How the Insurance Industry Is Building More Women Leaders

Only 35% of independent agencies are led by a woman agency principal or senior manager, according to the latest Future One Agency Universe Study.

Compare that number to 84%—the percentage of independent agencies with a man in ownership roles—and the importance of initiatives like the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) Women in Insurance Conference Series becomes abundantly clear.

When the idea for the conference series was first coming to fruition, “we were really surprised to find that there had never been a multiday, global conference specifically for women in the insurance industry,” says Elizabeth Myatt, executive director, Northeast Division, IICF. “That in itself was a real eye-opener—everybody realized there was a need for more diversity in the industry.”

The goal of the series: “to empower women to be the best they can be,” says Myatt, who notes the target audience is “women of all ages who are serious about their careers. We typically attract women who are either in management positions, or high-potential younger women who are very serious about staying in the industry and being able to do what they aspire to do—without boundaries or barriers.”

What’s In Store

In odd years, IICF hosts a three-day global conference in New York City; in even years like this one, it adopts a regional format for one-day events. This year’s events will take place in New York on June 7, Chicago on June 14, Dallas on June 19, and Los Angeles on June 21. For an exclusive Big "I" member discount, log in to the Big "I" website.

Since 2013, the series has provided a platform for attendees to explore the diversity opportunities and challenges facing business leaders today through keynote speakers, panel discussions, breakout sessions and networking that fosters connections between women insurance executives and professionals.

Alisa Breese, director of marketing and communications for IICF, expects about 1,500 attendees across the four locations this year—and notes that IICF’s satisfaction surveys reveal that nearly 100% of past participants would not only attend again, but also recommend the conference to a friend.

Erin Odell, co-principal of Odell Insurance Agency, Inc. in Bradford, Vermont, will be a first-time attendee in 2018. After trading in her marketing career to help secure the future of her father’s agency several years ago, Odell is excited to participate in an event that’s geared specifically not only toward women, but insurance professionals.

“You see a lot of professional development and networking events for women, but they’re never specific to insurance,” Odell says. “That was very intriguing. I’m always interested in being part of something bigger than myself, especially when it involves women in the workforce and the power of what we can do when we get together collectively.”

In addition to the networking opportunities, Jonathan Axel, managing partner, The Liberty Company Insurance Brokers in Woodland Hills, California, is looking forward to attending this year’s event to gain diversity-related skills and lessons that he can use in his own day-to-day work environment.

“That’s key for me—to take what I learn and apply it to the organization that I help lead,” Axel says. “We’re always trying to improve on how we do things, and participating in these sessions will hopefully be very enlightening.”

Those types of improvements are exactly the outcome Myatt hopes the conference series produces. “We hope people come to the conferences wanting to make some changes, whether those are personal, professional or cultural in the company where they’re working,” she says. “And we hope to provide ideas and solutions for anybody who wants to make those changes.”

From tips on how to build a women’s network at your agency to suggestions for personal presentation and communication, the conference’s skill-building sessions “help people start thinking about, ‘What are you going to do, when are you going to do it and how are you going to do it?’” Myatt says. “In many cases, attendees are looking for personal opportunities to improve themselves—things you might not necessarily think about that differentiate you and make you more impressive in a corporate setting.”

But over the years, “we’ve morphed into addressing diversity in general, not just gender diversity, because the insurance industry is addressing improvement in other areas of diversity as well,” Myatt points out. “If you don’t include minority groups in your talent pool, you’re missing out on some wonderful people and some wonderful opportunities to make your business better.”

Why It Matters

As chair of IICF’s Western Division, Axel was speaking at a women’s conference luncheon last year when he had an important realization. “We were expecting maybe 75 people, but we ended up with 200-plus attendees,” he recalls. “It was amazing to see the reception and the overwhelming desire to have these kinds of conversations.”

That level of passion is contagious, Axel says: “It really rubbed off on me—this wonderful feeling around coming together to talk about diversity and inclusion, and how to enhance everybody’s ability to continue to achieve their goals. I was really jazzed by participating.”

Due to a scheduling conflict in 2017, this will be Odell’s first year attending the conference. But she’s driving 14 hours round-trip for the one-day event. “I’m dedicating a number of valuable business hours to attend, because I think it’s worth it,” she says.

“Our clients are changing. We have to start leading the discussion versus just trying to follow,” Axel agrees. “Diversity makes us better organizations—it makes us more productive. We have to look at it holistically. I think we are stronger for it.”

And although women are the focus of the conference series, “by no means are men excluded,” Breese says. “To achieve full inclusion, everyone needs to be involved in the solutions and the path forward. It will be mostly women attending, but we will have male keynote speakers, we will have men on the panels and we will have men in the audience as well.”

Most of the women participants agree that “we need more men in the room to hear this,” Myatt says. But the ultimate goal will always be to “provide a safe space for women to connect with other really talented women in the industry. Sometimes, when people first come to the conference, they’re stunned to see that there are so many phenomenal women in the industry. They come here to build a network of people that they can reach out to any time and find support and ideas. It’s a great way to share best practices.”

That’s a crucial opportunity Myatt wishes she had at the beginning of her career, which started in the technology sector in 1981. “There wasn’t anything like this,” she recalls. “To be able to hear all the tips and techniques and build this network of women around you—I would have loved to have had that opportunity when I was 20. It makes a huge difference.”

“To some degree, at some of these other national events, I do think women have their guard up a little bit,” Odell agrees. “This will allow for free flow of ideas and conversations. The fact that women are actually getting together to brainstorm, identify problems and possibly create solutions—that’s really just going to be an enabler for all of us.”

Bonus: All proceeds of the regional forums support grant funding to both local nonprofits and the national IICF Early Literacy Initiative—a program that helps make literacy opportunities available to children in underserved communities. “This is a huge problem that affects so many children in underserved communities, and ultimately affects the workforce going forward,” says Breese, who notes that IICF has involved more than 100,000 industry volunteers in its 25-year history.

Myatt hopes people come to this year’s events to not only develop actionable strategies for achieving their professional goals, but also find a “greater purpose,” she says. “Building a network is extremely important. As women, we have to support other women.”

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.