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Industry Spotlight > Women in Wealth

Women in insurance and the champions of change

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Insurance was — and still is — a man’s profession. The male dominated careers within the industry have often been uninviting and unattractive to female business professionals looking for promising and rewarding futures. Times have changed and so has the insurance industry.

In fact, according to the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF), 75 percent of women in the insurance industry believe that progress is being made toward the goal of achieving gender equality in the industry, while two-thirds say they have seen work being done within their own organizations.

So which individuals, organization and resources are the real champions of the cause?

The professionals

Gail Linn started her career in the airline industry. When a merger presented her with a generous leave package, she accepted and decided on a whim to interview with MetLife. She started with the insurance giant in 1989; the only woman in an office of 20 men. Today, 17 percent of the advisors at her MetLife Premier Client Group of New York City are female.

Linn is not surprised at the growth, considering the benefits the career has for both men and women alike. “There is no glass ceiling and you have total flexibility to build a market that you can be passionate about and fits your lifestyle,” says Linn, who is featured in a soon-to-be-published book titled “Financial Services: Women at the Top” by Diane Dixon & Arthea Reed.

And what advice would she give women fresh out of college and wondering if insurance is the right career for them? Connect, contact and comprehend.

“She should reach out and speak with as many women in financial services as possible,” says Linn, adding that connecting with local chapters of NAIFA — many of which have special events for those under 40 — will prove beneficial. Also helpful is reading as many insurance and financial services trade journals as possible, Linn stressed, especially those that promote women or young advisors.

“Consumers today are looking for trusted relationships with financial advisors they can seek out to help them make smart choices about their money and women are extremely suited to building those relationships,” she adds.

Like Linn, Eileen McDonnell didn’t have aspirations of an insurance career. When she graduated from Molloy College on Long Island, she started working for WANG Labs. While at WANG, she began earning her MBA in Finance from Adelphi University, which set the stage for a change in her career. Equitable (now AXA) was a large client of WANG, and McDonnell received an introduction into Equitable and was hired as a financial manager. Now, McDonnell serves as the chairman, president and CEO of Penn Mutual, an insurance organization working towards gender equality.

“We have a company with over 40 percent of our board and senior leadership who are women,” says McDonnell. “We ‘walk the talk.’ Other companies are trying to aspire to what we have already achieved. Our attention is now focused on increasing the number of female advisors.”  

McDonnell practices what she preaches by taking the time and opportunity to speak with young women about a career in insurance. “I tell them today what I have told them over the years: If you want to live a life of significance and make a positive impact on people’s lives, this is the career for you,” she says. “You will work hard, but it will never feel like hard work.”

Dana Hollinger, founder of Beverly Hills-based life insurance and estate planning firm Dana Hollinger Group, has a more matter-of-fact view of the current state of diversity within the industry. “The real question is not whether women are entering the industry, it’s whether or not they are staying in the industry and in what capacity,” she says. “I have always seen women in administrative roles at the carriers. How many are getting into the E-suite?”

Hollinger’s questions bring to light a serious issue within the industry: women and leadership roles. Groundbreaking 2013 research by Mike Angelina, executive director, Academy of Risk Management and Insurance, Saint Joseph’s University, showed that only 12.6 percent of women in the insurance industry hold board of director positions, 8 percent are named inside officers and only 6 percent hold C-suite positions.

Hollinger strives to help women with her practice, believing that when you inform and educate women you elevate women, and, in turn, society. But she’s not as optimistic when it comes to women working in the industry. When asked if Hollinger sees the insurance industry as a great career option for women, she says “not at the moment, but hopefully soon.”

The companies

It’s not all gloom and doom for women in insurance, however. Some companies within the industry are taking aggressive steps to ensure employees represent gender diversity. And the year-over-year results are tangible.

According to the IICF, the percentage of women who cited “biases in advancement” and “lack of opportunities for professional advancement” as the chief barriers to advancement for women in insurance fell from 76 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in 2015. Are companies finally beginning to value diverse leadership? A few certainly are.

Lincoln Financial Network is one. Women make up 14 percent of the advisor population at the company, while The WISE Group (Women Inspiring, Supporting, Educating), an enterprise-wide effort driven by LFN’s female advisors, aims to attract even more.

“Today, less than 10 percent of client-facing advisors in the U.S. are women,” says Nicole Spinelli, director, The WISE Group. “We believe that diversifying our advisor population will benefit our existing advisors and clients. We strive to be the broker-dealer for women advisors.”

Spinelli says LFN has much to benefit from adding more women to the force, since they are innate relationship builders, “which make them excellent advisors,” she says. “Growing our network of women advisors — and empowering our female clients — will have an extremely positive effect for our clients and our overall business.”

Executives at Guardian Life agree. They see the need for diversity as twofold: the benefit of diverse teams from a financial and productivity standpoint, and remaining relevant to consumers, many of whom represent diverse backgrounds.

And now, the company is in the midst of a multifaceted initiative aimed at increasing the number of women financial professionals. Guardian is working to develop female leadership within the salesforce, creating community among female employees, providing mentors and working to ensure the company creates an inclusive culture that allows all employees to thrive.

A recent article in Forbes by Sasha Galbraith reported that women control just over half of the wealth in the United States and that number is expected to grow to two-thirds by 2020. Couple that with the need in the market for more financial professionals overall and it would seem that a career in insurance and financial services would be an obvious choice for women. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

“Having grown up in this industry, I’m passionate about figuring this out once and for all and making sure more women have access to a financial advisor and consider this career as an option,” says Emily Viner, vice president, agency growth and development at Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. “We can recruit women all day, but if they don’t survive and thrive, it’s a waste. That’s why the work to recruit, grow and retain women in this industry takes consistent, dedicated resources.”

Guardian has experienced success when it comes to the company’s female sales leaders. After learning that many women had not considered a move to management because they had never been asked, Guardian started asking. Since 2012, the company has seen a 71 percent increase in the number of female managing directors and the composition of Guardian Leadership Institute graduates — the company’s talent bench for its salesforce — is now at 26 percent women. Furthermore, in both 2013 and 2014, Guardian’s top new agents were women.

New York Life is yet another company that is putting efforts towards gender equality in the industry. The insurance giant “recognizes that there is real value that the field force of agents reflects the community in which we serve,” said Kimberly Fisher, corporate vice president and head of the women’s market, New York Life. “Thirty-five percent of our new recruits in 2014 were women and we are on track to beat that percentage in 2015.”

The company is investing in supporting women agents in the field by hosting workshops, creating marketing materials and sales pieces designed to help them succeed, along with monthly webinars discussing best practices for success within the industry. Apparently, New York Life’s efforts are working.

In 2014, of the 1,179 female MDRT members in the United States, 32 percent were New York Life agents, making the company the leader in female MDRT membership. In fact, New York Life has more than four times as many women members than the second-place company.

The resources

While women continue to make strides within the insurance industry, there is always room for improvement and support from outside of their employer. The Women in Insurance and Financial Services (WIFS) organization is one such resource.

What first began in 1936 as the Women Leaders Round Table has grown into a 1,100-member organization for women looking to gain knowledge and success in their field. The organization even has male constituents looking to better understand the opposite sex, especially when it comes to management, recruiting and prospecting.

“We have quite a number of male members and it’s a segment of membership that’s rising,” said Deb Duff, WIFS executive director. “Most are managers who are interested in attracting women to the business or already leading teams of women.”

Among a host of other benefits, WIFS offers its members education (in the form of live webinars), mentoring programs, a national conference, networking opportunities, local chapter membership, online resources, and seemingly unlimited peer support and recognition.

On the other side of the industry, Brokers International, an independent insurance marketing organization, has developed a female-focused organization. WOMAN (Women’s Mentoring Agent Network) was designed for women who can benefit from a network of like-minded professionals that can constantly share new ideas, resources and ways to differentiate themselves in the industry.

Members of WOMAN participate in networking forums with top-producing women in the insurance and financial services industry, are awarded for accomplishments, engage in roundtable discussions and breakout sessions designed to address the success and challenges each member encounters and attends monthly webinars related to industry trends, event ideas and marketing strategies, to name a few.

There’s also the FWA (Financial Women’s Association), which brings together high achieving professionals from every sector of the financial world, including insurance. Established in 1956 when eight enterprising women on Wall Street met to share professional experiences and learn from one another, the organization has grown to a respected association with 945 members and countless events.

With so many resources, company efforts and like-minded role models working towards the same goal, it may seem that gender equality within the insurance industry isn’t so far off. There is a long road ahead, however. But at least there are many cracks in the ceiling.


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