Career advancement in the male-dominated insurance industry in the 1980s was not easy for women, says Tracey Carragher, CEO of Breckenridge Insurance Group.

Executive Summary

This is Part 2 of a Carrier Management four-part series looking at sexual harassment in the property/casualty insurance industry. In this installment, Tracey Carragher, CEO of Breckenridge Insurance Group, shares her story of alleged sexual harassment in her P/C insurance career, as well as her views on how the culture has shifted through the years.

As the only woman in the room through most of her early career, Carragher said pretending to be “quite fearless” and establishing clear boundaries was necessary to forge a path to the top.

“When you were one of 30 people in a room and the only woman, you really had to be tough-minded or braver than anybody else—and also let people know that there were lines that they couldn’t cross,” she said. “It was tough.”

Those lines, Carragher said, meant defending herself against sexist remarks and sexual harassment, which she said was “absolutely” prevalent in the insurance industry workplace during the ’80s and ’90s and into the early 2000s.

“There were plenty of examples of things that happened. I found that I had to figure out how to handle things myself, because I sure as heck wasn’t going to get support from anybody else,” she said.

Carragher, named Insurance Woman of the Year by the Association of Professional Insurance Women in 2015, started in the business in 1982 and worked with various companies including McKinsey, Frank B. Hall, Alexander & Alexander, and Aon.

In 2001, she started Cambridge Integrated Services, a division of Aon, and was CEO there from 2004 until she founded Breckenridge in 2009.

She recalled an incident at one stage of her career when she was in Italy with a team of executives—all men—who headed up business units from around the world. She said to their “chagrin” she was the most senior person among them.

One evening, Carragher overheard them discussing how she had gotten to where she was in the company by having multiple affairs, including, they alleged, with the company chairman, its president, as well as clients. The untrue accusations were especially upsetting to her given they came from senior executives.

“I got the president of the company on the phone [that night] and said, ‘This is what’s going on right now and I need to let you guys know; we’ve got to do something about it,'” Carragher said.

The response from the man at the top, Carragher recalled, was almost as shocking.

“He said, ‘What do you want me to do, be your big brother?'”

Carragher said she pushed back, insisting this behavior was inappropriate. She was told to “toughen up” and handle it herself.

“So, I went ahead and handled it myself. I hired an outside attorney who called each one of them individually,” she said. “But I had to hire an outside attorney.”

In another instance at a conference, Carragher said she was repeatedly phoned in her hotel room by a senior executive who told her to come meet with him and “watch the sun come up.” She said she also spoke up about this incident and was told to “stop staying up late and it wouldn’t happen anymore.”

Another company she worked for referred to women as “bims”—aka, bimbos.

Back then, Carragher said she would go through unofficial channels to address and stop the behavior because the “official channels weren’t really that open.” She noted that people typically didn’t lose their jobs for sexual harassment, or the accuser would be blamed for the behavior and told to “act differently.”

“If you complained about it, you’d be singled out or you’d be somebody that nobody wanted to work with, so you had to handle this stuff yourself,” she said.

She said the mechanisms that are now in place, such as human resources and company policies against such behavior, were not around years ago.

“The only recourse that I had was telling people about it,” she said. “I would just tell everybody what was happening…and I made no secret of it many, many times so that the executive’s co-workers or people he was friends with would hear the story and mention to him not to do it anymore.”

She said as she progressed in her career, she would not only make sure that person was distanced from her but that they would be placed in a “controlled environment” on other projects so they couldn’t act inappropriately toward any other women.

“When I was in a position to do that, I would do it and speak to the person and remind the person that I knew what they were like,” she said.

Have Times Changed?

As the industry turns over from being a majority of “stale, pale and male,” as Carragher calls it, she is confident there has been a culture shift.

“I find that people now are stunned at that kind of old behavior,” she said.

“If you complained about it, you’d be singled out or you’d be somebody that nobody wanted to work with, so you had to handle this stuff yourself.”

She really noticed the shift about 10 to 15 years ago, which she attributes to “lots and lots of lawsuits,” as well as the generation that succeeded the older generation who participated in or allowed this behavior.

“I don’t think it’s over in the industry. [But] I think that prejudice, and discrimination, and racism and sexism is dying out with new generations coming in. And that’s a good thing,” she said.

She praised the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements as “pretty magical,” saying they are making a difference in calling attention to inappropriate behavior that is still being perpetuated by some.

“I think that the people coming into the business now grew up differently…It’s going to be happening less and less,” she said.

Still, she knows there are instances where the response to the behavior is not handled correctly.

The people at the top must make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated at the company, she said.

“Sometimes it does happen, and where it happens, the leadership has to make a definitive move, so people know if they ever see it, they have to say something,” she said. “If you’re experiencing it, you have to say something, and if senior management sees it, they will address it immediately. There’s no thin line on this.”

Carragher said her company has worked hard to cultivate a culture of diversity and zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, but that didn’t happen overnight. It became the standard over time through hiring the right people, and it continues by everyone setting the right example.

She acknowledges that for women who experience sexual harassment, coming forward isn’t always easy to do. For someone being subject to harassment, “it takes a lot of guts to push back,” she said.

“Speaking up is tough. And a lot of times when you’re out there and you have a job, and you’re paying rent, and you’re just making it…those times are tough times, so feeling like you could have some backlash in your job is a difficult thing,” she said. “People know [now] that you’re not supposed to have any kind of bite back for putting your hand up. They just don’t know it won’t happen.”

See the other articles in Carrier Management’s four-part series looking at sexual harassment in the property/casualty insurance industry:

Carragher said as a woman at the executive level she believes it is her duty to be an advocate for those women who are fearful to say something. Whether it be by addressing the situation or helping the victim find a new job to get away from it, she said she finds a way to get involved.

There were times in her early career, she noted, where women, herself included, didn’t always support each other as much as they should because of the universal acceptance of bad behavior and executive roles being dominated by men. But now there are more women in senior positions, and many are looking out for each other, and she feels strongly that’s what women in leadership roles should be doing.

She and colleagues of hers in similar positions will often confer and personally take action to help if they hear about disturbing incidents.

“There is a wide circle of senior women who can pick up the phone and say, ‘Somebody’s having a problem here, do you know anything about that company?'” she said. “There’s quite a bit of that.”

Carragher said the personal and professional impact of sexual harassment in the workplace can be devastating and hard to overcome. But she said she never let it stop her from moving forward and she is now writing a book on her personal experiences.

“You just put it behind you. You put it behind you, but you always remember,” she said.