When I began my career at Brokerage Alexander and Alexander, women in top management roles were few and far between. It wasn't until 1972 that women were allowed on the underwriting floor at Lloyd's. The black-tie broker parties in New York were legendary for, well, men doing what men do.
Even women who rose to upper levels weren't invited to play golf or given keys to the executive washroom.
It's no secret that women have made significant inroads into that world. Today women are found in top insurance positions, carrying titles of managing director, COO, CFO and senior vice president. Women also hold half the positions in the insurance industry, including 71% of underwriter and, according to a 2009 Deloitte study, 87% of claims and administrative roles.
Of course, there's a ways to go. Women still fall short in the senior ranks, where fewer than 20% of corporate officers or board directors are women. The study found no female CEOs.
Those numbers could be changing as gender diversity becomes the new buzz in the executive office. Brokers and insurers are creating programs to mentor women and bring them up through the ranks. Aon launched the Women's International Network, which now has 30 chapters in 11 countries and is led by Denies Berger, managing director of Aon Global. New York Life actively recruits and trains women for sales positions and is opening career paths to management. Julie Schaekel, executive vice president and chief auditor for ACE Group Holdings, is director of the ACE Women's Forum, which has the support of CEO Evan Greenberg. Chubb and others also have strong programs for women in the workplace.
For the first time in history, women make up more than 50% of the U.S. workforce and hold 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs, up from 26% three decades ago. Nationally, women account for 60% of master's degrees and nearly half of all law, Ph.D. and medical degrees.
Why focus on women now? Because promoting women makes good business sense. Research suggest that companies with women at the top outperform other companies. In a pivotal 2007 study, Women Matter, McKinsey found that companies that perform best on both organizational and financial measures have women most strongly represented at board or top management levels.
McKinsey's follow-up report, Women Matter 2, came out just before the economy went bust. In that study, McKinsey sought to understand why companies with a "critical mass" of women in leadership outperformed other companies. It found that "women leaders adopted five of the nine types of leadership behavior that positively affect corporate organizational performance more often than men."
1. Participative Decision Making-Building a team atmosphere in which everyone is encouraged to participate
2. Role Model-Focusing on building respect and considering the ethical consequences of decisions
3. Inspiration-Presenting a compelling vision of the future and inspiring optimism about its implementation
4. Expectations and Rewards-Defining expectations and responsibilities clearly and rewarding achievement of targets
5. People Development-Spending time teaching, mentoring and listening to individual needs and concerns.
That's all well and good pre-economic crisis, but how have these high-performing, women-led companies fared since then? That's one of the questions McKinsey answered in its 2009 report, Women Matter 3. The report surveyed 800 business leaders representing all sectors, all levels of responsibility and all regions of the world. Not surprising, the report confirmed that the leadership traits mroe often adopted by women were critical in navigating through the crisis and performing well in a post-crisis world.
Similar findings were noted by NAFE, the National Association for Female Executives, in its study 2010 Top 50 Companies for Executive Women. It found that, "while last year was dismal for most of corporate America, it wasn't for many companies with women at the top." In fact, stocks of the 12 Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs rose an average of 50% in 2009, compared with S&P 500 stocks, which rose on average 25%. Those are numbers shareholders can't ignore.
We've learned many lessons from the economic crisis. An important one is that women leaders can help sustain a company through good and bad times. McKinsey recommends that companies follow the lead of the most advanced firms to speed up the progress in gender diversity.
Yes, baby's come a long way, but the trip's not over. So, ladies, hitch up those skirts, sharpen those stilettos and keep on climbing.