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.”

Bill RossIICF 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.”

Work-life balance


Ah, there’s the phrase that vexes men and women alike. Just how much should sheor hedevote to their careers? For each, it’s a personal decision, and one that companies should address with their employees as well, says Bill Ross.

“If admit you are going to be focused on your career then that balance in your life probably will not be in balance. Most of the time work demands and life demands tend to conflict with each other in everyday life,” Ross says. “Acknowledge that and accept the fact that there are times when your life is in balance and times when it will not be. The goal is to strive to bring it back into balance. Having that discussion is healthy by itself. Each of us has our own endgame when we think about our careers. So first, there is a personal look at how you want your life to be and then there is a discussion within the workplace about the philosophy and just having that discussion is valuable.”

ING’s Mitchell adds that it’s important to stress to employees the need to take care of themselves. At ING’s women forums speakers are brought in to discuss topics such as being healthier and better organized. “You need to take care of yourself before you can do a good job in your career.”

It sounds cliché and just a bit sexist to say that men succeed because they have wives to help with family responsibilities. But according to Mitchell, just the opposite can be true: a married female advisor can be successful with a supportive spouse at home.

Take that promotion

Despite the proliferation of recruitment programs, affinity groups, and female-centric organizations like WIFS, women remain under-represented in the insurance/financial services industry, at least in relation to the overall female population. So the question must be asked, does the problem lie partly with women themselves?

According to observers, that may be the case. Simply put and rather surprising in the post-feminist era, a lack of confidence and an aversion to risk may be holding many women back from advancing in the field. (Or stated another way, lean in ladies.)

“What we heard at our conference is that women themselves are sometimes their first barrier,” Ross recalls. “Often women will say, am I ready for the next promotion? A lot of speakers talked about part of the process of a career is taking a certain level of risk and moving into a job even though you may personally feel you are not ready for it. I suspect that if you talk to most senior executives that move into an advanced position and if you ask them if they felt prepared or ready for that position, in most instances they would say they did not feel ready but they took the opportunity to try something.”

Again, having a more experienced mentor can aid in giving new entrants the confidence to take chances to forward their career. Obtaining professional designations like a CFP, CLU or CHFC can further boost a woman’s confidence level.

“Because we are terrible promoters of ourselves, a lot of time we lack self-confidence,” Shay finds.” We talk about this all the time, why don’t we have the confidence? A lot of times those women will get those designations in order to feel more confident.”

An additional roadblockwarning, this is going to sound sexistis that many women are turned off by the word “finance,” believing the job entails intricate math. However, the job is more about cultivating relationships and helping people. So perhaps framing the job in that light would attract more females who prefer to assist others instead of crunching numbers.

“To some extent, especially for women of my generation, 40s and older, anything that had finance or math in the title we shy away from, even though this is an industry that is much more in tune to relationship building and trying to help people solve their life’s challenges,” Pat Brzozowski of Prudential says.

Another challenge, and this goes back to women’s hesitancy to take risk, is insurance agents are paid on commissions. “When you are looking at a commission-based paycheck, even though the sky’s the limit and you can make a lot more money, the fact that there is not guaranteed pay can sometimes be off-putting to women,” Brzosowski says.

 

The retention problem

Recruitment is, of course, the first step in the process of getting more women in the field. Going to college campuses and partnering with female networking groups like those for women MBA are the oft-used avenues for bringing in more females.

As Bill Ross points out, many colleges have courses on insurance and risk management where females are either the majority or at least make up half of the students. So, in theory, the pipeline of potential recruits should be plentiful.

ING’s Mitchell suggests that the industry recruit salespeople in unrelated fields, as well as CPAs, attorneys and even teachers. By casting a wider net the industry may be more successful in boosting the number of female recruits instead of simply poaching women executives from each other’s firms.

“There is intense competition among all financial services firm looking for more women,” Prudential’s Brzozowski says. “So what happens is instead of the pie getting bigger, we all tend to switch the pieces of the pie around. We have to learn how to work better together in order to make that pie larger, so that we are recruiting more women.”

Retaining them is another stumbling block. To be fair, this is an industry-wide problem. According to one study, the retention rate after four years for life producers is 19 percent for men and 15 percent for women. Rather bleak numbers for an industry that is also facing an aging agent workforce.

So what can an organization do to keep its female recruits? Brzozowksi says each company is searching for that elusive silver bullet. But a good place to start is a realistic and holistic assessment of a company’s overall culture. Is it welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds and women? Is it mentoring its female staffers?

No surprise that it all begins and ends with having role models newcomers can tap for guidance, Brzozowski says.

“We are going to have to show a place that has more success role models and that includes women from the top, leading your organization, to your field management, to your managing directors and sales managers as well as your top female producers. Once you can show that better picture of success, I think retention starts coming along.”