Backward, and in High Heels

Backward, and in High Heels

Women Outnumber Men in the Insurance Industry, and are Working Their Way to the Top

By Lindsay Robison

Women and men are different. There is no doubt about that. Studies tell us as much. At one point in time it was believed that women and men also had their distinct places in the world. But as time, and people, have progressed those lines have blurred. A woman’s place is no longer seen as being in the home, tying on an apron, taking care of the kids and the housework while her husband puts on his suit and tie heading to the office with briefcase in hand. Nor is it any longer a woman’s place in the office to follow the men around making coffee and copies. “Mad Men” may be an incredibly popular and current television program, but its realities no longer exist.

Today, women make up 49.8 percent of the workforce. Some economists predict that the number will surpass half the working world sometime in 2010. Women outnumber men on college campuses, currently conferring 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and more than 35 percent of graduate degrees. But it has taken time to get to the business environment we currently face, and women have had to work hard to get where they are.

Thirty years ago, the insurance industry mirrored the larger working world. Women were part of the business, but men commandeered the high-level management and executive positions. The insurance world has for years been the stereotypical “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” not necessarily the picture of inclusiveness.

Cecilia Norat, recipient of the Association of Professional Insurance Women’s Insurance Woman of the Year award, former executive director of the New York State Insurance Fund, and current director of state relations for American International Group, knows what it’s like. Norat found herself working in the insurance business because it was one of the first jobs she found when she moved to America. She had earned her college degree and was working on her law degree while working for a small managing agency. Because of the size of the agency, she was in charge of a little bit of everything – casualty underwriting, claims, and accounting. When the majority owner of the company was going into semi-retirement, he told her something that only perpetuated the idea of the “club.”

“He said, ‘Oh my, you are without question the best person here, and you should be president.’” Norat remembers. “’If only you were not a woman.’”

Current chairman-elect of NAMIC’s board of directors Sandy Parrillo ran into a similar situation early on in her career. Parrillo, current president and CEO of The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company, began with the company in 1977 as an intern the summer before her senior year of college, stayed working at the company part time while finishing her degree, and joined the staff full time a week after graduation. Before long, she asked the then-president to consider her for an open underwriting position. “He told me no,” Parrillo says. “He said, ‘No, we need a man for the position.’ And he told me to leave his office. This was back in ’77, and you know, right now that statement is shocking, that anyone would even utter it. But it wasn’t shocking back then. That’s just the way it was.”

Parrillo left the president’s office and told her manager what happened. “He went back to this president and said, ‘You know, I think you ought to give her a shot. She’s very bright, she’s a hard worker.’” The president took Parrillo’s manager’s advice and gave her that shot. She used it to her advantage, working her way up to her current position at the top of the company.

Talk about a double whammy. When it comes to working in a stereotypical man’s world, Katja Kunzke and Karen McCarthy get it from two worlds. Both women are lawyers by training who found themselves working in the insurance world.

And both admit to having to work hard to get to their current positions. Kunzke recently celebrated her five-year anniversary as president and CEO of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company. As part of the recognition for this milestone, the company’s marketing director was asking her questions about her time at the company. One question he asked her: “Do you notice a difference being a woman [in this position]?”

“There aren’t a lot of women CEOs, but my quote for the article was ‘The ones I know, we can all dance backward in high heels,’” Kunzke says. “The reference is from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backward, and in high heels.”

McCarthy worked her way through St. Louis-based The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company first as general counsel, then as vice president, and then as senior vice president before taking over as president and CEO at the end of 2002.

She sees a lot of women in the industry, probably as many women as men when she travels to conferences and other industry-related events, but still sees men in most of the executive, higher-up positions. “I think for the most part most insurance companies are run by those near retirement,” McCarthy says, “and it is hard for them to think about someone that doesn’t look like them or act like them having positions of power.”

Women currently seem to have strength in numbers in the insurance industry. Women comprise 62 percent of the more than 2.5 million people working in what the Bureau of Labors Statistics deems the “insurance carriers and related activities” sector. Despite the strides women have made, there seems to be a proverbial glass ceiling barring more women from corner offices, and few women have made it to the type of positions Norat, Parrillo, Kunzke, and McCarthy have – less than 17 percent held general corporate office positions as of 2005. And women in the working world in general still only make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes.

But according to a 2006 article “The New Face of Insurance” written by Karen West, the insurance industry is becoming one of the hottest careers for women. And many don’t believe it is necessarily the “Boys Club” mentality that is holding them down, at least not anymore.

Janice Tomlinson, 2009 winner of the APIW Insurance Woman of the Year award, started as a trainee for the Saint Paul Companies in 1972. In her 50-person training class, she was one of only six women. She moved on to underwrite for the Chubb Group’s New Haven office a year later, and has since moved up the ranks to be executive vice president and international field operations manager. While she says she would love to see more women in high-level executive positions and in the corner offices at more insurance companies right now, she also thinks it’s only a matter of time. “We really came into the industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so there is a pipeline. So we now have the experience necessary to take C-suite positions,” she says. “You don’t just go into the corner office without some experience. So I think that’s why we’re starting to see more women [in management positions]. We’ve got the experience, and have been around the industry long enough.”

More will be there in the future. Parrillo mentions watching the younger generations of women being encouraged to go into different occupations than the stereotypical women positions. She also credits her parents as being motivators. “They encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. They were also very good as far as saying ‘You won’t be held back by anything. You can do anything.’ So it was a lot of parental support that made me say ‘Hey I can do it. I don’t have to grow up and be this. I can do whatever I want.’”

But Tomlinson also thinks it will take a little effort on the part of companies to bring more women to the high-level executive positions. “How do we get more [women in the industry]? I think what companies have to do is to make a concerted effort in their succession plans, to say, ‘Do we have women who are part of the plan? And if they are not part of the succession plan, how do we get them ready?’” she says.

When WLMIC promoted Kunzke to the position she had just before she became president and CEO, her predecessor told her that he couldn’t teach her how to be a leader, that they had hired a coach to instruct her on leadership. The coach shadowed her telling her her style was too touchy-feely and that she needed more gray suits and fewer smiles.

“I just thought, ‘Bull. I am going to be who I am because they hired all of me. I can do the job,’” Kunzke recalls. “If they don’t like being hugged before a budget meeting, then okay, maybe I don’t like your tie. But we can get along and run a company together. It helps to know that I have the skills, experience, and education to do the work. Beyond that, I am a woman. I don’t own a gray suit. No apologies.”

Now women’s management styles are no longer seen as soft, but rather as good for business. Studies by Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania show that women manage more cautiously, they focus on the long-term impacts, and they try to build consensus and collaborate with others. Many women see this as an advantage in a working environment such as insurance.

“I think if I were a young woman today I would seriously consider it,” Norat says. “It gives you the ability to do different things every day because if you’re on the business side, you get to deal with clients, you have to develop and create coverage. Every day you’re facing new people, new ideas, new problems to solve.

“Think how far we’ve come in a complete attitude as a country toward women in the last 30 years,” she continues. “It’s not only the insurance industry.”

Which is true. Seventy percent of people polled in a recent Time magazine survey say it is a positive thing that women make up half of today’s workforce. In fact, another recent study shows that Fortune 500 companies with the most women in senior management positions had higher returns on equity. So women in high positions do bring in the money.

Despite the strides women have made, women don’t want to call it remarkable. “I never viewed myself as someone who was forging the path, quite frankly,” Parillo says. “Sometimes when people say, ‘Well, you’re the first woman president [of Providence Mutual], you’re the first woman this, and the first woman that.’ I say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, and I’m happy if I can be some type of role model to other women. I’m very humbled by that. But I’ve never looked at myself as doing that. I just looked at myself as doing my job.’”