Cathryn Curia, managing director, US property reinsurance, Markel Global Reinsurance, has spent more than 50 years working in the re/insurance sector. Here she talks to Bermuda:Re+ILS about how the perception of the role of women has changed and the opportunities that working in the sector offers.
Although the insurance industry has been a predominantly male-dominated sector, employing only men to senior level positions and creating many restrictions for women, for Cathryn Curia, managing director, US property reinsurance, Markel Global Reinsurance, these restrictions were nothing more than boundaries to be broken.
With 50 years of experience in the industry, Curia has been privy to several ‘firsts’, both for women in the industry and for the industry itself—one significant change being the introduction of computers into the underwriting process.
“In my early days in a New York City underwriting branch, one looked at big paper maps of exposures to ascertain whether we had risks in a building. Computers were used for recording policies and claims, as well as for accounting. Information was input by punch cards, and ‘the computer’ was an entire floor in the building,” she explains.
“Just about everything an underwriter did was manual: looking up rates, compiling information, pricing policies. Technology has advanced our abilities to evaluate and price business and to monitor our aggregates in a way that never was contemplated when my career began.”
However, for Curia, who began her career in 1969 when she secured a place on Atlantic Mutual’s executive training programme and became the first woman to receive a place on this programme, the acceptance of women in re/insurance has been one of the most compelling changes that she has witnessed.
“There’s certainly more acceptance of women participating in any aspect of our business. We’re no longer relegated to handling personal lines business where we wouldn’t have customer contact. Women have excelled as actuaries and modellers as those fields have emerged as critical to our business,” she says.
“But there are still few women in executive positions, on boards of directors, and on the speaking panels at industry conferences.”
For Curia, fighting her way to the top involved being noticed—something which was hard to achieve for a woman in the industry in the late 1960s.
“I had never encountered a situation where my abilities and views were not accepted purely because I was a woman,” she says. “The impact was social as well as in work assignments. Networking is so important, and it was very difficult to develop the business relationships one needed to progress.
“Women weren’t assigned to commercial or marine business; we weren’t included in golf or social occasions; we weren’t included in professional organisations.
“I was a novelty, which created curiosity in some, ignorance in others and the need to develop relationships and a work ethic that allowed me to prove my abilities. As I look back, working through that issue over the years has enabled me to continue to take on challenges and opportunities.”
A journey of a thousand steps
The culmination of Curia’s training programme was a speech to be given to all of officers of the company—she was assigned ‘females in insurance’.
“WOMEN WEREN’T ASSIGNED TO COMMERCIAL OR MARINE BUSINESS; WE WEREN’T INCLUDED IN GOLF OR SOCIAL OCCASIONS; WE WEREN’T INCLUDED IN PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS.
“In preparing my speech, the only woman anyone could direct me to was the secretary to the chairman; a lovely woman, but not what I aspired to be in an insurance career,” she says.
“The only woman officer in Atlantic at that time handled state and industry relations. She refused to sign her letters with her name, just used her first initial and surname, as showing a woman’s name might offend clients and regulators!”
Some 18 months later, Curia made her entry into reinsurance when the head of ceded reinsurance at Atlantic was looking for a new supervisor for the reinsurance department.
“He felt that people preparing for their Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) designation were interested in their careers. Since I was studying for my CPCU law exam, I was offered the opportunity to move into reinsurance,” she says.
Curia was set for an exciting career in this field, and in 1973, she was named assistant manager of reinsurance and in 1974, assistant secretary reinsurance.
“I didn’t know until a few years later that I’d been the youngest person to have been named an officer in the company,” she says.
Curia’s impressive career later led her to the underwriting side, and she has assumed positions with several leading companies, one of which was Max Re, where she joined the US property cat team. Max Re since became Alterra, which was acquired by Markel in 2013.
More work needed
While attracting female talent into the industry today may still not be an easy feat, during Curia’s early career, her involvement in the sector was much more concerning to some, as she explains.
“The working and social environment was certainly different for women, and my being involved caused hassles for our reinsurers and brokers,” she says.
“Some of my cherished memories include having to go up a back elevator in India House, or everyone having to eat in the ladies’ dining room at different clubs, just because I was there.”
Although evident efforts to increase sophistication and talent can be seen within the industry, Curia says that these efforts may still not be stretching far enough into the wider world.
“When people ask what I do, and I start to explain reinsurance and the impact of insurance/reinsurance on society, people are surprised that it goes beyond their homeowners and auto premium,” she explains.
“Over the last 50 years, events have influenced the world and our industry: the 9/11 attacks, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. In these times of tragedy and devastation, the re/insurance industry rises to the challenge and distinguishes itself.”
“I would advise any young professional to gain as broad an education as possible—re/insurance covers all aspects of industry and society. Just about everything you see or hear on the news has an application in insurance and re/insurance.”
Markel Global Reinsurance, Cathryn Curia, North America, Bermuda