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To boost female leadership, insurers need to shuffle succession plans, 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.

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

➤ Companies need to be deliberate to boost female leadership in the insurance industry, National MI's CEO said.

➤ "Every CEO in the insurance industry should be getting out their succession plans," the executive said.

➤ The CEO also believes women need to be proactive and "raise their hand" to advance their careers.

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National MI CEO Claudia Merkle
Source: National MI

As CEO of NMI Holdings Inc., Claudia Merkle is one of only seven female CEOs in the U.S. insurance industry. In a recent interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, she discussed diversity in the industry and the importance of having a plan to improve representation of underrepresented groups.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: Can you describe your experience as a woman in the mortgage insurance industry?

Claudia Merkle: It has been a very welcoming journey. I think part of that is because of my style in leadership ... it does shift a little when you're getting into a CEO-type role, and I don't mean it shifts to a negative, it just shifts as a woman. I think you're watched very carefully in how you lead, how you communicate, the decisions you make.

Can you expand on that? What you mean by a 'shift'?

I think the shift there is that when you get into a role — in this case the CEO role of a public company—and there aren't many women in a CEO role in insurance, people are watching. You have to be aware that you've got to keep yourself calm and also prepared and very clear and concise and all of that is definitely a shift from when you are not a CEO. It’s really just that because there aren't very many women in the positions you have to make sure that you are leading the other women that come into leadership roles and that you're leading them down the right path by what you do.

I believe in leadership and management by example so it’s important that when I talk about the shift that you’re aware that you have a role beyond the role of being a CEO, you also have a role to make sure that you're creating a path for other women and that you are being somewhat viewed differently than possibly men in a CEO position in insurance.

Did you have to make sacrifices as a woman to get to where you are today?

I would say that men lead differently than women and I think that's the way it should be. That's what makes the world go round. I think for me the sacrifices I had to make were I had to put more time into the job than probably most men would because I need to make sure everything is perfect in what I'm delivering. ...I'm not saying that men don't prepare and work hard as well, I just think it's different. You're being watched differently.

Representation of women in insurance industry leadership remains low. Our analysis shows that the median number of female executives and officers is about 23%. Why do you think that is?

That 23% is pretty astounding.

The most important piece of that 'why' behind the 23% is likely that the organizations are not being very deliberate for women executives. Probably every CEO in the insurance industry should be getting out their succession plans, and they should be shuffling their succession plans to make sure that there's a woman in the mix for every position in order to get that. That's just a sad, sad percentage.

Women at the same time are going to really need to raise their hand to improve their career trajectory, and they're not waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder and say, "Hey, I think you would be good for this position." Make sure that women who want that type of career trajectory are raising their hands and saying that they want it and also leading certain initiatives and projects to show their strength.

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