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Women’s Leadership Forum 2020

Roundtable elevates the discussion around issues of sexism & gender equality in the re/insurance industry.

Womens Leadership Forum 2020 participants.jpg

Participants, left to right:

  • Susan Comparato, SVP, U.S. General Counsel, Argo Group

  • Jean Sullivan, Vice President, Insurance Software Sales Americas, Pitney Bowes

  • Margaret Rose, Vice President, Financial Lines Manager, the Americas, SCOR

  • Jill Beggs, President of E&S Lines, Munich Re America

  • Kris Hill, President of Alternative Markets, QBE

  • Lisa Butera, Managing Director and Head of Large P&C Client Business, Swiss Re

  • Kathleen McCann, Managing Director, Guy Carpenter (not pictured)


In November of 2019, seven female executives spanning the spectrum of organisations in the re/insurance space gathered with then-Reactions Editor-in-Chief Shawn Moynihan to take part in a roundtable discussion about their careers and the advice they would impart to the next generation of women leaders. An edited transcript of that discussion follows.

Shawn Moynihan: Kris, are successful women in the re/insurance industry still considered outliers?

Kris Hill: Well, how often are we the only people in the room that are female? Very often. So, we’re the outliers. In some lines of business, you’ll find more women. But in lines of business where the customers are traditionally male-dominated industries, you’ll find fewer of us. For example, I worked in the surety industry. That’s primarily construction. So it’s not just men – it’s construction men. You have to be very confident to be in that kind of room.

So, we’re the outliers, I would say, depending on the industry. The more evolved a client is, you’ll find more women there. If the client isn’t evolved in their thinking toward women in the workplace, then we’re outliers for sure.

Margaret Rose: Cyber is a good example because it tends to attract a lot of women. Every time I go to underwriting meetings I see a much more diverse set of people, and it’s not only men versus women. There’s more diversity generally in the group compared to the more traditional lines like construction or lawyers’ professional liability. So, it depends on the product line. But, in general, yes, we are a minority in the room.

The way I started to think about it, instead of being challenged by it or intimidated by when you go to a room and you’re the only woman, I think, “Well, half of the hard work has already been done because I don’t have to work too hard to stand out. I already do.”

Jill Beggs: At WSIA this year , I was excited to see that there were so many women at the conference. It was fantastic. But I don’t think you see that dynamic once you get higher in the ranks, in senior leadership positions. But what really encouraged me was that there is a pipeline now, and I think it’s up to all of us to bring those women along. When you see a women that is a successful deal-maker, let’s make sure they are given opportunities and sponsorship because that’s what’s going to help change the dynamic.

Shawn Moynihan: How is that best accomplished? Is that a mindset that we adopt? Are conversations openly had about that internally, or is it done more on an individual type of basis?

Susan Comparato: I feel like there are conversations about it, but taking concrete action steps to bring in more women is where a lot of organisations struggle. We can all sit for hours talking about the fact that there should be more women, but it’s what you can do about it that’s really going to be effective. In many organisations you hear about the beginnings of different initiatives, but you really need someone to take it forward.

Lisa Butera: I’ve been at Swiss Re for seven years, and even in just the past two years we’ve made some really good strides in our diversity and inclusion. What we aspire to be is a place where a flexible and inclusive culture is the norm and where everyone can contribute. We aspire to find the best people. We recognise that women continue to be under-represented at executive/senior management levels, and our senior leaders are committed to closely monitoring the talent flows in their businesses and locations to actively improve the situation. We are focused on increasing the number of women who join Swiss Re at all levels, ensuring diverse candidate slates, as well as diverse selection panels. A diverse work force, I think, is really important for the present and the future just in terms of diversity of thinking. We probably have five generations working at Swiss Re. So, we’re trying to be more deliberate about recruiting and moving different people into different roles and challenging people. I think that the conversation is getting louder, and I like that.

I agree with the women in the room that we probably still have a lot of work to do at the senior level. But bringing a diverse slate of employees into the organisation and promoting different types of people into different types of roles and really challenging them is what really makes the difference. Now, we’re much more deliberate about it. I see a difference as part of our Diversity & Inclusion committee in the things that we’re doing actively, and people getting involved and our employee resource groups that we’re launching really bring that to life.

Jean Sullivan: I think one of these deliberate actions should be around generating awareness – perhaps even the first action we take. I think a lot of people – men and women – do not truly understand that there’s a difference between saying you’re inclusive and actually being inclusive. I have observed throughout my career that women who have achieved can be overlooked. Women need internal sponsors at the executive level so when there are new opportunities they are considered. The next step is for executives to be deliberate and decide that this is a priority.

Margaret Rose: There’s also a lot of room for improvement with encouraging women to raise their hand and say, “I’m qualified. I want this role. I want to be considered.” I agree that there are a lot of experienced women that have the skills and qualifications; however, many times we can be our own worst enemy thinking that we don’t have what it takes. We’re thinking that somebody’s probably going to see how hard I’m working, the timing’s going to be perfect and I’m going to get the promotion. That timing is never perfect, and you just have to go for it.

Susan Comparato: A little bit of self-promotion around what you have and what you can offer to the organisation is important, even if it feels awkward.

Margaret Rose: I think a lot of women shy away from that, but many men in the organisation are doing it.

Jean Sullivan: I think it’s OK to borrow from what we see our male counterparts do very well: self-promotion and networking.

Lisa Butera: I agree that women need to put their hand up. But I think men that are in these more senior positions need to understand that many women aren’t as comfortable doing that. Men in senior positions – and other women – need to recognise their skill sets and advocate for them or bring them along and say, “I think you really would be great at this position. Throw your hat in the ring here, and at least interview for the position.” I don’t see that happening enough. You don’t see a lot of people encouraging women and bringing them along saying, “I think you’re really qualified. I think you should interview or have a shot at the position.”

Susan Comparato: It’s about being an active supporter – holding a hand or shepherding or making an introduction, or maybe sending an e-mail about some of the great work that this particular woman is doing, or young person is doing, and that they really should be considered. I think it’s up to us to promote that.

Kathleen McCann: There are subtle changes that can be made to promote people, not just women. For example, when you are running a meeting, give an agenda item to an individual who does not ordinarily raise his or her hand and have that person cover the topic during the meeting. As a manager, it is up to me to given team members an opportunity to succeed and shine in front of other people.

A lot of it, as you ladies are saying, is you have to speak up and you have to be heard because respect from others comes when you are heard – when you are heard, opportunities follow.

Kris Hill: Companies need to make Diversity & Inclusion a strategic priority and recognise that they won’t get there without taking concrete actions. At QBE, we’re not there yet, but we have recognised a need for change and we’re making strides. For example, we underwent a talent review to ensure pay equity across the board and made changes – giving people pay raises where they were not receiving equal pay. In some cases, those were men and in some cases they were women. Our next step is to achieve our goal to have more female leaders across the organisation.

Shawn Moynihan: Is there anything in your career, looking back, that perhaps you wish you had done differently?

Jean Sullivan: When I started in this business, I achieved success early in my career. As I reflect on my career, I realise that I adapted to how men were working. I assimilated into how they operated. I believed at the time that if I wanted to work in a male-dominated business then I had to assimilate. I did not think about bringing women along. I thought about what I had to do to achieve and I believed other women could operate like me. It was not until I was at a women’s conference in Chicago six years ago where Sophia Yen from EY was speaking – she was a terrific speaker – and she challenged everybody in the room: “What are you doing to bring women along since many women are less confident and more qualified, and their counterparts are more confident and less qualified – and that’s their competition?”

Although I have always had women on my team and many have been my most consistent top performers, in retrospect I wish I had been more aware about gender differences and need for inclusion. This is why I believe we need to educate both men and women that are in male-dominated businesses to be more deliberate about hiring and promoting women. If I could go back in time, I would have been more aware to help other women find their voice, and to reach out to those who are qualified but maybe did not think they were and pull them along.

Kris Hill: Mine is similar in that it’s about being authentic. My son has very severe autism and I kept that a hidden secret for a decade because I was trying to fit into that man’s world. I couldn’t show weakness. I couldn’t show anything. But, I think it’s authentic on the male side too, because they have issues as well, but they’re trying to fit into their own circles too. So, if there’s a lesson, it’s just be yourself. And, people either accept you or you don’t, and you find someplace where they do.

Jean Sullivan: I have three daughters, and early in my career I did not share much about them. If someone asked me, I would answer the question, but I never promoted that I had one daughter, two daughters, then three daughters. It was not until many on my team moved to home offices and the men on my team would share, “Oh, I can’t meet at 3:00. I have to pick my daughter up. Could we do 4:00?” “Yeah, that works for me. Great, go pick your daughter up.” This began happening more frequently. It really was eye-opening for me, and that’s when I began talking more openly about my own children.

Kris Hill: Yes, but that makes you real. It makes you a better leader too, for men and women.

Jean Sullivan: I still wonder if I would have had the same opportunities that I did back in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I believe I would have been judged differently in the private meetings if it had been well known that I had three young daughters. It’s different today.

Lisa Butera: Here is a good example: I recently had a call with a male client. He told me that he was looking to promote one of two people on his team. I know both of well. He made a comment about the woman: “I don’t know if she really wants it. She’s got three kids at home.” I just said, “What? How long have I known you?” He said, “I didn’t mean it that way.” He has three daughters at home. I stopped him and I said, “You need to put the best person in the role, but do not for a second think that she doesn’t want this. You need to sit down with her and don’t talk about that.” It’s almost like a little bit of a reality check. So, I agree, it’s getting better. But, sometimes you don’t realise that it’s sort of this hidden thing. I think it’s just time and practice and us having those conversations and saying, “Hey, no. You need to ask. Don’t assume.”

Kathleen McCann: It goes back to speaking up. You have to speak up for what you want, as opposed to just letting it happen. There are plenty of people in a given organisation who do speak up and have certain people’s ears. I suggest we, as women especially, need to take the responsibility of speaking up more for ourselves. It is easy for me now to say, “Oh, I should have spoken up more.” I’m 25 years in this business. It is easier for me to speak up now. When I was five years into the business, it was much more difficult and frankly, at times, intimidating but if you want to advance your career you need to let it be known. In hindsight, I would have gone for more stretch assignments. In my opinion, getting out of one’s comfort zone is key for growth and learning.

Susan Comparato: I would say internal versus external focus – which I don’t think is strictly a female issue. But, you get into a job, you’ve got piles of work, you’re doing that work. I was always aware of the relationships around me and trying to build those. But then, sometimes the external relationships I put to the bottom of my list. Was I out there enough meeting people in the industry? You need to be enhancing those relationships much earlier. That’s the fruit you bear later in your career. So, that’s what I wish I knew earlier, the importance of both the internal and external. Unfortunately, time is not your friend and there are only so many hours in the day. But I really should have made that a key priority to be more externally focused for a portion of my time.

Margaret Rose: As an introvert, I struggled with networking at the beginning. At that time, I didn’t really understand the purpose. I thought to myself, work hard and success will follow. But that’s not always true. I reframed the concept of networking – which sometimes can have a negative vibe to it – and started to think about it as connecting with other people. It totally changed my mindset. Instead of trying to meet 50 or 100 people at a conference, I focused on meeting with a few people and get to know them better. That’s when I started to enjoy it.

Susan Comparato: You’re right, it’s connecting so that as you go along in your career, you’ve got different people to talk to – resources. “Hey, I know that you ran this project. I’d really like to pick your brain.”

Margaret Rose: Exactly. When I was young in my career, I didn’t appreciate networking and didn’t see the value in it as much as I do now.

Shawn Moynihan: What about professional designations? Does that provide any more leverage in the workplace, or is it more for your own professional enrichment?

Lisa Butera: I would say continuous learning and honing your craft is very important. I spent nearly 20 years at AIG. My first boss there told me, “Become a technical animal. Know your craft. Know your underwriting.”

Jill Beggs: Early in a career, designations can be very helpful to give you confidence that you are getting a broad base of information about the industry. I think it does lend a level of credibility from the perspective that you are serious about this industry and you want to be a part of it. You want to learn more. Is it the be-all and end-all? Absolutely not. I totally agree that it’s about continual learning. We see a lot of our actuaries, fully accredited actuaries, going back to get their designation in data science now. So, I would recommend any data science designation for almost any part of our business – or probably any other business – at this point in time.

Kathleen McCann: I view designations as a way to add immediate credibility, especially early on in your career. In addition to pursuing designations, I am an advocate for creating a personal brand and making sure that you can articulate what that personal brand is. What is your unique identity and what value do you bring to your employer, clients and markets? Part of that brand certainly includes designations. But I echo the other ladies in that continual learning is absolutely paramount.

I think insurance sometimes gets a bad rap where people believe it is not as interesting and exciting as other financial sectors, but there is an awful lot going on right now and it is changing so much every day. For example, there is a lot to learn in the areas of flood, cyber and climate change. These are topics you can absolutely immerse yourself in, as these areas will continue to evolve in our business – and evolution creates opportunity.

Margaret Rose: Designations are very helpful but I wouldn’t advocate getting a designation just for the sake of getting the four letters after your name. Continuous learning is not limited to designations. There are so many resources available, whether it’s the Internet and YouTube and podcasts and attending conferences and speaking to other people. Not having the designation doesn’t mean you’re not going to do well in this industry. You can get your knowledge from other places.

Shawn Moynihan: Have any of you ever – perhaps when you’ve had children or taken care of a family member, or in other circumstances – did you take a step back from your career for a little while and then come back to it? When you did, what did you learn about yourself?

Kris Hill: That I can’t work part-time. I learned that. I had two kids at the time (I have three today), I was 30 years old. I took a step back in Finance and worked three days a week and I was doing accounting policy, which wasn’t a good fit for me. But I was on a fast track with my career and then I went to three days a week and all of a sudden I wasn’t doing anything in my career. So, that lasted maybe a year and then I was back full time because it wasn’t getting our family anywhere for me to take that step back. My husband stays at home now – I’m not patient enough to be at home. But it definitely derailed my career for a couple of years because I took that time. And I wasn’t even gone. It was three days a week.

Jill Beggs: I had a similar experience in that I went part-time after my children were born. However, I don’t think it impacted my career. The company that I was working with at the time was very flexible. I was in reinsurance and a property underwriter. I told my manager: “I’ll come back for the renewal season. I’ll be here full time for December and right before July.” But, other than that, I remained part-time, three days a week. It wasn’t easy, but I was able to really keep up with the market, keep my skills up, keep my relationships up, but still have that time for myself and my family.

I think when you give somebody that flexibility, they end up working harder. Sometimes I felt like I was working at a full-time job. Once the kids went to school I decided to return full time. I was very fortunate to work at a company that would allow me that flexibility because I was one of the only women or men anywhere in the organisation that had that type of work arrangement – almost like a pilot program. I’m grateful for the trust the company put in me, as it was a win-win.

Jean Sullivan: Mine was different. I have always worked full time. I always think of Sheryl Sandberg, who talks about how you do not always have to be on the ladder, you can play on the jungle gym. So, I played on the jungle gym for a while when my kids were younger. I decided that I was going to split how I was going to challenge myself, and that was between working and family.

Sandberg also talks about the jungle gym in terms of making lateral moves, you may not want to stay in accounting – you can move around on the gym. You may not always want to be in law, you can move to the business side. I think it’s important, if you have young women on your teams, to be able to talk through the concept of the jungle gym since it has different meanings for different people.

Shawn Moynihan: How important is it to be pushed out of your comfort zone in your career, and to occasionally take on responsibility that can make you say, “I’m not sure I can do that?”

Jill Beggs: It’s huge. I think that’s the only way you grow in life and in your career, and especially today because things are changing so dramatically and so quickly. We all have to learn new skill sets. We have to get used to that, all of us, at every level, being uncomfortable and pushing yourself into that space to learn because nobody knows it all today. It’s just not possible. There’s so much changing. For me, I’ve sought those opportunities out. I’ve made a lot of career changes. I’ve been with Munich Re for 17 years but probably had five different careers within that timeframe. It’s always been uncomfortable and new. But, I feel like those are the times when I’ve grown the most in my career. I would really say that for anybody, if you’re comfortable it may be time to get uncomfortable.

Susan Comparato: That’s supposed to give you staying power in your career, right? If you keep on doing the same thing over and over again, people see you that way – you could be really good at it but if you’ve done it for so long, they can’t see you in these other roles. So, I agree. You should be uncomfortable more often than not.

Margaret Rose: I think it’s also great for job security as well, because the job that you’ve been doing for the last 10 years, as good as you are at it, may go away. The more change in your career, the more confident you become in taking roles where you have little expertise in.

Jean Sullivan: I’m a true believer that to do my job effectively, I must hire people that have different skill sets than me since my success is tied to people who work on my team. I am moving out of my comfort zone to have highly talented people on my team that are more skilled in certain areas than me, and we each need to stay in our swim lanes to be a high-performing team. I think it is common to have that fear that if I hire that kind of talent, will they eventually take over my position? One must be fearless and take chances to succeed.

Shawn Moynihan: So, what kind of environment do you hope for, for the next generation of women in this industry?

Jill Beggs: I think we need more sponsorship today, but I hope for an environment where that’s not necessarily needed. For instance, I hope that as we’re thinking about putting someone into a role, if it’s internal, we’re considering people that really aren’t the obvious choice. But, that environment is not really natural yet, and I think there’s still a lot of work that we need to do to get there.

Fortunately, we’re having a lot of conversations about this. We’re not afraid to say: “We don’t have enough diversity on the panel. We don’t have enough diversity on the slate of candidates that we’ve brought in. That just doesn’t feel right.” But, it doesn’t feel natural yet. Again, it gets back to that sense of awareness. But, the tipping point for me is when that’s just normal, that we’re not even talking about it anymore. That’s the environment I hope we can get to. I think that part of these conversations will get us there and bring more awareness until it’s just part of business as usual.

Margaret Rose: I hope in the future the environment is going to be created in a way where we no longer have to think about gender, sexual orientation, or where people are coming from, where we have a strong pipeline of people who don’t need to be convinced that insurance is a great career. There are so many things you can do, whether it’s underwriting, accounting, being an actuary or whatever that might be. I hope the insurance industry is perceived as more of an attractive place to work than it is today.

This feature originally appeared in Reactions.

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