Women in Insurance – A History – the 1990s

Life Insurance advertisement circa 1995

The 1990s were generally a decade of peace and prosperity in the US, with some notable exceptions. The economy was in a relative state of expansion after the recession in 1990. The stock market was booming, and unemployment rates remained low for much of the decade.

Bill Clinton was in office for most of the decade after winning the election in 1992, taking over from George W. Bush who had been in office since 1989. Notable events during the decade include the official end of the Cold War in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the signing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) that went into effect in 1994, and the formation of the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 1995. In addition, Operation Desert Storm (the First Gulf War) took place in 1991, the Rodney King trial was held in 1992, and the US suffered several high-profile bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996.

Technology advances exploded during this decade. The World Wide Web made its debut in 1991 and quickly took the world by storm. By the end of the decade, the dot-com boom was in full swing. Advances were also made in the area of genetics with the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal. Both of these advances would have a significant impact on the life insurance industry.

In general, women were doing better economically than they had in previous decades. A Korn/Ferry study published in 1994 reported that 67% of companies responding to their survey indicated they had at least one woman appointed to their boards, up from 59% in 1989. The overall numbers, however, were still low – only 6.2% of the Fortune 500 company board seats were held by women in 1994.

A major national survey of working women conducted by the Women’s Bureau in 1995 revealed important truths about women in the workplace at that time (Nussbaum, K., New York Times, 1995). Over 79% of the women reported liking or loving their job. Nearly all of the women, however, reported the need for improvements in several areas. These included:

  • Pay equality – women with similar educations were making 71.5 cents to every man’s dollar
  • Access to male-dominated professions – 60% of working women were siloed in traditionally female dominated professions where the pay was significantly lower
  • Access to senior-level positions – over 95% of senior managers were white males
  • Retirement funds and other benefits – a vast majority of the positions held by women did not come with benefits

During the 1990s, life insurance sales declined. A report in 1992 showed that 46% of men and 40% of women carried life insurance, a significant decrease from past decades. In 1997, reports showed 11.1 million policies sold, a 37% drop from 15 years prior. According to an A.M. Best report in 1998, less than half of American households held coverage beyond the minimums provided by employers.

One new area of sales that opened up and grew quickly only to fall off dramatically near the end of the decade was the viatical sales market. In this market, viatical companies would purchase life insurance contracts from sick (often those suffering from AIDS) or elderly policy holders who either needed money right away for hospital or treatment costs, or no longer had a need for the policy death benefit. These companies would then continue the premium payments and collect the death benefit when the policy holder passed away. They were, in effect, gambling on the death of these individuals. On the flip side, this provided much needed money to those in need.

In 1996, there were roughly 60 such companies who bought between $400 million and $500 million worth of policies annually. Near the end of the decade, some traditional companies fought back against these viatical companies through their design of the Accelerated Death Benefit, a rider that offered policyholders a way to access their death benefit early when a doctor had certified that death was imminent.

The traditional life industry had become highly competitive, not just within the industry but from forces outside the industry. Mutual funds and other investments were diverting sales. In addition, the arguments over whether to buy term or permanent insurance raged on, with term winning in most advice columns during the decade due to the strong economy bringing lower premiums to the companies. Certainly, during this time of economic boom, higher returns were easily found outside of the permanent insurance space. In addition, people were living longer lives which in turn helped them to postpone thoughts on mortality and therefore purchases of life insurance.

The Life Insurance industry’s reputation took a significant hit in the 1990s. This was largely due to the competitive pressures put on the sales agents by the economic forces in play. Life insurance sales representatives began relying on unscrupulous tactics to make their sales. Many resorted to the sales practice called “churning” where they used the cash value built up inside an insurance policy as a loan to buy another policy for their clients. These policies were sold as a “no cost” way to purchase additional insurance coverage. At the same time, these policies generated additional commissions for the agents and bonuses for their sales managers. Unfortunately for the client, often all of these policies would eventually run out of money, and all coverage would lapse leaving the client with no coverage at all. Or worse still, upon the death of a loved one, an insured would find that the loan on the policy would nearly (or entirely) eclipse any death benefit left, leaving them with little or no insurance.

Another common sales practice of the times was the “vanishing premium” policy. In this case, a life insurance sales representative would produce a policy illustration that showed the need to pay premiums on a policy for a set number of years. In reality, these illustrations were often based on unrealistic interest rates and returns, and policy holders would find themselves paying premiums for many years more than originally planned.

Due to the fallout from these sales practices, nearly every major company found themselves paying significant settlements to their customers. Metropolitan Life alone paid over $100 million in fines and restitution. This amount was increased to $1.7 billion in 1999. New York Life settlements were estimated at $65 million, State Farm at $200 million, Nationwide at $100 million, John Hancock at $350 million, and the list goes on. Quite obviously, these suits did significant damage to the reputation of the industry.

Near the end of the decade, the larger insurance companies took action to address the concerns of the public and organized the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association, a compliance organization built to address unscrupulous sales practices. Another measure many companies took was to severely reduce their sales forces. Prudential reported cutting from 20,000 agents down to 9,000.

Companies were also dealing with some significant high-profile harassment lawsuits. In one case in 1997, two female employees of CNA Life Insurance alleged significant harassment from the president of the company, who was then forced to resign along with his deputy. Comments from news articles at the time claim that just a few years prior, the company would have likely swept such an incident under the rug. Another major suit alleging rather sensational harassment claims was settled in 1997 against Monumental Life in the US District Court in Maryland.

Another byproduct of the slow-down in sales was a consolidation in the industry. This included mergers and acquisitions along with many insolvencies. In the first half of 1991, 12 companies went under including Monarch Life, Mutual Benefit, and Mutual Security Life, among others. Many companies sold divisions that were non-core businesses in order to focus their concentration. In 1995, over 20 deals were made involving non-core business sales. Analysts that year estimated that a full 20% of the 1500 companies in existence were facing consolidation.

As mentioned above, technology brought about a major change to the industry. Carriers began selling term life insurance on the internet. Several quoting engines popped up on the scene giving consumers the ability to shop for low-price term on their own. Suddenly the long-held belief that life insurance had to be sold, not bought, was put center stage and debated fiercely in the media. One of the biggest disrupters in this area was Charles Schwab, a company that introduced both online sales and a toll-free number customers could call to purchase insurance. Only a very few traditional insurers joined in the online sales in these early days, including USAA and Ameritas.

Women and Life Insurance During the 1990s

The number of women in the workforce continued to grow. In 1993 there were over 58 million women in the US workforce representing 45.6% of the labor force. This growth can be attributed to the changing desires of women who wanted to forge their own careers, the economic pressures on families, and the continued increase in the divorce rate.

Women-owned businesses were on the rise as well. Estimates made in 1998 showed that women were on pace to head 1/3 of all family firms by the end of the century. Only ten years prior, women would not have likely risen to the top of family owned businesses, instead seeing male relatives put into that position. In fact, women-owned businesses were the fastest growing segment of the US economy in 1998. Times were changing, which meant that more women needed insurance.

In order to bolster sales, the industry again turned to underserved markets, including the women’s market. In 1993, the American College joined with the Life Underwriter Training Council to hold several seminars across the US to discuss the opportunities to be found in marketing to minority groups, referring to these groups as a “growing demographic trend.” One study reported that only 14% of men pursued women as a market.

It was still the case that during the 1990s women were underinsured compared to men. An article from 1992 cites a LIMRA (Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association) study that shows that on average women were purchasing $52,000 of coverage while men were purchasing $103,000 of coverage.

American Demographics, Vol 18, Iss 1 (1996)

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company in 1994 launched a program called WINS (Women in Nationwide Sales) in an effort to recruit women as sales agents. The program intended to appoint women to at least 1/3 of new agency manager positions.

Several companies simply added female-targeted advertisements, including a Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance ad that read, “All the women who won’t outlive their husbands don’t need to read any further.”

In 1997, Cigna rolled out their program, “Achieve: a Financial Independence Program for Women.” The program included nationwide seminars and written materials intended to help women better plan for retirement.

A study in 1996 by the IIAA (The Independent Insurance Agents of America), conducted to understand the women’s market, concluded that women were not confident when it came to making financial decisions causing them to often avoid the subject entirely. Less than half of the women surveyed indicated they had contacted a financial representative for help in the last year while 76% of them indicated that working with a professional would be beneficial. There is no data on how these numbers compare to the corresponding male population. Another omission of note – there is no data on how often these women were contacted by a representative offering advice.

An article in Best Review (Feb 1999) entitled “The 51% Niche Market,” opens with the following sentence, “As life insurers continue to focus on ever smaller marketing segments, some are rediscovering the largest segment of all: women customers.” The article details several new marketing efforts, nearly all of them less than two years old. The article quotes a sales manager from one company who is responsible for training on the women’s market: “It was hard for the [sales agents] to pull back and look at something new. We asked them, ‘How many women business owners do you currently do business with?’ Many of them did not know.”

This same article outlines the differences in working with women:

  • “Women use a different buying process. Men are transaction-oriented buyers while women are relationship-oriented buyers. They want to trust the person selling to them and know the relationship will continue after the sale.
  • Women covet information. They seek advice and insight from others such as a qualified agent, but will often stop to consider their decision before they commit. However, if the agent follows up, the sale is usually made.
  • Women are often more loyal customers, but that loyalty depends on maintaining a relationship.”

Some other tips given to attract the women’s market included:

  • “Don’t tweak the product or put it in a new package and call it new and improved. Change how you create business relationships instead.
  • Don’t think only female agents can reach this market.
  • Don’t sell life insurance only to the husband; consider the wife as a breadwinner too;
  • After spending lots of money on advertising to attract the female market, make sure your organization treats them as economic decision-makers.
  • Don’t assume all women are alike. That will get you into trouble.” (Best’s Review, 1999).

A LIMRA survey in 1996 indicated that 72% of life insurance companies felt that diversity programs were some of their most important objectives. Approximately 44% of life insurance companies stated that they had these objectives in written form. The reasons the companies gave for the creation of these objectives included it being the right thing to do and to help them increase their market share. Most of the programs shared in the survey targeted cultural minorities with bilingual services/non-English language marketing materials. None of the programs targeted women directly (Managers Magazine, 1996).

Women’s fraternal societies were still in existence, serving the women’s market directly when other companies struggled to reach this market. In 1997, Royal Neighbors was the largest with $548 million in assets and a board of directors that was exclusively female. Other women-focused fraternals included Loyal Christian, Women’s Life, Degree of Honor, and Catholic Ladies of Columbia. Many of these fraternals credited their on-going success to their personalized service to the women they served, along with their ability to offer other services that built strong relationships with their members.

Women in Life Insurance Sales

Several surveys, including one conducted by LIMRA in 1995, showed that women in life insurance sales sold largely to women. This resulted in income disparity due to the fact that women, as mentioned above, were purchasing roughly half the amount of insurance as their male counterparts. It was also the case that in general, female producers did not sell to high-income earners, further reducing their incomes.

A study conducted in 1997 by the National Association of Insurance Women shared some insight into why this might be. Their survey concluded that “women working in insurance sales are more likely to be motivated by a need to meet the needs of their customers, than by the challenge of the job” or the pay afforded them in this career (Esters, 1997). The compensation women earned was significantly higher for those working in insurance compared to other vocations.

Women reported difficulty in making the important business connections in order to grow their businesses. In one article, women discussed the advice given to them by many men to “learn to play golf.” These women found that even after learning to play, they still had trouble integrating with men in a meaningful business way at the sporting events. Women found it difficult, no matter what, to break into the old-boys network.

Despite the challenges they faced, the retention rates for women in life insurance sales were on the rise throughout the decade, with one-year retention rates often higher than those of men, and four-year retention rates nearing those of men.

At the turn of the century, women had made considerable in-roads into the life insurance industry, but still had a long way to go to reach parity with their male colleagues. The female side of the equation had once again been rediscovered this decade, but whether the attention paid to it would have meaningful results is something to be investigated in the next article.

Sources:

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