Explore the data, the opportunities, and the ways agencies can help more women ascend to leadership.
I have worked directly for men for the vast majority of my career. I recently counted more than 20 consecutive years under the largely capable leadership of men. This held true while I was in the military, in tech and in insurance—up until three years ago, when an organizational shuffle at Liberty Mutual Insurance put me on a team with a woman as the senior executive leader and women as four of six of my senior leadership peers.
To quote my Generation Z daughter, that change just “hit different." Our level of collaboration and innovation felt distinctly empowering, and our team did some of the best, most connected work of our careers.
Fast forward to today. As part of our commitment to be the champion of the independent agent, my team at Liberty Mutual is digging deep into the unique experiences and challenges women in the industry face. This work began with comprehensive research exploring the state of women in independent agencies and grew into the RISE Conference, an International Women's Day event designed to connect women in insurance from all over the country and empower more women to step into leadership and ownership roles.
From that research and from talking to women in agencies across the country, I can tell you this: More women in agencies are ready to be leaders. They are hungry to share their expertise and are uniquely positioned to connect with customers and transform their agencies.
So why aren't more women leading? Our research shows that while 85% of women who work on the frontline can picture themselves as a leader at an agency, fewer than one-third of agency principals and owners are women. There is a disconnect here.
Let's explore the data, the opportunities, the ways we can help more women ascend to agency leadership, and why that's a smart idea. Here are five ways to empower women into leadership roles:
1) Acknowledge why it matters. One of the things I hear most often about women in agencies is how much they contribute to great work cultures. Women in agencies are often the first to remember someone's birthday, the first to offer support for things both work and personal, and the first to build strong personal relationships with clients.
This doesn't come as a surprise, with 2019 research by Harvard Business Review showing that women outscore men on leadership skills, such as inspiring and motivating others, acting with resilience, building relationships and so many more. And women aren't just outpacing men in “soft skills"—the bottom line reflects their professional prowess as well.
A 2020 report by McKinsey showed that companies with greater gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies. Furthermore, companies with more than 30% women on their executive teams were significantly more likely to outperform companies with fewer women on their executive teams.
When there are women in the room—at every level but especially at the leadership level—companies thrive. And with women making up more than half of agency employees, that points to a lot of opportunity for independent agencies.
2) Actively mentor and help develop the women around you. While many women express enthusiastic interest in becoming a partner at their agency, they often lack the mentorship and support to get there.
According to Liberty Mutual's latest report on the state of women in independent insurance agencies, women are significantly less likely than men to say their manager is developing them for agency leadership. Among millennial employees in particular, 55% of men say their manager is actively developing them for a leadership role, as opposed to 38% of women. This gap is made more significant by the fact that these women are at a pivotal point in their careers for leadership development and growth into more senior roles.
The data is showing us that there is a big opportunity here to be more active in our support of developing women for leadership. My experience is that women often put themselves last in line in asking for this support. It doesn't mean they aren't interested or worthy. In fact, arguably, women need this more than their male peers to overcome the gap.
Mentorship doesn't have to be so complicated. To start, pay attention to the women at your agency and offer them your support. Notice where they're particularly strong and where they have room and potential to grow. Talk to them about it, point these things out and ask them what they want to achieve both in their career and in their lives. Many women don't aspire to leadership simply because nobody ever helped them see it was possible. Be that person for the women in your agency.
3) Recognize and reward women's contributions. One of the reasons leadership feels so unattainable to women is because the culture tells them their work and efforts aren't as valuable as men's. The gender wage gap is a very real thing, and the financial services industry is one of the biggest offenders. In insurance in particular, female producers make 67 cents on the dollar compared to male producers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Pay inequity impacts women in countless ways that make it harder for them to advance. It makes it harder for them to pursue opportunities for continuing education, have better access to childcare, afford high-quality health care and so much more.
Most women in insurance agencies are acutely aware of this, with 64% of women in frontline roles saying they feel they are paid somewhat less or significantly less than their male peers, according to the 2022 state of women in independent agencies research. When asked what they would change about working in insurance, many respondents mentioned equal pay.
Women pointed out that, often, the things that go unnoticed are the things that keep the agency running and make it a great place to work but don't necessarily result in big sales numbers. It's never a “good time" to consider pay equity. But considering that women leaders are driving more success in business, perhaps we can't afford not to think about fairness in pay.
4) Address disparities in caregiving. It's no secret that women have to navigate complex relationships between caregiving and career. Women are far more likely than men to be responsible for most or all of their family's housework and caregiving, according to “Women in the Workplace 2022," a study from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn. Fifty-eight percent of women in entry-level jobs, compared to 30% of men in entry-level jobs, are responsible for most or all of their household labor.
Meanwhile, men's responsibilities at home steadily decrease as they get promoted. Twenty-one percent are responsible for most or all of the housework and childcare when in first-level management, dropping to 13% in senior management and up. However, most women don't get that privilege. Instead, 58% of women in first-level management roles and 52% who are senior managers or higher are still responsible for their family's housework and childcare.
With many women who work outside the home also serving as primary caregivers at home, this gets tricky … and frankly exhausting. When compared with men who have young children, women with children are less likely to agree they have a healthy work-life balance, less likely to aspire to lead and less likely to be actively developed for leadership, as shared in Liberty Mutual's 2023 State of Women Outlook. Perhaps that's why we see female principals and owners much less likely to have young children (11%) than male principals and owners (22%).
It seems that for women specifically, as caregiving responsibility trends upwards, career advancement can stagnate.
Now, employers aren't in a position to tell people how to divvy up responsibilities at home, but they can certainly do more to help women navigate this reality at work. Flexible scheduling and paid leave are important first steps to leveling this playing field for women. For the most part, insurance agencies are already setting a great example of this, with more than 80% of women in insurance saying their job allows them work-life balance and 92% of women in frontline roles saying they receive flexibility when they need it.
When you offer a robust set of benefits that includes, among other things, parental leave and childcare assistance, you send a message to women that you understand the reality of their lives. You remove an incredibly high barrier to entry and a new pathway to leadership emerges.
5) Let women redefine what it means to be a leader. Leadership isn't just a role to be filled—it's a whole-self process to embark on. I noticed tremendous growth in myself when I had the opportunity to step into a leadership role, and that had a cascading effect on the people around me. I would venture to say that being a leader has made me more myself. More women need to have this opportunity.
Research shows there are reasons to be optimistic about the progress being made to uplift women within the independent agent system. The percentage of agencies with at least one woman in a principal or senior management role increased by 7% between 2018 and 2020, rising to 42%, according to the 2020 Agency Universe Study—and between 2020 and 2022, that number rose to 47%. Our collective and dedicated efforts will make the difference in pushing this number forward.
And as more women have these opportunities, it's important to step back and let them redefine how to show up as a leader. Women have unique life experiences and career journeys that position them to offer something special in a leadership role, to offer a unique approach that may be really different than what has come before. This is something to be celebrated.
Women need to know they not only can be successful and still be who they are, they can be successful because of who they are.
Despite the many challenges women face, they are more excited than ever to step into leadership roles and carry independent agencies forward. And agencies are poised to continue offering great careers to women, including the flexibility and job satisfaction women want and need.
Women are already prepared to lead—they just need agencies to give them opportunities to do so. And when they do, the future is brighter for all of us.
Crista Walker is vice president of agent engagement & technology at Liberty Mutual Insurance, supporting the distribution of Liberty Mutual, Safeco and State Auto through independent agencies. She is an executive sponsor for RISE, a program dedicated to empowering women in independent insurance agencies into leadership and agency ownership.