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

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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

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

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

➤ The CEO of Horace Mann said gender diversity in insurance is improving, but she still finds herself the only woman in the room at some industry events.

➤ Having a diversity edict is not enough — companies need intentional programs to provide opportunities for females or other diverse individuals, she said.

➤ The CEO said she demands an environment free of sexual harassment and one where every employee has an equal opportunity to advance.

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Horace Mann CEO Marita Zuraitis
Source: Horace Mann

Horace Mann Educators Corp. CEO Marita Zuraitis is no stranger to the difficulties that female leaders face in the U.S. insurance industry, where there are only a handful of women running companies. S&P Global Market Intelligence sat down with Zuraitis virtually to discuss her experiences climbing the ranks of an industry still dominated by men and the steps she takes to promote diversity in her organization. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: Tell me about your experience as a woman in the insurance industry.

Marita Zuraitis: When I look back to 1982 when I joined the insurance business full time, it was almost completely white males. There were not, at least in the time when I entered the business, a lot of women in management. I worked in the mailroom in Aetna life and casualty during college and all the people in the mailroom were women. I went to school for business, wanted to be an underwriter and that's where I wanted to start my career, and I worked my way up through the ranks there.

I held this belief through my whole career that I don't think of myself as a woman first. I think of myself as a professional who really has drive to want to get ahead and want to round out my career.

I do realize when I look back at my career [that] in order to, quote unquote, "keep up with the men," I had to outwork them. I had to outshine them. I had to actually make sacrifices that I was willing to make. Sleep had to be put off for a few years and I didn't really have much of a social life. I didn't get to do a lot of fun things during that time. It was basically family and work, and that was the trade-off I made so that I could continue to move up the ranks.

It has changed and it has gotten better, and I think it will continue to change and it will continue to get better. If organizations or industries want to change [diversity], they have to be intentional and they have to measure it. They have to really work hard and have intentional levers and intentional programs that will provide opportunities for females or other diverse individuals to get the opportunities they need to be able to come in and have their careers advance accordingly. I don't think having an edict or just keeping track of the numbers is enough.

Do you think it would be difficult for a woman today to get to where you are in the industry without making some of the sacrifices that you did?

I would say less difficult than it was, but still harder than [it is for] a man.

People unfortunately — and I try not to do this — hire in their image and likeness. I think when people come to a firm, they look up and try to see people similar to them.

I have three daughters, and one of them actually worked in the insurance space quite successfully in a major city and constantly talked to me about how hard it was: How hard it was in the environment, especially in sales, and how difficult it was when the majority of her coworkers were men, when all of her bosses were men. It really hurt me a little bit that I could hear in her voice some of the frustrations that I had felt along the way. Although she had the opportunity and moved up quick, it was still difficult.

But I do think it is easier. I think women have to be thoughtful in picking a firm that treats them the way they should be treated and has the opportunities, the programs, [making sure] they're transparent, they talk about it the way you and I are talking about it now, they don't try to hide behind their numbers or say it's not an issue. You have to understand why it's important and make it a priority.

Where do you think the industry is at today when it comes to diversity?

There are still times when I'm the only woman in the room, and that's odd. I don't go to other business environments and social environments where I'm the only woman in the room. Why should it be there are still times that in an industry meeting or at a CEO conference, that I'm the only woman in the room? That's wrong.

It used to happen all the time. In industry forums like the [American Council of Life Insurers] or [National Association of Insurance Commissioners] meetings there will be a dozen women in the room out of 100, as opposed to one or two 10 years ago. So it is getting better, but it is a very male-dominated industry. There's no doubt about that.

What are some ways you try to foster diversity?

A lot of it comes down to creating an environment that's inviting, creating an environment where a really smart woman would want to be. 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. As a female CEO of a company, I demand that environment. I demand an environment free of sexual harassment. I demand an environment that is a positive culture, a nurturing culture.

This most recent set of current events just forces us all to step back and shine a spotlight where there are some people who out the front door have to work a little harder to outshine somebody else just because they're different. I know that I had to do that along the way. 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.