What's Really Holding Women Back?
Insurance Experts' Forum, August 5, 2011
When Lori Dickerson Fouché was named president and CEO of Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., she became one of four women holding top executive spots in that company. It's true that Fireman's Fund has seen turnover in the executive suite; Fouché is the fourth person to hold this role in four years. But more notable is how quickly she rose within the ranks from her mid-level marketing role (less than six years) to sit at the helm. With academic credentials from Princeton, Harvard and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Fouché obviously comes highly qualified for her new position.
According to Catalyst, a nonprofit membership organization that works to expand opportunities for women in business, only 2.4% of women in U.S. insurance and finance hold the position of CEO. In stark comparison, women comprise 57.3% of the industry's labor force, 19.1% of its executive officers, and 17.4% of its board members.
Insurance and financial services are not the only industries with lopsided demographics. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) reports an occupational gender wage gap that shows women have lower median earnings than men in 107 out of 111 occupations.
What's worse: women continue to play a role in perpetuating this trend. In the mass media, male-bashing is still common; television talk shows often host angry women pointing at stereotypical we/they dichotomies. The complaints and demands for fairness in personal and business role expectations run the gamut-but it's energy focused on the sometimes ill-conceived or perceived problems, not the solution.
In business, the messages are more subtle. The latest cottage industry approaching women with the "we're not going to take it any more" theme falls in the training category, a "boot camp" of sorts for women in business. One women's organization hosts two-day traveling "camps" with an aggressive agenda. The initial e-mail blast, "Communication and Assertiveness Training for Business Women," offers learning objectives such as "3 key self-esteem issues that impact women at every level-how to get rid of them" and "3 techniques to make you appear more confident and knowledgeable-even when you're nervous."
If you don't reply to their pitch, you receive additional e-mails, these with the subject line, "Executive Training for Successful Business Women." Remarkably, the learning objectives for the executive training camp are identical to firm's lower level assertiveness training agenda.
I'm not suggesting that women in business won't benefit from learning--especially from each other, and Insurance Networking News has promoted professional education for women for more than four years. But why do we continue to assume that women in business have low self-esteem or do not feel confident?
My guess is that women CEOs such as Lori Dickerson Fouche, or Janice Abraham, president and CEO of United Educators Insurance and one of this year's Insurance Networking News' Women in Insurance Leadership Honorees, do not make these assumptions. And my guess is that they did not require boot camp training in order to earn a seat at their organizations' highest table.
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