Women make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, and 57 percent of the student population at American universities. Among graduate students, the percentage is slightly higher: 59 percent are female. And, across every industry, there are powerful, public female leaders, from political dynamos (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) to corporate magnates (Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo) to technology tycoons (Virginia Rometty, recently named CEO of IBM).

But do these names and numbers really spell equality in the workplace? According to an article published by Forbes earlier this year, the answer is a resounding “no.” Five decades after the Equal Pay Act was passed, there are just a handful of jobs in which women earn slightly more than men, argues columnist Jenna Goudreau, but more than 200 in which men earn more than women. On average, women make only 80 percent as much as men, and in some cases, they make just more than half as much, stunting their lifetime earnings by millions.

How does the insurance industry hold up under accusations like these? Not very well, it turns out. In Forbes’ list of the ten most sexist jobs in America, insurance sales agents were ranked No. 7, with women earning just 66.7 cents for every male dollar earned, adding up to a $590,000 loss over a 35-year career.

The new reality

On one hand, this data isn’t surprising. Insurance is an industry that’s notoriously male-driven, not to mention slow to change. On the other hand, it doesn’t quite make sense, at least for independent agents, who work on set commissions and have a great deal of autonomy in their practice.

Within the industry, views on equality are varied, but most agree that the female presence is growing. Pat Brzozowski, diversity director, women’s strategy at Prudential, declined to comment on employee compensation, but did say the industry has become increasingly focused on recruiting women into the workforce. Her title alone suggests that it’s an area of huge importance.

“I really do feel that the industry’s changing,” said Brzozowski. “I know that a lot of companies, including Prudential, are looking specifically to bring more women into the insurance and financial services industry. Women are at least involved in 95 percent of financial decisions. So, I think throughout the industry there’s a push to try to bring more women in to the industry, and it’s way needed.”

This industry shift is not just about appealing to clients. Brzozowski feels that selling insurance is a job that women are naturally suited to excel at. “One of the reasons I feel that women are a really good fit for this type of career is that we are natural relationship builders,” she explained. “Insurance is an industry that is built on trust – you need trust when you’re talking about your finances. It’s that relationship-building aspect that we are naturally drawn to as women; it’s the fact that we really do want to help people.”

This is a good first step. But how happy are women in the industry? We spoke with three independent female agents who shared their professional journeys. Perspective No. 1: “It never occurred to me that there would be discrimination.”

Honey Leveen is an independent agent and LTCI specialist based in Houston, Texas. She’s been in the industry for more than 30 years, and says she’s never felt her gender to be a disadvantage. On the contrary, she’s been able to turn it into a distinct selling point.

LifeHealthPro: Do you feel that female insurance agents are compensated fairly?

HL: Yes, because commissions are standard. It might be different if you’re a captive agent.

LHP: As an independent agent, do you feel that clients have perceived stereotypes about working with a woman vs. working with a man?

HL: No. I’ve been in outside sales since the mid ‘70s and there were no women in outside sales when I got into the workplace. I always spun that to my advantage because it set you apart from the pack, and that’s always a good thing.

The irony is that in a way you’re right, because insurance is the last bastion of male-domination in the workforce. I remember going to a dinner soon after I started in the industry, and it was all men, and I remember thinking medicine and law are now 50 percent women, and dentistry is, and every industry is. So, I thought, insurance will get there. And truly, I’ve never seen it as a disadvantage.

LHP: Has there been a time in your professional career when you felt discriminated against?

HL: No, there really hasn’t. To be honest, it never even occurred to me that there would be discrimination. I was raised on Long Island in the ‘60s, and all the little girls thought they were superwomen. We were just raised to expect we could do what we wanted to do. I come from a very entrepreneurial family, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur myself. Perspective No. 2: “It’s so discriminating, it isn’t even funny!”

Renee Merckx entered the industry as a secretary when she was 15, and has since built a lucrative career in LTCI sales. But it wasn’t easy, she says. An industry “Boys’ Club” still exists, and makes it tough for women to find their niche.

LHP: Do you feel that female insurance agents are compensated fairly?

RM: If you are on commission, then, thank goodness, gender doesn’t play a role in determining your pay.  But, most managers, trainers, and owners are men [which can be a challenge if you’re a captive agent]. Just 10 years ago, when I worked at a major insurer, I came into work one day wearing a shirt and tie. One of the guys asked, “What’s up with the shirt and tie?”  My reply was, “Well, I have to play with the boys, don’t I?” That should say it all!

LHP:  As an independent agent, do you feel that clients have perceived stereotypes about working with a woman vs. working with a man?

RM: It depends on what you’re selling. Since I am a specialist in long-term care insurance, and work with aging Americans, I seem to get into some doors a bit better than a man. For example, a single woman is more likely to let me into her home then some burly guy, even if he is well-dressed. But when it comes to traders, stocks, and mutual fund advisors, it is a total man’s world.

LHP: Insurance is traditionally a male-dominated field. Do you feel that is changing?

RM: The field is very slowly changing, but many women still don’t think they can get into this career because it is very, very tough! Since men have dominated this arena for so long, people still seem surprised to see a woman give them financial advice. It definitely takes a huge talent. Perspective No. 3: “The industry is definitely changing.”

Based in Norfolk, Va., Patty Ramsey has found success selling life insurance and annuities to a client base that is largely female. For the most part, she says, the industry is supportive of women who know what they want and are willing to work hard and dream big.

LHP: Do you feel that female insurance agents are compensated fairly?

PR:  I do believe female insurance agents are compensated fairly. Some companies pay higher than others, but I don’t believe it’s a female vs. male reason.

LHP: Has there been a time in your professional career when you felt discriminated against?

PR:  Maybe once or twice, but I believe it came from a male manager, not the company. That being said, I think you might see more discrimination in management roles and higher up the ladder, not in an agent vs. agent position.

I do think this is improving, but in these management roles you may also see a salary discrimination between men and women in the same position. One way to get around this is to always be direct about what you think you deserve. For example, I think it’s important that women always ask for more money when they receive a promotion. I don’t think women should have to do this, but I recommend it.

LHP: Insurance is traditionally a male-dominated field. Do you feel that is changing?

PR: I definitely think it is changing. I have seen more females getting in and staying in.