28 November 2014Re/insurance

Where are the women?

Earlier this year Brian Duperreault, CEO of Hamilton Insurance Group, delivered a speech to the 2014 Bermuda Captive Conference titled ‘Where are the Women?’.

He said he was inspired to give the speech after looking over the agenda for this year’s conference and noticing that there were not many women making keynote presentations, or sitting on panels as participants.

“At the time, women in the workplace was top of mind for me because I had just attended a meeting of the Board of the IESE Business School in Barcelona,” he said. “We had a discussion about the number of women graduating with MBAs. The percentage of women coming into and graduating from our MBA programme has risen over the years, but during the last decade or so, it’s been stuck at about 26 percent.

“This led to a discussion about why, and what could be done about it. That discussion got me thinking about women in the insurance and reinsurance industry, and why there aren’t more females in senior positions.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that just months after this, Duperreault appointed Kathleen Reardon as CEO of Hamilton’s reinsurance business, Hamilton Re. Reardon now represents the classic example of a woman having smashed through any perceived glass ceiling—see the cover of the October issue of Bermuda:Re+ILS.


Kathleen Faries, CEO at Tokio Solution Management, agrees the shortage of women is most noticeable in the senior roles.

“Through Bermuda’s Women in Reinsurance group (WiRe), of which I am a director, we know that there are actually quite a few of us working as professionals in the industry in Bermuda,” she says. “Our membership at WiRe currently sits at about 160 women reinsurance professionals. What we need to see is more of us leading teams in senior management roles, as chiefs, and/or directors on boards.”

According to the research firm Catalyst, less than 5 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women. It is much the same at Fortune 1000 companies. In re/insurance, the figures are even worse—just 1.3 percent of CEOs in finance and insurance are women.

Duperreault noted that the latest research shows that while pay and promotion are pretty much equal out of grad school, a gap emerges over time. By the time those graduates are in their 40s and 50s, men dominate the C-suite, and earn 20 to 30 percent more than their female colleagues.

Part of the problem, he said, is the stereotypical characteristics attributed to men versus those attributed to women. Words like “aggressive, decisive and independent” are used to describe men, whereas words such as “helpful, sympathetic and understanding” are typically used to describe women.

“You can see where these stereotypes can lead our thinking on leadership,” he said. “In April, The New York Times reported on a study by researchers at the London Business School and University College London. The researchers looked at how colleagues perceive each other in their work environment.

“This study found that men were automatically afforded the status of ‘brokers’ for networking and teamwork. Dominant and authoritative men were applauded as natural leaders. Women who were also dominant and authoritative were judged as effective but they were criticised for those traits—by both men and women—and weren’t considered as legitimate brokers of influence.”

Faries agrees, having seen this type of stereotyping in action.

“I have certainly witnessed this over the years. There is still resistance to viewing women as leaders. The best thing we can do to change this mindset is to encourage self-awareness and discussion, which is why I certainly commend Brian for starting this dialogue.”

Asking for more

In his speech, Duperreault argued that a lack of confidence can hold women back, citing a Carnegie Mellon study that found that men begin salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and they ask for 30 percent more.

He also cited a 20-year study released earlier this year by Thomson Reuters, which paints a similar picture: it found that men over-value Thomson themselves, and present themselves with a greater sense of pride and self-importance, which tends to strengthen what colleagues think about their competence and value.

Women, on the other hand, “under-value themselves, have lower expectations and present themselves modestly”. As a result, their perceived competence and value are diminished.

“Without more women in senior roles, it will take even longer for us to start seeing corporate cultures that allow women the confidence to commit to these positions.” Kathleen Faries

“This part of Brain’s talk really resonated with me,” says Faries. “Throughout my career I have witnessed many of us downplay our abilities and skills. It is so important that women who want to continue to advance in their careers are encouraged to actually seek out stretch positions and additional responsibilities.

“Don’t assume they will come to you—network and make sure the right people know you are interested. I have made it my mission to encourage the women I have worked with to keep pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and build more confidence in their abilities.”

She adds that unfortunately, for most young girls, even in 2014, characteristics like assertiveness, confidence, and leadership skills are typically not nurtured and developed early on.

“We have to work hard as women to overcome the thoughts we have that are telling us we aren’t qualified or don’t deserve whatever it is we are striving for.”

Inspirational mentors

Asked how she managed to buck the trend, Faries’ answers are revealing: they show that confidence was instilled in her from a young age.

“I was lucky enough to have a mother who always encouraged me to stretch myself and overcome my fears and doubts. I was also lucky enough to have bosses and mentors who were willing to give me opportunities to prove I could deliver.

“Add to that a bit of natural confidence and competitiveness which didn’t hurt. I simply always assumed I had as much right to be at the table as anyone else if I had the ability to deliver and perform.”

Another key element in Faries’ story is the fact that she was given roles that stretched her. Duperreault said that an important factor affecting a woman’s career path is whether she gets assigned “stretch” assignments.

“These assignments are an important part of performance appraisals and can make a difference in assessing who qualifies for a promotion,” he said. “They might include working in an overseas office, or leading a team, or overseeing research and development. Stretch assignments expose managers to a company’s primary sources of revenue, strategic markets, or key products.”

Whereas men seek out such assignments, regardless of whether they are qualified, women generally do not—even if they are well qualified. It is these assignments that often mark an individual out for promotion.

Clearly there is a need for organisations to create a clearer pathway for women—not least because many studies have shown that diversity in an organisation is valuable and can drive profits.

“However, there are sacrifices that are inevitable if you are in the C-suite or in a senior management position,” says Faries. “For many women, without support from our employers and families, these sacrifices can simply be viewed as too great and/or too challenging. This is really unfortunate since without more women in senior roles, it will take even longer for us to start seeing corporate cultures and policies that allow women the confidence to commit to these positions.”

Paul Markey, chairman of Aon Benfield, agrees that there are lifestyle challenges, particularly in Bermuda.

“For single people Bermuda is difficult on a long-term basis, and circumstances surrounding families can add something to the equation. Bermuda is a great place for families but the whole process can be challenging to get everything set up properly.”

Duperreault made a similar point in his speech, describing maternity leave and childrearing as one of the most complex issues facing women.

“As much as we like to think we’re an evolved society where men pull their weight with raising kids and sharing the responsibilities of running a household, many of you in this room know this doesn’t reflect reality. Research shows that the bulk of these duties still fall on women’s shoulders,” he said.

Faries believes that those in positions of influence in the community and corporations should do what they can to promote policies and corporate cultures that provide women with the tools and the support necessary to juggle family and workplace responsibilities. Promoting and discussing the benefits of diversity in the workplace is also important.

“The key is that both men and women have unique skills and characteristics that are all important to the success of any business,” she says. “Encouraging diversity among the leaders of any organisation is important and as the studies show, it fosters success.

“Most important, women who want to be in leadership positions must not be intimidated or change their personality to suit what others may want them to be. Continue to ask for new responsibilities, seek out those ‘stretch’ roles and get a seat at the table.”

Don’t underestimate yourselves

Megan Kempe, property underwriter in XL Group’s Bermuda Reinsurance Operations, describes the challenges women face in carving out a career in reinsurance and why some women underestimate themselves.

Why do you think there are so many fewer women than men in Bermudan reinsurance?

I believe as women, our varying interests outside of the corporate world have resulted in fewer of us focusing on a career in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. For example, some women find themselves torn between the desire to raise a family and/or becoming fully immersed in a charitable cause, which can make climbing the corporate ladder less of a priority.

What can women do about it?

We need to be true to ourselves and true to what is important to us. If raising children is important, then we need to find the balance that allows us to fulfil that need. That is not to say that we have to do it all by ourselves. We also need to be able to ask for help.

How did you manage to buck the trend and reach your current position?

Very early on in my career, Susan Cross, XL Group’s global chief actuary and a member of XL’s leadership team, was my mentor. I had just had my son and was concerned about how I would be the mother that I wanted to be as well as achieving my career goals. Her family was relatively young at that time and as such, the conversations we shared were invaluable in shaping my own work/life balance. Without that balance, I would not have been able to sustain the demands of this industry.

I have tried very hard to take advantage of opportunities to ‘stretch’. Several years ago, XL had a contest to celebrate its 25th anniversary. My first reaction was not to participate. That lack of confidence that the article above cites was the driving force behind my reluctance. After many motivating pep talks with myself, I did enter the competition and as a result received coaching on my idea from senior leadership across several global offices.

I would have never had this experience had I not stepped out of my comfort zone and thought that my idea was worth pursuing.

What is your view of the findings mentioned in Duperreault’s speech that suggest lack of confidence holds women back from securing a place in the C-suite, and that women under-value themselves and present themselves modestly?

From my experience, I agree that we generally underestimate our capabilities. I do not have an answer as to why we do not give ourselves the credit we deserve. Having said that, the women I work with here at XL and within the Bermuda market are highly-respected professionals. I am proud and excited to call them my counterparts.

With so much being said about the different characteristics of men and women in business, do you think there are any special qualities that women bring to the table in insurance?

I believe that a woman’s nurturing nature as well as our innate ability to listen and have compassion are invaluable traits for the industry. Rather than suppressing these traditionally feminine qualities, we need to embrace them. By placing value on these qualities and the prerequisite skills for the job, the companies we work for and the industry as whole will become better and stronger.