The Glass Ceiling for Women of Color in the Insurance Industry

  • Black women in insurance

As Women Continue to Struggle to Advance into C-Suite Leadership Roles – Can the Insurance Industry Plug the Leaky Leadership Pipeline For Women of Color?

The reality for women of color – we are more educated that we’ve ever been, but our careers are more stagnant than ever. We’re not promoted, we fail to be advanced along the career continuum, and our leaders don’t recognize the value of our ambition to lead. We don’t get choice assignments, and we are often pigeon-holed because we are technically strong but not viewed as leadership ready. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in the insurance industry! The reality for minorities in the world of insurance, where I’ve spent my entire thirty-two-year career, not much has changed in the Boardrooms and C-Suites since the day I arrived.

When I started my career, I was one of a handful of black women claims adjusters, I remember attending many industry conferences with my fellow adjusters of color, as we passed each other in the hallways, we had a silent nod of approval. A subtle acknowledgment that we had to be really good to be among the few welcomed into the industry. We whispered quietly among ourselves about the challenges we encountered in our day-to-day roles, and we discussed our leadership aspirations, knowing good and well that we were never going to advance out of the adjuster’s desk. We talked about the promises our managers and supervisors made to us, promises of advancement, promises of entrance into leadership development programs, and we talked about the fact that new entrants were walking into those prized leadership roles leaving us in the technical jobs. “You’re a great adjuster and your day will come” our managers echoed, it seemed like we all had the same manager even though we worked for difference organizations.

As I enter my thirty-third year in the industry, circumstances have forced me to reflect on the body of my work and the relevance of my tenure as a black woman in insurance. Today, as a keynote speaker and consultant, I travel across the country speaking at industry conferences, and I often look out into the audience and wonder – where are the minority women in key leadership roles? Why are there only a handful of black risk managers? Why aren’t great adjusters learning how to transition into these jobs? I wondered out loud during my keynote at last year’s Arkansas Workers’ Comp Conference when I boldly asked if women would always be great practitioners and not ascend to become great leaders? I finally had to ask, if not now, when will we have adequate representation in the C-Suite?

The Depressing Statistics

Catalyst, the organization that tracks women in leadership, released the Women in Leadership Pyramid for the Insurance Industry – it showed that women make up 52.9% of the Financial and Insurance Sector employees. Great news women are the majority. Only 44.7% are in First Level or Middle Management; 27.8% are in Executive or Senior Management, and only 1.4% of women make it to the CEO level. The Catalyst Pyramid didn’t address race or ethnicity – I am sure if the numbers were broken down by ethnicity the reverberation would be felt for miles.

The stark reality, the insurance industry is largely run by white men, women have earned the right to sit in the CEO chair only if they venture out and start their only company as I did. We have the degrees and experience necessary to be effective leaders – we even play by the rules but the reward, the CEO title within the corporate structure, is an elusive dream. For crying out loud, how do you explain why women only hold 1.4% of the CEO positions? Women represent a huge portion of the insurance consumer base, but we can’t ascend to leadership? It took a woman 328 years to head up Lloyds of London – that doesn’t give me, a woman of color, a lot of hope.

Bold Question: Where are the Women?

Within the ranks of the industry even senior leaders are asking – Where are the women? At the 2014 Bermuda Captive Conference, Brian Duperreault, the CEO of Hamilton Insurance Group delivered a speech squarely focused on the absence of women at one of the industries key conference. He noted that there weren’t any women keynote speakers, few (if any) women moderating panels and even fewer as panel participants. Not only are we missing, but we have no seat at the strategic networking table. Shortly after delivering this speech he appointed a woman to head one of the divisions under his management. Let’s flip the script, how many women of color, in key strategic roles, were eligible to attend or even invited to attend the conference? If women were absent, I shudder to think that the only women of color at this event were probably serving the lunch. Because I wasn’t there, I could be wrong, but I sure hope I’m not right.

Unconscious Bias: We Checked the “Woman Box.”

It is very easy to hide behind the “diversity blanket”, by assuming that checking the woman box equates to having a diverse leadership pipeline. Checking the woman box simply means you’ve accepted a few of us at the top, while the rest of us are technically sound but not leadership bound. Honestly, I despise the word “Diversity” because it allows organizations to avoid addressing the fact that talented, experienced women of color are allowed to languish in technical and middle manager roles without any opportunity to advance into powerful C-Suite leadership roles.

The reality for women, the sisterhood mandates that we must support our fellow women as they ascend into the ranks of leadership. We must never question out loud – what’s bubbling internally. I feel questions only lead to introspection and possibly finding solutions. While researching statistics for this article, I found an annual award for Women in Insurance Leadership. The website showed the photos of the women who received the award over an 8-year period, while I am proud of these women’s accomplishments – it is hard to imagine that, for almost eight consecutive years, there were no women of color good enough to be considered a rising star. Validation of my view that if you only check the “women box” you forget to evaluate the ethnicity of women being selected to lead. This industry is loaded with successful women of color, if the next generation of high-potential employees doesn’t see women who look like them, how can we ask them to strive for greater success?

Job Titles Matter

We are always just an inch away from the top of the leader board, visible enough to check the diversity box, but invisible enough to be irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. Today, I can easily count the number of black women who hold significant high-level leadership roles within the insurance industry – the most visible women at industry events are either in human resources or they are in the chief diversity officer’s role. These women have earned their positions and by no means am I taking anything away from their accomplishment, but when the CEO position is vacant the person selected to fill his seat is not the Chief Diversity Officer. Rolling out the Chief Diversity Officer as the bellwether of diversity does nothing to help line employees strive for C-Suite Leadership.

Take a good look at Inga Beale’s resume, as the first woman to head an insurance company; her resume reads like to trajectory to the CEO chair. She held positions like Global Chief Underwriting Officer, Member of the Group Management Board, Head of Internal Consulting, Head of Organizational Transformation, Head of Mergers & Acquisitions, President of Management, Global Chief Executive Officer – nowhere in her bio do I see VP of Human Resources or Chief Diversity Officer. As minority women, we tend to be relegated to the safe positions, the ones that are technically critical to the organization but don’t have a dotted line to the CEO desk.

Yes, we are successful insurance agents building multi-million dollar books of business but within the corporate ranks, we are not being groomed effectively to build our resume so we can become the face of leadership within the insurance sector. A career is like playing chess; every move is more important than the last one. If we do not get opportunities to become the Global Vice President of Underwriting; the CEO of the Reinsurer Division; the President of Actuarial Services or other key visible roles in the insurance sector you’re not being groomed to be the next CEO. Women are missing from the top of the pyramid because we are not mentored, sponsored or championed into key roles that would make us the only option when the CEO positions are available.

Dead on the Vine – The Forgotten Workforce

As an industry we have to ask ourselves if we’re only willing to promote 1.4% women into the C-Suite, does that mean that the other 98.6% of us have no desire to lead? Does it mean that women are incapable of leading? Are we saying that qualified women with the right education and experience don’t have to financial wherewithal to run a multi-billion-dollar company? Or does it mean that the opportunity to advance is reserved for the men who are the minority in the insurance industry, but who hold the most visible positions at the top of the leaderboard? Bottom-line women, especially minority women, are not being groomed for career success or leadership. Let’s face it; these numbers will continue to be dismal until we put a plug in the leaky leadership pipeline, and embrace a new vision of what leadership attributes are necessary to be successful women at the helm of the insurance sector.

Ending the Leaky Leadership Pipeline

It’s simple, and it can be summed up in one word – opportunity. Corporate social responsibility covered in opportunity. Imagine if, the day women started in this industry someone told us how we could advance into the CEO desk. Imagine if, women were provided with a roadmap of positions that would help us qualify for leadership ascension and image if we were able to make the chess moves into leadership – this is the critical difference between men and women’s leadership development.

Women, especially women of color, need to be mentored early in their career. They need to be informed about jobs beyond the desk they arrive at; they must be informed on how to play the career chess game. High-potential employees who raise their hands to lead must be given a strategic roadmap on how to transition from the Employee Desk to the CEO chair. Inga Beale started out as an underwriting specialist – she’s now the CEO of Lloyds of London; women of color need to see themselves in nontraditional roles. Beale played the career chess game effectively; she took on overseas assignments, she moved strategically for greater opportunity, I’m sure along the way she had great mentors and even greater sponsors who were willing to go out on a limb to champion the advancement of her career.

The secret sauce to leadership development – empowerment coupled with inclusion, mentorship, sponsorship, and championing women into leadership. We don’t want a handout – we want a roadmap with champions who see our potential.

All women need champions. So, who is championing the career advancement of women, women of color, in your organization? Imagine if, every woman hired by your organization was empowered to become a leader – would the CEO leadership numbers for women still look the same?


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Margaret Spence

Margaret Spence - CEO of C. Douglas & Associates, Inc., Keynote Speaker on Diversity, Women in Leadership, Mentorship and Workers' Compensation. Business strategist & consultant to Fortune 500 Corporations. Founder of "The Employee to CEO Project"

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