“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.