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Kathy Burger
Kathy Burger
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Why Do Insurance Companies Excel at Developing Women Executives?

Insurance companies and other financial services companies dominate the National Association for Female Executives' 2012 Top 50 Companies for Executive Women ranking. What are insurers doing right for women executives?

Related: Lori Beer Drives IT to the Next Level at Post-Merger WellPoint; Allstate's Catherine Brune Develops Workforce To Enable Business Transformation; Prudential's Barbara Koster: Building IT for the Customer Economy

I've never been a fan of "women (or any other gender/ethnic/demographic segment) in X industry" lists. To me they always seem a bit patronizing and almost damning, rather than celebratory. Still, I felt some real pride when I saw how financial services and especially insurance dominates the latest version of the National Association for Female Executives' (NAFE) ranking of the Top 50 Companies for Executive Women. Financial services companies represent one-third (32 percent) of the roster, and there are an impressive nine insurance companies on the list (produced in partnership with Working Mother magazine). These industry leaders are (in alphabetical order):

Allstate Insurance

Chubb Group of Insurance Companies

Mass Mutual Financial Group

MetLife

New York Life Insurance

The Principal Financial Group

Prudential Financial (a top 10 company in the NAFE ranking)

State Farm Insurance (a top 10 company in the NAFE ranking)

WellPoint

The other financial services firms included on the 2012 roster were (alphabetically) American Express, Bank of America (a top 10 company), Citi, First Horizon National, JPMorgan Chase, Northern Trust and PNC Financial Services Group.

Why do insurance companies do so well at developing women executives? As the NAFE roster shows, there are a variety of factors, including CEO/board commitment, dedicated programs and flexible schedules. And clearly over the years many companies have been fortunate to attract (and then invest in) some extremely talented, smart and committed women. Over the 13 years that Insurance & Technology has published its Elite 8 roster of outstanding insurance technology executives, a number of female CIOs from the 2012 NAFE 50 companies have been among the honorees. These include Allstate's Cathy Brune (now a regional president for the company), Prudential Financial's Barbara Koster, New York Life's Eileen Slevin (now retired), and WellPoint's Lori Beer (now EVP of Enterprise Business Services). Whatever the motivation, it's clear that many companies of all sizes in our industry understand that success and survival depends on cultivating a different approach to leadership.

NAFE's analysis of this year's rankings showed both progress and room for improvement, although it does not address why financial services has such a strong showing. A much higher percentage of women have roles at the executive level of the NAFE Top 50 companies compared to the Fortune 500 -- 22 percent versus 14 percent, NAFE reports. Women make up 19 percent of the profit-and-loss corporate executives at the NAFE Top 50, and almost a quarter (23 percent) of the executives who run billion-dollar divisions.

Still, the 2012 ranking raises some areas of concern for the prospects of female executives in general. For example, female CEO representation dropped in the past year, compared to previous year's rankings -- only 10 percent, compared to 14 percent of the Top 50 companies the past two years. That's still better than female CEO representation across all Fortune 500 companies, which was only 3.6 percent this past year, according to NAFE.

I don't believe having women (or any other group or segment) represented at a company's executive level should be an end in itself. However, it can't be denied that many women continue to face significant obstacles (cultural, family, economic, etc.) that block progression to the corporate executive and C levels, and it's gratifying that insurance companies are among the leaders working to remove some of those obstacles.

Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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