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Why are independent insurance agencies going backwards with female leadership?



Why are independent insurance agencies going backwards with female leadership? | Insurance Business America















Women are getting stuck under “broken rungs”


Insurance News

By
Gia Snape

Women outnumber men in independent insurance agencies, making up almost 60% of employees, but they remain underrepresented in leadership positions.

However, new research suggests a concerning trend: a potential decline in women in agency leadership roles.

The State of Women in Independent Agencies report by Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance has revealed that while women have made notable strides in the industry, progress seems to have slowed. This year, only 26% of women surveyed said they were agency principals or owners, compared to 29% in 2022.

“This year, the research pointed to what may be the start of a backslide of women in agency leadership,” said Crista Walker (pictured), vice president of agent engagement and programs at Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance.

Walker suggested the trend reflects broader societal shifts post-pandemic, echoing findings from other industries. She cited the IBM 2023 Women in Leadership study, which showed a decline in women holding nearly every leadership position between junior positions and the C-suite since 2019.

“While we were initially surprised to see this, we’ve come to learn that it’s a trend that has been seen across other industries and points to a gap in the pipeline to leadership post-pandemic,” Walker said.

How women are bringing value amid a challenging insurance market

Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance’s annual study, now in its third year, has tracked the progress in women’s representation in the independent agency system and explored different facets of this persisting issue.

Dubbed the 2024 Agent-Customer Connection Study, this year’s edition focused on how women in agencies are meeting customer needs. It surveyed 1,133 independent insurance agency leaders and team members (including 618 women) and 1,110 consumers (including 552 women).

Walker said her team was not surprised to find that the traits that women already possess are aligned with the characteristics that customers want in an agent.

When asked about the qualities they value most in an independent agent, P&C insurance buyers cited “responsiveness,” an “ability to help them understand their insurance options” and “being proactive in knowing client needs” as key traits that women agency employees said were among their top strengths.

Amid unpredictable and challenging market conditions, customer satisfaction is paramount, and women in agencies have been stepping up to the plate.

“One of the most telling takeaways from our latest research was that frontline agency employees already have many qualities that not only make them great in customer-facing roles but also make great leaders,” Walker told Insurance Business.

“In particular, traits such as empathy and the ability to care for and connect with customers are areas where women tend to shine, and they translate well to leadership and management skills.”

Fixing the ‘broken rung’ in agency career ladders

Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance’s research begs the question: How can insurance agencies create more leadership opportunities for women that deliver what insurance customers value? 

For Walker, addressing the “broken rung” phenomenon that women face is an excellent first step.

“From my seat, a leadership gap can never be attributed to one thing – it’s always going to be a complex mix of societal, individual workplace and broader industry factors,” she said.

“The 2023 report specifically looked at representation and what McKinsey has dubbed the ‘broken rung,’ where fewer women get promoted out of entry-level jobs, leading to fewer women rising through the ranks.

“The ‘broken rung’ isn’t a matter of lack of ambition, either. Our research found that 85% of women in frontline roles can picture themselves as an agency leader. Yet, women were less likely than their male colleagues to say that their manager was developing them for leadership.

“Many of the barriers women face – both systemic and individual – don’t necessarily preclude them from promotion, but they make it much harder to reach the next level. When one promotion is delayed, each next step on the ladder takes longer to reach, and the highest rungs become less and less attainable.”

What can independent agencies do to improve women’s representation in leadership roles?

There is a significant opportunity to foster career growth for women in independent agencies, with agency leaders playing a pivotal role in unlocking this potential, said Walker.

To facilitate better pathways to leadership for women, insurance agency leaders must take three key actions: initiating career-driven conversations, presenting opportunities aligned with employees’ aspirations, and providing robust support throughout their journey.

“Women deserve to have just as many career-driven conversations as their male colleagues, if not more, given the barriers they face,” Walker said.

These conversations must translate into tangible actions, she added, with leaders actively opening doors to opportunities that align with employees’ future goals, whether through stretch projects, training opportunities, or inclusion in decision-making processes.

Leaders are also urged to provide tailored support to individual employees as they pursue their aspirations through mentorship, removing internal or external barriers, or reallocating workload to place the emphasis on their priorities.

Recognizing and celebrating women’s accomplishments is also crucial, given their unique challenges in self-promotion, balancing concerns around likeability and competency.

Finally, flexibility in work arrangements emerged as another essential aspect, allowing women to better balance work and life priorities without compromising their career advancement.

“My advice to insurance agencies would be to nurture women’s unique strengths at all levels—from entry-level customer service representative roles to producers and agents to the top levels of leadership,” said Walker.

“It’s not a matter of tailoring leadership opportunities to women’s strengths but rather of fostering those strengths over time and supporting women in finding and embracing their authentic leadership style.”

What are your views on the state of women in independent insurance agencies? Please share your comments below.

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