Back in the late ‘60s, there was a popular ad slogan for a cigarette marketed to women: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” (Just ask your boomer clients.)
Forget for a moment the product and the subtle sexism (“baby,” really?) and ask if that phrase could be applied to women gaining acceptance and stature in the financial services/insurance field. The answer, by most accounts, would be yes, they have come a long way in a business once the near exclusive domain of males. Talk to women who have been in the field for two decades or more and they tell stories of being the lone female in a room full of males at conferences when they started their careers to now seeing at least of third of women.
Progress to be sure, yet many concede there is still a ways for them to go in making even further strides in a field where they are still vastly under-represented in relation to the percentage of women in the population overall.
When the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) held its Women in Insurance Global Conference this summer in New York City, a poll of some 280 attendees indicated that lack of gender diversity continues to be a lingering issue: an overwhelming 82 percent said that gender inequality still exists in the insurance industry. Not a number that would indicate much improvement in tearing down that glass ceiling.
Reasons are myriad as to why this remains so, even after carriers and industry organizations have piloted recruitment programs targeting women. Explanations range from a lack of professional role models to women’s own psyche.
Wanted: Role models
In every industry, mentors who help guide newcomers are needed. That’s a given. But for women entering the insurance/financial services field, roles models take on greater importance. Having a successful female executive to coach and counsel those starting out in a field where it is tough to gain a foothold (for both men and women) is perhaps the chief factor that can aid women in their professional development. Not only in terms of offering practical advice on how to build their business (whether independent or within the corporate umbrella), but just as a symbol women can look to and say to themselves, “Hey, she did it. So can I.”
IICF CEO Bill Ross relates that one of the themes that emerged from the Women in Insurance Global Conference was that for women to progress in the industry, they need a role model, someone who can show the way because they themselves have faced the same obstacles.
“One of the things that had helped them the most is to have a champion, sponsor or mentor who can help them, guide them, suggest ways to work through the challenges of everyday life in business,” he said.
Those challenges can be equally tough for both men and women, but women have several unique characteristics that may make it a tougher road.
For instance, success in a brokerage house or insurance firm is sometimes measured by production or assets under management targets. That could be an obstacle for women, who by their nature would rather build a relationship with clients than simply close the deal, says Angelia “Angie” Z. Shay, CLU, ChFC, LUTCF, owner of THE PATH Financial Strategies in Richmond, Va., and national president of Women in Financial Services (WIFS).
“If you don’t hit those numbers then you are basically failing out of the business,” Shay says. “Women are not transactional by nature. So that process for us is based upon a relational process and managers are not afforded the time to help women expedite that relational process and how to be proactive and how much time you should spend with a particular person. The mentoring absolutely brings that along. I’ve been mentoring for 15 years and that is one of the things I focus onhelping women know you can’t spend 10 hours with a client that can only afford to pay you $200. Women have a tough time with that.”
In that regard, women may thrive in a collaborative work environment, one that encourages teamwork, not sharp competition, says Pat Brzozowski, diversity director in agency distribution, Prudential. “De-emphasize that working-alone piece in the beginning and try to do the teaming concept,” she advises.
Brzozowski further recommends organizations establish networking or affinity groups specifically for women so they can find mentors or joint work partners. And the earlier a female agent can find a mentor, the better, she adds. Industry-wide, Brzozowski estimates that women make up between 25 percent to 30 percent of the insurance workforce, well below the percentage of women in the entire population (51 percent).
Building a business
Another area where women struggle is the painstaking, time-consuming process of building their business. Difficult for anyone entering the field, but it may be even harder for a family-focused female who’s trying to juggle work and home responsibilities.
Here again, having role models and mentors can help, especially as they start out in the field. Women need to know that it takes time to build up a financial services practice, gain the expertise and develop the relationships with clients. “That’s the scariest part,” says Maggie Mitchell, vice president of advance sales for ING U.S. Insurance Solutions. “So support in that area, of recognizing that it does take time to get to that point, I think goes a long way. And it’s great to talk to real live people who are successful and gain the confidence [from them] that they can do it too.”
Perhaps the most difficult decision for a womanor any independent practitioner for that matteris when to bring on extra staff. “The most successful advisors learn to hire staff early in their careers but that’s scary for [most women] because it costs money and it takes a leap of faith so to speak,” says ING’s Mitchell.
Yet spending that currency could propel them on a successful business path. Whereas a man would not hesitate to spend money to grow their practice, women instead tend to think of others first, making it a daunting choice to actually devote dollars on their own professional advancement.
For instance, Angie Shay says that she spends about $4,000 a year to attend conferences sponsored by WIFS and MDRT. She considers those expenditures an investment in her professional development. When she attends those events, she inevitably gains tips on how to manage her practice better.
“Every year when I come back and I apply what I learned, my business grows,” Shay says. “WIFS has a conference every year. If women would spend the money to invest to go to this conference and network with other women their career would be enhanced. But when you speak to most women what you hear is, well, I really don’t want to be away from my family. The balance issue comes into play.”