” she says.

Coming into the business right after college, Michel successfully worked her way through several different management positions, but every time there were executive level management changes made at her company’s home office, she felt she took a couple steps back. “I didn’t have credibility with these male home office executives, so I’d have to prove myself again,” she says.

Michel now feels it’s her responsibility to find eligible female candidates for this career and mentor them. “I don’t want other women to have to take so long to reach the top of their professional goals–I have a real responsibility,” she says.

Her firm has set a goal to recruit 10 women in 2003. So far, 4 are on board, and based on what is currently in the pipeline, Michel feels confident she’ll hit 10 by year-end.

In addition to needing more successful role models, women also have more demands when it comes to education, adds Viner.

It’s easy for a woman to get an appointment, she says, but when a woman sits in front of a prospect, she has to be better than her male counterparts. This is a perception much of our society still has, she explains. Not only has Viner heard this testimonial from Guardian’s successful female producers, she experienced these same feelings first hand when she started out as an agent in 1989.

“They know they have to be sharp when they go in for an appointment,” she says.

To help satisfy these women’s appetites for information, many carriers now offer online learning tools in the form of a virtual university.

“Giving them [women] different ways to get the education–especially with the types of lives women lead–gives them more flexibility,” says Michel.

For example, with the online learning tools available, Michel’s female agents are able to log on to an online university from home, after they put the kids to bed, she says. “That’s a great educational tool that doesn’t require them to be in a conference room at 8 a.m. Monday morning when they may have other family needs they need to attend to,” Michel says.

By adding these special tools and addressing specific issues for women, carriers are trying to increase the number of female recruits. For The Guardian, this has been a byproduct of their women’s initiative program, says Viner. The program, which started about 3 years ago, was originally intended to raise the financial literacy of women and young girls. At the local agency level, there have been a number of seminars held within the community to do this. As a result, more women have approached Guardian expressing an interest in the career. “It just happens,” Viner says. “We’ve increased the number of women in our field force by 30%. We’ve got a long way to go, but we can see the impact.”

In Michel’s agency, she is constantly networking with professional women that “might be considering a career change or may be able to refer a mature businesswoman to me.”

Michel has also formed a “Woman’s Advisory Board,” which consists of community leaders and successful businesswomen. “All of the women on my board know I want to bring more women into this business,” she explains. “I’m trying to circulate and network with many of the women in my community so the word can be passed around about how great this industry is.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, July 21, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.