Topping The New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller lists for several weeks running is “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” authored by Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s chief operating officer calls on women to “lean in, to be ambitious in any pursuit.”
The book is in good measure a manifesto for women aspiring to leadership positions within their organizations. But it also is resonating with women life insurance and financial professionals desiring to make it to the top of their field by, as Sandberg writes, pursuing goals “vigorously.”
The time has never been more auspicious for doing just that. Experts say that women are entering the profession in growing numbers, drawn in part by the work-life flexibility and the unlimited income potential the career affords. Also appealing is the opportunity to serve an expanding demographic cohort: Women who out-earn their spouses, participate equally in financial decision-making and who take the lead in seeking the help of a financial professional.
Becoming planning aware
The number of women who say they want to learn more about financial planning, retirement planning and investing has nearly doubled over the last seven years, according to research released in April from Minneapolis-based Allianz Life. The report, “2013 Women, Money & Power Study,” reveals that 90 percent of women believe they need to be significantly more involved in financial planning than in the past.
They also report that they are equally responsible for major investment decisions and retirement planning in their household (57 percent). Also promising is this fact: 75 percent of respondents “recommend having a financial professional to other women.”
All of which points to greater opportunities for women to pursue careers as advisors. Yet, the industry faces continuing challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining women. Observers say that is in part because the profession is (factoring in turnover) more heavily weighted to men than women; and therefore, remains anchored in a corporate culture that appeals more to men than to women.
Consider, for example, the recruitment strategies still prevalent among providers. Many continue to view as “ideal candidates” those with attributes they deem most likely succeed in a life insurance career: university graduates who received a degree in finance, economics or accounting, are highly competitive and work well in teams (e.g., college football players). Often overlooked are women who, though hailing from different backgrounds, possess the business acumen, social skills and perseverance to succeed in the field.
The male-oriented culture infuses the rewards and recognition used by companies. Sherri Du Mond, a senior vice president and head of distribution training at Allianz Life says her previous employer often handed out footballs and baseball bats to employees for a job well done. After a female colleague objected to the prizes, Du Mond sent her a bouquet of flowers.
“She was floored that someone would think to do something different,” says Du Mond. “What women value is often different from what men value. Companies need to be cognizant of these differences.”
Yet, they also must recognize that much of what attracts men to the field — the income potential, job flexibility, helping others attain their financial goals — also appeals to women, a point echoed in a report published this year by LIMRA.
Polly Painter-Eggers, a project director and senior analyst at the Windsor, Conn.-based market research firm, observes this confluence of interests is mirrored in comparable recruitment rates for men and women in the LIMRA survey. However, the producer turnover or “churn” rate is significantly higher for woman than men. LIMRA declines to disclose figures, but Painter-Eggers says the difference between the sexes has varied between 5 and 10 points over the last 20 years.
To close the gap, the study concludes, companies across life distribution channels—carriers, wholesalers, broker-dealers and planning firms—must commit to five key areas: (1) making greater retention of women a priority through executive leadership; (2) revamping the corporate culture to be more attuned to the interests and needs of women; (3) boosting training and support initiatives; (4) enhancing networking opportunities for women; and (5) as noted above, revising rewards and recognitions programs.
In respect to networking, for example, Painter-Eggers says that companies need to “think outside the box” when deciding on venues appropriate for making career connections. Not all producers (men among them) want tickets to a ball game.
She adds that women who are considering pursuing management or back-office positions also should be availed of opportunities to leverage their skills and secure the training needed to work in other capacities. These may range from remote desk sales support and product specialist to process management, wholesaler sales support or technology specialist.
Women desiring to work in an advisory capacity may also need mentoring in practice management techniques from an industry veteran. Is it best to pair women with other women in such mentor-mentee relationships? Painter-Eggers thinks not, observing that many men and women work well together. And, depending on the company, the way in which mentors and mentees connect varies widely by firm.
“While I was expecting all-female mentor-mentee pairs, I found that many successful mentoring relationships included both men and women,” Painter-Eggers says. “It doesn’t seem to matter. What works, and what doesn’t, ultimately hinges on a duo’s personal chemistry.”
Securing America’s future
The industry’s need to attract, recruit, retain and reward women interested in careers as advisors, support professionals and leaders is not just about gender parity. A 2010 report of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee found that Fortune 500 companies which promote women to senior roles consistently outperform their competitors; and that boosting the ranks of women in leadership positions is crucial to America’s continuing economic growth.
Considering also that colleges now enroll more women than men (women outpace men in college enrollment by a ratio of 1.4 to 1) and graduate more women than men (colleges in 2010 graduated 36 percent of women versus only 27 percent of men) and it becomes evident the financial services industry has to bring more women into its ranks to secure the talent needed.