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Female insurance leaders work against odds to open doors for other women

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Female insurance leaders work against odds to open doors for other women

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This story is part of a series on race and gender diversity in the U.S. insurance industry and the ways regulators and companies are approaching this topic.

Black representation in insurance grows slowly as industry seeks to diversify

Insurance regulators weigh ban on underwriting factors they say harm minorities

NYDFS regulator plans to engage more directly on diversity with insurers, banks

Amid scrutiny on industry underwriting, Progressive CEO says rates are justified

To boost female leadership, insurers need to shuffle succession plans, CEO says

It is still harder for a woman to succeed in insurance than a man, CEO says

When Progressive Corp. CEO Tricia Griffith walked into a roomful of high-powered CEOs and their spouses at a pre-pandemic conference, attendees immediately concluded that her husband must hold the chief position at a company, not her.

"Everyone assumes because the majority of CEOs are male that he was a CEO," Griffith said. "That was more of an obvious unconscious bias on their part versus people not respecting me."

Griffith is one of just seven female CEOs in the U.S. insurance industry, a space where female representation among leadership has remained extremely low over the past decade. As investors and regulators pay increasing attention to environmental, social and governance issues such as diversity, some industry leaders are looking for ways to bring more women up the insurance ranks.

Consistently low representation

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Approximately 23% of executives and officers at the large insurers that trade on the NYSE or Nasdaq are women, according to data S&P Global Market Intelligence compiled from publicly available sources. Principal Financial Group Inc., Prudential Financial Inc. and Voya Financial Inc. have the highest percentage of female representation among executives and officers.

"Historically, you'll look across industries and see that women have been underrepresented for a long time," said Anita Fox, director of the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services. "We've talked about the glass ceiling for a long time."

Although Fox said there have been advances in this area, she called them "slow in coming" and lacking the "dramatic change" necessary to make boardrooms reflective of what women are providing to the industries they serve.

"It's not just about having token numbers or ratios in the boardroom," Fox said. "We know that when women are included that it affects decision-making — it will affect the board, and hiring of management will become more reflective of the society that we know."

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Claudia Merkle, another of the industry's few female CEOs who leads NMI Holdings Inc., believes one of the reasons for the low percentage of women among executives is because organizations are not taking "deliberate" steps to get them into those roles.

"Probably every CEO in the insurance industry ... should be shuffling their succession plans to make sure that there's a woman in the mix for every position," Merkle said. "That's just a sad, sad percentage."

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Investors are paying increasing attention to diversity, and big names such as BlackRock Inc. and State Street Global Advisors Inc. have urged their portfolio companies to promote women and minorities within their ranks and increase gender diversity on their boards. That push appears likely to continue.

"Considering the concerns regarding women and minorities in executive and board positions, it is likely that shareholders will continue to examine and target companies where they believe that the pipeline of talent is not sufficiently diverse," proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis stated in its 2020 proxy season review.

Climbing the ranks to CEO

Despite the heightened focus on gender, "There are still times when I'm the only woman in the room," Horace Mann Educators Corp. CEO Marita Zuraitis said. "That's wrong."

When Zuraitis started her career in 1982 in the mailroom of Aetna Life, she recalled that the insurance industry's workforce and leadership were predominantly white men.

"I think that's probably true of a lot of the financial services arena whether it’s banking or insurance. There really was a very rigid, high amount of hours necessary to put in to move ahead," Zuraitis said. "You have to be willing to make those sacrifices."

Zuraitis believes part of that stemmed from the "systemic lack of flexibility" among leaders at the time, which did not allow a lot of time for things like raising children.

Like Zuraitis, Progressive CEO Griffith has experienced being the only woman in the room since beginning her career as a 22-year-old assessing claims in the required outfit of a suit, sheer tights and high heels.

"Walking into a body shop with that outfit on and then going onto a dolly underneath a car, it was very intimidating," Griffith said. "They assumed I didn't know what I was talking about."

Merkle, the NMI Holdings CEO, described her journey up the ranks in the mortgage insurance industry as "very welcoming." But she also said she experienced a "shift" when she became CEO.

"You're aware that you have a role beyond the role of being a CEO," Merkle said. "You also have a role to make sure that you're creating a path for other women and that you're being somewhat viewed differently than possibly men in a CEO position in insurance."

'Recognize the problem'

Some regulators, too, are putting increasing emphasis on diversity. At a National Association of Insurance Commissioners meeting in 2019, New York Department of Financial Services Superintendent Linda Lacewell used her opening remarks to talk about the lack of gender and other diversity in the industry, at the top levels of the NAIC and among state regulators and departments.

"It was considered to be controversial that I even raised the issue," Lacewell said in an interview. "Why? If you don't recognize the problem, you're not going to solve the problem."

Zuraitis said she tries to foster diversity at Horace Mann by being intentional, which means measuring progress and providing leadership development programs that offer opportunities for females and other diverse candidates to advance their careers.

"I want to be in a company where if I work hard, I'm going to have an equal opportunity to get ahead as the person sitting next to me," Zuraitis said. "As a female CEO of a company, I demand that environment."

Zuraitis and other female leaders in insurance say they are working to continue improving conditions for women in the industry.

"There are some people who, out the front door have to work a little harder to outshine somebody else, just because they're different," Zuraitis said. "I want to make sure that we're all doing our part to make sure that for my daughters and their daughters, that won't be the case someday."