The glass ceiling

Erin Skala

Lloyd's and the London Market have been described as the last great male bastions. Worldwide, from broker to boardroom, women are under-represented in reinsurance. Mairi Mallon looks at how things are changing in the global market - slowly.

While male-to-female employee ratios have been improving in financial services over the years, the insurance and reinsurance markets still lag behind. Go to any meeting or conference attended by executives of the (re)insurance market and you will be hard pressed to find many senior females among the throngs of sober suits.

There is a growing band of senior women, led from the front by the likes of Karen Clark (founder of AIR and chief executive officer at Karen Clark & Co), Barbara Merry (chief executive officer at Hardy Underwriting Group), Sue Langley (Lloyd's of London's woman in the US) and Inga Beale (global chief underwriting officer at Zurich Financial Services), adding not just colour but real clout to the boardroom.

"I think that the Lloyd's and London Markets are the last great male bastions," says Barbara Schönhofer, managing director at specialist recruitment company ejsSearch. "I think there is a great desire from my clients to have women on the shortlist at board and senior levels."

While there is very little factual evidence of the ratios of men and women working in the insurance and reinsurance markets, all you have to do is to walk into Lloyd's of London on any day to see the gender imbalance. Bright ties are the norm: women form the minority and those that are seen tend to be in clerical or administrative roles.

The London Market has been facing a talent shortage and still fails to even register on the radars of some of the brightest graduates leaving universities. Women in this category are discouraged from working in the City's financial sector by perceptions of glass ceilings, comparatively worse pay and the widely reported gentlemen's club attitude.

Many of the women we spoke to that had succeeded in the industry were reluctant to speak on the record about problems they had faced: they didn't achieve their status by being indiscrete or whingeing about their bosses.

Schönhofer highlights that the real problem started lower down the food chain, where there are not enough women to move into board positions. "They are not coming up through the ranks," she says. "If you look at the whole market - that is insurance, reinsurance, life and non-life - you have probably 60 female board directors at most out of thousands of men. To give you an idea, we are a (re)insurance specialist and we have 20,000 individuals on our database. We have 4,000 women and that is over a pretty international spread of insurance professionals outside the US."

Gradual progress

Schönhofer admits that things are improving - when her company was set up seven years ago, it had just 60 women on its database.

What comes up time and time again is that, while statistically more women are coming into the market, when they have children many drop out as the joint pressures of work, travel and family become near impossible to combine.

London seems a particularly hostile environment: with long commutes into work and even longer working hours added to the mix, many women choose not to return after giving birth.

One female executive said: "It is more of old boys' club in London and Bermuda than the US but there is more to it than that. Logistically, it is difficult to have two members of a household working in reinsurance: you have to travel all over the place to see clients and brokers and to attend events. There is an event almost every month and that is three days out of the office right there, so it does not add up for many of us. Add to that the commute in London…well, what can I say? It is just not worth it."

The picture changes in places such as Bermuda, where work commutes are less arduous and the working days generally shorter. Employers including Ace and XL Capital have long had crèches and women-friendly work policies. Allied World, when it started in 2001, actively sought out women that had left the market to stay at home and attracted them back into the market with flexible working practices; the firm's most senior woman is its chief financial officer, Joan Dillard.

Bermuda boasts a large percentage of female executives for such a small island. While Fiona Luck of XL Capital, who led the pack from the front as chief of staff, has gone part time after a change of management, there is still an impressive number of women rising through the ranks.

Mathematics graduate Susan L. Cross has been executive vice-president and global chief actuary at XL Capital since 2008. She says she has never had problems being a woman: "If you had the qualifications, it was a level playing field. If you passed your exams, being a woman was not an issue.". Like many female executives in Bermuda, she has relied on her husband taking time off from his career to further hers; the cry of "something has to give" in families with two high-powered executives is a familiar cry.

Bermuda has a culture in which many women have high-profile careers and many return to work soon after having children. In the past 15 years, Bermuda has had two female premiers - Pamela Gordon and Dame Jennifer Smith - and has a high-flying finance minister in Paula Cox. The former chief executive oficer of the Bermuda Monetary Authority, Cheryl-Ann Lister, is now on the boards of directors of insurance companies on the island.

Susan Patschak, chief executive officer at Canopius Bermuda, said that many women were put off reinsurance because those in this field travel so much. "Because we travel so much, I think that is a dissuader for women to go into the reinsurance side. The other thing about being in Bermuda is if I need to pop home it is five minutes away and it is five minutes to my daughter's school. It is much easier for us to be a part of things, even though we are sitting at work for eight or nine hours a day."

Patschak says that there are more women in insurance than reinsurance in Bermuda: "The insurance brokers in Bermuda are not allowed to travel. Their market is here, they can work nine-to-five and there are a lot of women; they don't need to travel. It is part of the whole US regulation that a retail broker needs a wholesaler and vice versa."

Erin Skala, president and chief operating officer at Ace Tempest Re Bermuda, started on the US property catastrophe desk then was promoted to chief underwriter of US property catastrophe in 2005 before being promoted to president and chief operating officer in 2007. She comments that she had no problems advancing her career: "I have always worked hard and always strive for excellence but it is a really demanding field and there is a lot of personal time and commitment required. I think that is something that men struggle with as well - the ones that are going to advance."

National characteristics

As regional manager for Asia at AIR Worldwide, Helen Ye oversees all of AIR's business activities in the region, working closely with major insurance companies, reinsurance brokers and reinsurers and advocating best practices in catastrophe risk management. Ye thinks there are pronounced differences around the world in the way women are promoted in the market.

"I've seen some differences that I think a result from broader cultural phenomena than any specific company practices," remarks Ye. "Compared to the US, Japan, for example, still has far fewer career women. During the hiring process, many companies still tend to assign women to less career-oriented positions, assuming that young women will leave for home in a few years after getting married. I've noticed that in the (re)insurance industry in Japan, there are only a handful of women in management positions, though changes are happening there."

Ye thinks two factors drive career advancement for women: "Externally, the professional environment has become more encouraging and hospitable. Not only are women acknowledged as equally competitive and capable in the workplace and therefore granted equal opportunities and challenges but, more importantly, the corporate culture these days is increasingly family-oriented and therefore provides the very kind of family-work balance that is critical for women. Women no longer are forced to choose between family and career, although it is still a challenge for most mothers.

"Secondly, women have become more career-minded. Self-driven and ambitious, they have shown tremendous potential to succeed in business. I have seen this change not only in the US but in Asia. In Japan for example, I've seen well-educated young women actively participate in business discussions, ask challenging questions and express their opinions. I was told that in the past, women were supposed to take supporting roles only."

Schönhofer has set up a group called Twin (The Women in Insurance Network) to help women support each other. She advises: "Build on your strengths, know who you are and stick to your guns. Don't try to be a lad-ette. Try to find women you admire and follow what they do. I think the problem is that a lot of the role models are male: if a young woman is ambitious and wants to progress, she looks at her male bosses and the inclination is to follow their behaviour. It does not suit a woman to do that. I'm not saying all of them do that but, for instance, boozy lunches are not a good idea for a woman. You don't have to be aggressive and testosterone-filled, you can be yourself and do it in a different way."

Top 20 women to watch

  • Karen Clark, founder of AIR and chief executive officer at Karen Clark & Co.
  • Barbara Merry, chief executive officer at Hardy Underwriting Group.
  • Sue Langley, Lloyd's of London's woman in the US.
  • Inga Beale, global chief underwriting officer and head of organisational transformation at Zurich Financial Services.
  • Joan H. Dillard, senior vice-president and chief financial officer at Allied World Assurance Holdings.
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, president and chief executive officer at Platinum Underwriters Reinsurance
  • Kathy Lisson, chief operating officer at QBE Europe.
  • Heidi Hutter, director at Aspen UK.
  • Erin Skala, president and chief operating officer at Ace Tempest Re Bermuda.
  • Susan Patschak, chief executive officer at Canopius Bermuda.
  • Susan L Cross, global chief actuary at XL Capital.
  • Karen Green, head of strategy at Aspen Re.
  • Janet Kloenhamer, president of resolution services at Allianz of America.
  • Barbara Murray, vice-president of reinsurance at Kemper Insurance Companies.
  • Carol Ann O'Dea, senior vice-president (claims manager) at Partner Re US.
  • Barbara Bufkin, senior vice-president of business development at Argo Group.
  • Kelly Lyles, director (commercial lines) at AIG Europe.
  • Caroline Foulger, Bermuda insurance leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
  • Julie Serakos, executive vice-president at Willis Re
  • Paula Cox, finance minister, Bermuda
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