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Two recently released studies of insurance industry leadership reveal some positive trends on gender diversity measures. But executive teams still have few women, researchers say, concluding that the design of industry mentoring programs may be to blame.

Executive Summary

While a study from Saint Joseph’s University finds more women in the boardrooms and C-suites of insurance companies than was the case two years ago, men are still the clear majority. Findings of a second study by Drake University suggest that the number could be changed by shaking up mentoring programs and pairing more women with male mentors.

One of the studies, in fact, gives strong evidence that more typically cited reasons for the lack of women in the C-suites—such as women having less confidence or less motivation to advance than men—do not hold true at all in the insurance industry. According to the study based on a survey of 407 graduates of the Drake University College of Business and Public Administration (CBPA) over the last 10 years—roughly one-quarter of whom work in the insurance sector—women in insurance are actually more motivated to advance than men working in insurance.

Sixty percent of female insurance professionals described themselves as “very motivated,” compared to 45 percent of men in the industry, reported Radostina Purvanova, associate professor of management at Drake. In contrast, across all industries, 70 percent of men described themselves as “very motivated,” compared to just over half of the women.

In addition, women in insurance are as confident as men, she said, referring to comparable overall scores that male and female graduates gave themselves when asked to rank their levels of confidence in performing 10 leadership tasks (on a scale of 1-4, with 1 representing “not confident at all” and 4 corresponding to “completely confident”). Across all 10 tasks, the average scores for both men and women were just under 3.0.

Still, women lag behind in their ascent to leadership ranks in the industry, Purvanova found. This is true in all industries, but it’s a bit worse in the insurance industry, according to study findings tracking whether graduates held supervisory or management positions in their first, second, third and fourth jobs.

The Drake research found that while men and women begin their careers on equal footing in all industries—with few landing supervisory or management roles fresh out of school—65 percent of women in the insurance industry remain in nonsupervisory roles by their third job, compared to less than half in other industries. And while 7 percent of men in the insurance industry reported being in the top management role by the time they got to their third job, none of the women had a top job.

The situation might even be worse than revealed by the Drake University numbers, which include only actuarial science majors in the insurance industry results. “It is certainly not going to be better,” said Therese Vaughan, CBPA’s dean and former CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, when asked to speculate whether survey graduates going into underwriting, claims or other facets of the industry would produce different results. Pointing to the tremendous competence of the people who go into actuarial science, she believes that women who go into that field tend to have a high level of confidence. In addition, “you have this dynamic of the exam process and getting the credentials that gets you into the club in some sense.”

“It validates what you know. It’s an external signal of what you should be able to do. And so, I could point to lots of extremely successful alums in actuarial science that are women.”

Mentors Matter

Vaughan initially proposed the study after attending the first IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference in 2013. At that conference, Michael Angelina, executive director of Saint Joseph’s University’s Academy of Risk Management & Insurance, had presented some research on the representation of women at senior levels in the C-suite and on boards, finding that it was low, she said, referring to results of Saint Joseph’s 2013 Insurance Industry Demographics study of 100 insurers that found women held just 12.6 percent of board seats and 6 percent of top executive spots.

As an educator, she wondered, “What’s happening to women right after they get out of school?”

Erin Hamrick, a partner with executive search firm Sterling James, and Tracey Carragher, chief executive officer of Breckenridge Insurance Group, an Atlanta-based wholesale broker, agreed to co-sponsor a Drake research project. Hamrick, who also sponsored the Saint Joseph’s University research—updated this year to reveal some better results—noted that industry leaders want to do more to tilt the scales further, bring more women up to the executive level.

“If the demand is there but the supply isn’t, you have to look at the supply chain. How do you make certain that, in the future, there will be enough supply—because something’s happening in that supply chain not to allow as many women as men to be ready for those next steps,” she said, agreeing with Vaughan that a look into what happens to men and women when they graduate college was in order.

Purvanova investigated motivation and confidence, along with mentor gender differences and access to organizational resources (such as leadership development and rotational programs) as possible causes of the unequal progress of men and women to leadership roles in the insurance industry. These factors are the ones that come out of existing literature on gender difference in other industries.

“It does seem that the insurance industry is doing some things right,” Purvanova said, referring to the first factor the Drake study investigated: access to resources. Other research has shown that men have better access than women to rotational programs, opportunities to lead challenging assignments or to “job shadow” higher-level organizational leaders. “We did not see that in the insurance sector,” she said. “They do understand that they need to provide this, and it seems from our data that they do.”

But the one thing that pops out of the Drake survey as the most noticeable solution to the problem of gender disparity in insurance leadership “is that mentoring definitely needs to be a more targeted intervention.” Research outside the insurance industry shows that “male mentors are better for the average woman’s career than female mentors,” she said. But female mentors predominate for women in the insurance industry and other industries, according to Drake’s new research.

In fact, “women in insurance are even more likely than women in other sectors to find themselves in a gender-segregated mentoring situation,” Purvanova noted. “Given that men more often hold positions of power in organizations than women, this means that female employees have less access to social capital than male employees through their mentors.”

In short, “It is the perpetuation of the good old boys club,” she said.

A more positive Drake finding is that men in the insurance industry “are equally likely to be mentored by a man or a woman,” she said, noting that “men who are exposed to powerful women early on in their careers are less likely to think about women in stereotypical ways and are more likely to be champions of gender equality in the workplace.”

“That’s how change is going to happen,” she said. “We need men to be on our side. We can’t keep on segregating. We need to change those perceptions in males as early as we possibly can. That is a huge opportunity.”

Vaughan went a step further, echoing a theme discussed at the IICF conference—that women need male sponsors, not just male mentors. “It’s not enough to be there for someone to talk to. You also need someone in the hierarchy who will advocate for you,” she said, explaining the difference between a mentor and a sponsor.

Vaughan, herself, had a male mentor of sorts: her father, Emmett Vaughan, who was also a professor of insurance (at the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie College of Business). “It’s not so much that he found me jobs, but he was just a good person to talk to about what was going on in the industry,” said the former regulator, who admits that she was never particularly confident.

Beyond the Numbers

Her rise to the positions of Commissioner of Insurance for the Iowa Insurance Department and CEO of the NAIC, instead, she said, reflect her willingness to take on new projects. “I needed that intellectual change,” she added, noting that a fear of boredom outweighed a fear of failure.

“In the regulatory environment I had over 10 years of constantly changing problems [and] the opportunity to lead a number of projects,” she said, noting that at the time she entered regulation, there was a movement within state government to proactively appoint women to leadership positions.

Reflecting on her own recent mentoring experience, talking to a woman who is trying to figure out how to take the next step in her career, Vaughan noted that the woman feels pigeonholed in the role. “One of the questions that I have is whether there’s some bias in the industry. [When] you take a woman who has come up through a support area, such as actuarial or accounting or law, how hard is it for them to move into some line responsibilities, compared to men?”

Changing the Equation

Carrier Management interviewed nine industry representatives at the IICF Women in Insurance Global conference in June, including Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s, and Barbara Bufkin, executive vice president of business development for Hamilton USA and IICF Inclusion Champion Award honoree.

Video excerpts of the interviews, featuring their advice about what men and women must do to boost gender diversity in insurance leadership, are available on the Carrier Management channel at

What Men, Women Must Do to Boost Gender Diversity in Insurance Leadership

“The industry can do a better job of identifying promising talent early in their career and really promoting them, really giving them opportunities and not pigeonholing them—moving them around so they experience a variety of things,” she said.

“If you spend 10 years in actuarial or in legal in one company, you are going to have a bumper sticker that says you’re just the legal person or you’re just an actuary,” Hamrick added.

Purvanova agreed, noting that such moves would also instill confidence in women.

Although the study did not ask questions about factors other than confidence, mentoring, motivation and organization resources, Purvanova, who has done other research into gender issues, believes that work-life balance may be a factor for insurers to address. “Even though women may have the confidence, they end up throwing their hands up in the air because, quite frankly, it’s very difficult to balance work-life issues nowadays in organizations which really need in general to step up their game in that category.”

“That is definitely something that is a big concern to women,” based on broader literature. Noting that even women who rank themselves as highly confident to make decisions or to lead large groups of people often rank themselves low in their ability to maintain their emotional stability—”precisely because they know that they would have to handle both motherhood and family life with career life and leadership opportunities.”

During the IICF conference, Patricia Henry, global governments affairs officer for ACE Group, also hypothesized that family issues are part of the reason that confident and motivated women don’t move ahead, in some cases turning down promotions to middle management leadership roles.

“You’re looking at the prospect of taking on a SVP, EVP role, knowing what that entails, and yet you don’t see that that may lead to being the CEO or the CFO or the general counsel. If you’re not seeing the potential payoff for what you know will be tremendous sacrifice, you’ll make a decision just not to go for that,” especially in a situation where the family is financially secure because the husband is successful.

Purvanova understands this. “Honestly, I do think that that is one of the saddest things that women have to deal with,” she said, referring to the idea that the industry’s biggest jobs are out of reach for women. “I normally teach seniors, and I teach a leadership class. They are all about leading and basically going out there and changing the world. They start all optimistic and enthusiastic. It’s sad for me to know that, in just a few years, many of them may be heartbroken. But that really is what the data seems to suggest—that women really need to jump through all sorts of hoops in all sorts of industries. There’s very good research to demonstrate that there is a double standard still to this day in the workplace.

“Women have to prove themselves more and do more than the average man to get the recognition that men get. Perhaps women just get the memo, in a way. Even though they may have the confidence, they decide to not play the game.”

Demographics Update

In spite of the difficult road they face, more women are making their way to the highest levels of insurance organizations, according to the latest study from Saint Joseph’s University, which shows more progress in the boardroom than the C-suite.

Two years ago, there were 250 top positions—CEO or CFO—for the 100, with women holding 15 of them, Angelina reported. The 15 has increased to 25, which in percentage terms is a jump from 6 percent to 10 percent.

“We still have a ways to go,” he said, underscoring the fact that men still hold 90 percent of those top two spots—and that 78 percent of companies have no woman in either position.

Summarizing the more encouraging results for boards of directors, Angelina noted that while boards have contracted—there are less board members representing the same 100 companies analyzed two years ago—women now occupy nearly 17 percent of the board seats, compared to roughly 12.6 percent in 2013. And half of the companies studied have two or more women on their boards, compared to one-third in 2013.

Like the prior study, this year’s update revealed differences by market segment, with customer-facing personal lines companies and life insurers doing better than other segments, Angelina said, highlighting some improving numbers for large primary companies as well.