The Realities of Being a Female in a Male-Dominated Industry
August 8, 2023 10 minute read

This piece was originally printed in The Standard.

I have been in the insurance industry for 18 years, and while many aspects have changed, one of the constants is that females are still underrepresented in Agency Leadership positions.

As a 4th generation owner of our family insurance agency, I am acutely aware of this fact at Carrier Partnership conferences. When I scan the roster of other agency owner attendees, typically 5% or less of the attendees are female Agency Principals. This naturally leads to assumptions that I have to combat. At every Carrier Partnership conference that I’ve attended with my husband, other attendees always mistake him as the Agency Principal – even if we are wearing name tags.

Over the past five years, I have seen more women agency owners represented at these conferences, but we are still very much the minority. If there is a silver lining from this discrepancy, it is that the business meeting intermission is one of the only events that I can waltz in and out of the women’s restroom, while the men’s line extends down the hall!

I have also noticed that few female carrier executives attend these conferences – but the ones that are there usually make a point to introduce themselves to me and applaud my efforts in representing female independent agency leaders. Having repeatedly experienced this at several conferences leads me to believe that women love to champion other successful women, and gives me hope for the direction the industry is headed.

My start in insurance…

When I joined my family’s insurance agency in 2005 at the age of 25, I started as a Personal Lines Account Manager. My dad, Bill Chalmers, wanted me to really understand insurance fundamentals – and there’s no better way to learn than studying for your Property & Casualty license and interacting with clients! It was also important to me to earn the respect of my co-workers – I knew that unofficially, I was labeled as the “D.O.B.” (Daughter of Boss), and with that label came a lot of scrutiny from my peer colleague Account Managers, all of whom were female. By working alongside them, starting as an Account Manager and managing a book of business, I gained their respect.

My cousin and business partner, Jim Chalmers, started his career at Chalmers as an outside sales producer. Our team of producers was (and still is) made up of all men, while our Account Managers were (and still are) predominantly female. Both paths helped shape the leaders we have each become today, but even for two children of agency owners, gender norms played a part in where we each started our careers.

As an Account Manager, I had ownership of my work, made wonderful connections with clients and co-workers, and learned the business. As I became confident in my knowledge of insurance, I started to become more vocal when carrier marketing reps visited our agency. Sure, I wanted to make a good impression, but I also wanted them to know that I had a voice and that I wasn’t afraid of speaking up and giving honest feedback. If their rating platform wasn’t functioning well, I let them know. If their rates were not competitive, I told them so – while giving examples of quotes where they really missed the mark. My honesty earned me my first invitation to join one of our carrier partner’s Agency Councils in 2008. I was the youngest agent to join the council, and only one of two females, as well. The ability to use my voice helped me gain visibility as a female in a male-dominated industry. This is my biggest piece of advice for women in insurance – have confidence in your knowledge and don’t be afraid to speak up for what you know is right!

Flexibility is key.

Recent research published in a 2022 Agency Universe Study by the Big I found that women in independent insurance agencies are more likely than men to be balancing caregiving with their careers. Women were also more likely than men to say that they are currently primary caregivers or anticipate becoming one within the next five years. Among non-principal agency staff members, nearly one in four employees is a parent to young children. Flexibility is key for these caregivers.

At Chalmers, we have adopted flexible work schedules and do our best to accommodate and incentivize mothers in particular to return to the workforce after maternity leave. These practices, along with offering a rich development program, have played a big role in retaining our workforce, minimizing turnover, and keeping coworkers happy, engaged, and excited about their work.

In 2021, we earned the distinction of being a “Best Place to Work in Insurance” by Business Insurance Magazine, with an overall employee engagement score of 96%. Our co-workers have a better work/life balance because of the flexibility we provide, which helps keep stress levels in check and engagement scores high.

Performance Development is instrumental.

Despite the small number of women in insurance leadership roles, women outnumber men in entry-level agency positions across the country. At Chalmers Insurance, nearly 80% of our co-workers are female, including 50% of our leadership team. We put a lot of emphasis around performance development, and investing in developing young women can create opportunities that benefit everyone in the agency and help all employees reach their full potential.

Our leadership team, as well as our all-female supervisory team, are trained “Coaching Leaders” and have participated in a 6-month long Leadership Development Program to learn the coaching skills necessary to lead people. I saw a need in our organization to deploy a Coaching Leader Model of management and have become a professionally trained Leadership Coach so that I can develop the rising stars – many of which are female – in my workforce. Two non-negotiables needed to be considered for the development program: a growth mindset and a positive attitude. The class teaches participants critical coaching skills such as Humble Inquiry, Ongoing Regard, Clear Expectations, Effective Feedback, Coaching Moments and more.

 Lead with empathy.

Many of the leadership skills we coach relate to empathy – and I believe that women are very empathetic humans by nature. We have a tremendous amount of care and concern for others – especially other females. This allows us to build relationships, improve trust, and form close friendships. We get to know each other at a deeper level, which helps foster a “best friend at work” culture. I think I complement my male business partners, because I can easily build rapport and connect with my female staff. As a mother of three young children, I truly understand and can relate to the push/pull my co-workers feel between balancing a professional career, running a household, and raising a family.

Play to strengths.

My two male business partners, Jim Chalmers and Steve Cote, as well as myself, all have different strengths – or “superpowers” as we call them. Jim’s strength is his natural salesmanship and ability to build rapport with clients and close sales. Steve is a born visionary and strategic thinker. My “superpower” is my ability to connect, relate to, and develop people (especially women), while building a positive workplace culture. Rather than compete over similar roles, we allow each other the space to lead in ways that play to our strengths. I believe women in this industry can use this approach as well – find ways to highlight your strengths or unique perspective as a woman, instead of comparing yourself with how your male counterparts do things.

Break glass ceilings.

I see being female in a male-dominated industry as an exciting challenge and I want nothing more than to break through glass ceilings and showcase how women rise. It is possible to lead an organization, be actively involved in the community, while raising a family. Women in leadership can make a huge impact, especially on the lives of other women. A big piece of this is being vulnerable, admitting when failures arise, and showing our imperfections. Women do this more instinctively than men, and this is an advantage.

The best leaders, in my opinion, are the ones that lean into their vulnerabilities and lead with empathy and compassion. Leaders who do this, will build connection more easily with others, and will teach and inspire their workforce to do the same.  I believe that women have the upper hand here, and I’m very excited and optimistic to see what the next twenty years will look like for women in insurance.

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