Why is it so hard to find a female mentor?

In the last week, I have had three conversations with three different women who shared a common frustration. All three were desirous of a female mentor from within their company, and all three were unable to find one.

Why is this?

The stories all three women shared were eerily similar. The problem is not what some might immediately suspect. It was not a problem of finding a senior woman in their company. They each had tried to reach several different women.

The problem all three women reported was the inability to get onto the calendars of any of the senior women in their companies. Sometimes they could get an initial meeting, but even these were often rescheduled several times before taking place. Follow-up meetings were nearly impossible to come by.

Again I ask, why is this?

Collectively, we had a few guesses as to why this would be. We had all been in positions of leadership. As such, we had all confronted the conflict of a full calendar and a team that needed guidance and input. We are all busy – both men and women. Here are some theories on what might be going on.

Senior leadership is a tough job in and of itself

Senior leaders, regardless of their gender, are often consumed by meetings, conference calls, updates, presentations, and more meetings. It is possible that there just isn’t time for them to mentor younger leaders, given their jobs.

Successful women are busier than others

Women are good at getting things done. As the saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy person. So, logically, successful women are going to be asked to do more things.

Add to this the fact that women have a hard time saying no. Oftentimes, the reason we have reached a certain level of leadership is because we never said no on the way up. Challenging assignments, lateral moves, whatever it was, women say yes.

You want that done tomorrow? No problem. You want that completely rewritten? Sure! Now? Of course! You want me to reorganize the entire department and increase revenues by 200% by next quarter? You got it!

In fact, I had a senior leader at my company that preached that the only way to get ahead was to always say yes. You can bet the women took that to heart.

Because of their skill and their willingness to take on more and more, successful women’s plates are filled fuller than most. If you think about it, it makes sense. The more you do right, the more the company is going to want you to handle. And if we never say no, there is very little space left for things not on the agenda, like employee development. Especially those requests for development from women in other areas of the company or other companies.

As is often said, there are only so many hours in the day and sometimes we run out of them.

There just aren’t enough of them

Despite the fact that there are women in senior leadership, it is possible that there just are not enough of them. How many junior associates can one senior leader feasibly mentor?

And if the first theory is true, that senior leaders in general do not have time to mentor, this becomes even more problematic.

It could also be a problem that the senior women work in a different division/section/ department of the company than the women seeking mentors. It can be a challenge to reach out across these lines to make a mentorship relationship work. That senior leader is likely going to spend any time she has for employee development on those employees working under her span of control.

There is no tangible incentive to mentor other women

I list this here because I have heard employees mention this as a potential reason they cannot seem to meet with a mentor. It is largely true that it is very difficult to quantify the value of investing in young women leaders. I have never seen an executive incentive plan that listed ‘mentorship’ as a goal (I’m sure they exist somewhere – I just think it is exceedingly rare).

That said, I believe most of us want to mentor other women. We want to impact their lives in positive ways, help them navigate the corporate world, help them to be successful and reach their dreams. But we work for corporations, and corporations set the priorities.

So what do you do if you are looking for that mentor and she just doesn’t seem to have time for you?

The best suggestion I have is to do what the guys do – find an informal way to connect. Swing by her office, talk to her briefly after a meeting, attend a company function. Don’t be a pest, but find ways to connect that don’t require her to block 30 precious minutes on her calendar.

And if you get that meeting, be prepared! Have specific questions to ask or situations to get her input on. Do not waste that precious time! Follow-up with a thank you and ask for the next meeting right away. Better yet, ask her if you can work with her assistant to put regular (quarterly, perhaps) meetings on her calendar.

I appreciate your thoughts! Have you tried to engage a female mentor? How hard was it to find one and to meet with one? What advice do you have for others looking to do the same?

Good luck! As always, stay positive!

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“You’re so strong!” and other ways we talk to our kids

A recent Walk-a-Thon at a local school

Recently I have been working in our public schools. Most of the time I am in primary schools. I love these kids – they are all trying to do their best, learn the rules, and understand where they fit in this world. Hard work!

It is especially tough when they also have to learn their multiplication tables, how to write an essay comparing and contrasting diverse topics, and the history of our country. I don’t know if you remember this time in your life, but this is a lot for kids to handle all at once.

Being around all these kids and all of this potential, I became curious. As many of you may know, my big question is why women are not reaching the same levels in corporate America as men. I wondered if there was anything I could see at this young age that could help to answer the question.

I also did some reading. It turns out that we start conditioning our children for their gender roles at a very young age. In fact, the minute they are born they start receiving messages about the “appropriate” way to act.

There are studies that show that we talk to babies differently the moment we become aware of their assigned gender. For example, an active baby in utero, when known to be a boy, is described as “active” or a “future sports star.” In contrast, we refer to female babies in emotional terms, saying things like “she must be upset” or “she’s feisty today!” And just to be clear, this is a generalization. This is not always the case, but it is generally the case.

This gendered talk continues throughout life. As young children, we talk more to our daughters than we do to our sons. We teach girls that showing emotion is okay, and our son’s that it is not. We caution our girls to be more careful, and tell our boys how strong they are. This ‘conditioning’ continues throughout their lives, often in small, subtle ways.

One day, while working with a group of clever first-graders, I happened upon an interesting and telling situation. I held up a picture that looked something like this:

I asked the kids, “What is this?” The answers, predictably, were almost a unanimous “Man.” The answer in the teacher’s manual agreed with them. I tried to get the students to give me other answers, but about the only other thing they came up with was “boy.”

The next picture looked like this:

And the kids shouted out before I could even ask them, “Mom!” This time the teacher’s manual disagreed (they were looking for the word ‘woman’). No matter what kind of prompting I gave them, the kids continued to insist that the only word for this person was “Mom.”

So already at this young age, we are conditioned to see gender roles. We see men as simply ‘men’ and women are assigned the role of ‘mother.’ Now, this could be just the case in this one class, in this one school, on this one particular day, but I don’t think so. I think this would likely happen over and over again in classrooms across the country – possibly around the world.

Here is something else I got curious about. When do we start making gendered choices about our career paths? I started asking every kid I could, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Here are some of the most common answers I got from the boys:

  • Policeman – grades 2,4,5
  • Fireman – grades 1,2,4
  • Duck – grade 2 (okay, this wasn’t common, but was super cute)
  • Engineer – grade 5
  • NFL Player – grades 4, 5
  • Soccer Player – grades 3, 4, 5
  • NBA Player – grade 5

Here are the most common answers I got from the girls:

  • Unicorn – grades 1, 2 (surprisingly common!)
  • Veterinarian – grade 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Lawyer – grades 4, 5
  • Mermaid – grades 2, 3
  • Shopper – grades 1, 2
  • Teacher – grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Nurse – grade 5

This is clearly a completely unscientific sample. I offer it only as a potential insight into how early some of these ideas take shape. We tell our daughters “You can be anything you want!” Then day after day we present the idea that they should be caretakers and nurturers. We say “Reach for the stars!” while simultaneously cautioning them to be careful, to be polite, to smile.

We tell them we love them inside and out, that they are beautiful regardless of how they look (and we mean it!) but then day after day, we bombard them with ideas about their weight, their demeanor, their skin, their clothes, their smile.

We do our boys similar injustices. We need more male teachers, nurses, and unicorns. We need to teach them that it is okay to show emotions, and that violence is not the answer to everything. Or anything. Again, every day we tell them, “You can be anything you want!” while chastizing them for showing compassion or empathy.

I don’t have any answers for this. I don’t know how to fix this except to encourage everyone to think about the way you talk to children. Consider whether your well-intentioned comments and corrections might be limiting the childs future dreams and ambitions.

And as always, stay positive!

“Learning diversity” – Using Fiction as a Tool

As a white woman who grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago I was not exposed to much in the way of diversity throughout my youth. Every so often, a church mission trip would take us places that seemed utterly foreign to me as if we had traveled to a different planet. But these were places that existed ‘elsewhere.’ They were not a part of my world.

One experience in childhood, however, did open my eyes to the fact that others did not enjoy the same privilege I enjoyed. My grandparents took me on a vacation to Mexico, ostensibly to see the amazing tourist attractions – the pyramids, the beaches, the fancy hotels. Instead, what I saw, what I remember as a jolt of electricity in my belly, was women sitting on the streets with their babies. When I asked Grandma why this was, she explained matter-of-factly that they didn’t have a home to go to.

Even college offered me little in the way of exposure to people different from me. In my small, midwestern, academically elite school I rarely had cause to think of experiences beyond my own. I do remember one choir trip to the South where we attended a Southern Baptist church service. I remember the incredible and unbounded joy expressed during this service – out loud! And realized again that my experiences were not universal.

All of this to say, I have had to work hard to “learn diversity.” It has become a passion for me, and I have been taking up any opportunity I can find to learn. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, attending seminars, participating in conversations and discussions. And every so often, it can get overwhelming. I need a break.

For me, that means reading. Usually cozy mysteries. Always fiction. This time, I decided I would try something different. I went to my library app and searched under popular fiction and the first book I could find that was available right away has led me on a whole new journey. I have now overloaded my library holds with books written from perspectives that differ widely from mine. For now, I am sticking to the ‘female’ perspective (in quotes because the meaning of that word is also under exploration), to contemporary fiction, and if at all possible, to American fiction. I feel like this is where I need to start.

The two books I will share below are simply where I have started. I know there are many, many options out there, and I’d love to hear from you what fiction books have opened your eyes to new ways of understanding this world we live in.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The first book I read was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Not only is this a beautifully written book, it is captivating and such a great read. The story makes personal the bullet points we see in every diversity presentation – the incarceration of black people, especially men, is disproportionally high. In this case, a black man who we know, without doubt, is innocent is sent to jail for committing rape.

The story follows the lives most affected by this conviction – the man himself, his wife, and their best friend. We also hear about the parents of both the husband and the wife and their struggles to deal with this tragedy.

The story is so compelling because it feels so real. It feels like a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story. I felt as though the author allowed me, for the hours it took to read the book, to understand and feel what the impact of this injustice can do to real people. It literally derailed a life, tore apart a marriage, and caused stress, confusion, and chaos in the lives of so many peopled.

The story helped me to get inside the reality of what is happening to so many people, people different from me, in our society today. It helped me to see beyond the bullet point on the PowerPoint slide and to feel the pain of individuals who are faced with this kind of injustice.

I highly encourage everyone to read this book.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

My choices of book to read are dictated by the availability at the public library. That said, I am very pleased that the next book to pop into my queue was Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner. While not a tale of racial diversity, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences introduced by the fact that the family was Jewish, that one of the women was a lesbian, and that the other was childfree by choice.

This story follows the lives of two sisters who’s stories alternate as they move through time, the major events of the decades passing by in the background. As time progresses, the lose themselves, then find themselves again several times, in various ways.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot – I’d love for those reading the book to experience the empathy as these two sisters follow their journey – sometimes experiencing incredible pain, other times overwhelming joy. Suffice it to say, I learned quite a bit from these two characters.

I felt through the story the pain of having to suppress significant parts of your identity simply to fit in, to be seen as “normal.” I learned the difficulties behind the healing after significant personal tragedy. I saw a world where women faced the difficulties of trying to get ahead in a male dominated world decades before the present day.

This book only offers small windows into these different experiences women might face in their lives, and yet it is so well written that you feel strong empathy with each passing challenge the sisters face. I am grateful to have had a peak into this window, and hope it helps me to act with even greater empathy towards others.

……

Fiction gives the authors the latitude to fully explore issues of diversity, to provide a different vantage point to explore the amazing things that make each of us unique. I know I have read many books of this type before – I simply chose these two books because of the incredible quality of writing and because I happened to have read them recently.

What fiction books have you read that have opened your eyes to a new way of thinking about your neighbor? I’d love some suggestions!

As always, stay positive! Pass along a smile!

Girls and Ladies and Guys and Dudes – The Language We Use

Dictionary of the English language

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember my mom teaching me that when I was little – I was a very small, physically timid, sensitive kid. I wasn’t aggressively bullied, but I certainly had my share of taunting. And it hurt. I tried to believe my mom, but somehow, I just couldn’t shake the mean things those kids said to me.

In reality, we all know that words DO hurt. While physical pain may heal, the destruction wrought by cruel, demeaning, mocking words can last a lifetime. Sometimes this language comes at us deliberately with the intent to cause harm. I saw this happen way too often between the 4th grade girls my daughter hung out with (or didn’t, because they were mean). And I remember being the same when I was that age. Kids can be cruel.

There is also quite a bit of rhetoric in our current political environment that seems intended to be cruel. This language is overt, deliberate, and is used to gain an advantage.

But there is another side to all of this – the unintentional harm that language can cause. This tends to happen ‘under the radar’ and it happens all the time. Slights, inadvertent uses of words that someone finds offensive, the inappropriate use of a cultural reference…these are sometimes hard to spot and generally result from lack of exposure, lack of understanding of another group’s culture, a simple misunderstanding, or personal preference. The amount of offence taken can vary from person to person, even between those of similar characteristics.

It can sometimes seem that we have become, as a society, overly sensitive to the language we use to refer to each other. And yet, it is important. As the demographics of our country change, as diversity becomes more and more a part of everyone’s lives, the understanding of how to relate to each other becomes an urgent matter. The words others use to define us carry meaning and intent. This is why certain words are offensive when spoken by some, and yet not offensive when used by in-group members.

At a recent diversity workshop I participated in, this question was posed to the people of color in the room: How do you wish to be identified? Each person had a different, personal, response. Some people were passionate about the words used to identify them. Others did not, to a certain point, care. The problem was, how do you know who is who? How in the world do we navigate such an impossible minefield?

This has also come up in several recent conversations I have had with friends and colleagues. In one, a friend referred to me as a “gal.” She quickly added, “…unless you hate being called a ‘gal’. I should have said ‘woman.’” In another longer conversation with several women, one of them referred to us all as “chicks.” She then quickly added that she meant nothing disrespectful by using that word (as far as I know, none of us felt disrespected in the least) – and a long, incredibly interesting conversation ensued, covering many things including the use of ‘girl vs woman vs guys vs dudes’.

During this discussion, we also covered when and where we police our language – where we tend to be more cautious about the words we use. Each of us had a different take on this which led to such a rich collection of thoughts and ideas.

Given my focus on women in the workplace, I thought it would be interesting to share this discussion with a larger audience, and invite my friends in to share their thoughts in their own words.

A word about these friends – we are all women, we are all white, and we all belong to a group that believes in providing non-judgemental support for each other. That is roughly where the similarities end. We are from different states, from coast to coast. Our upbringings differ widely, our educational levels are not the same. Some of us work inside the home, and some outside. Some of us have kids, some do not. Some of us are married (even more than once in some cases), some of us are not. We might have similar political leanings, but we don’t talk about that.

I considered editing their responses, but I love their incredible ways of expressing themselves – I am just going to leave them as is. In order to keep this to a somewhat reasonable length, I have not included all responses, but have tried to be sure all viewpoints are covered as best I can.

Some take-aways:

  • Everyone is different, and kindness and respect dictate that we should recognize this;
  • Our understanding of the world and of ourselves changes over our lifetimes;
  • The words we use matter;
  • As Megan states: “HOW we speak to others about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive” because we all come from different places, have had different experiences, and really just want to get along.

How do you like to (or usually) refer to groups of women? (girls, chicks, women, guys, ladies, dudes, etc)

Anna: For me, how I refer to a group of women depends on who those women are. When I’m speaking about the group I grew up with – the ones who knew me when I was a skinny, braces-wearing, wannabe cheerleader – that group is my girls. When I’m speaking about my village of soul sisters that I developed in adulthood, they are ladies. And when I am speaking about the larger female and female-identifying group, most often I refer to them as women. These distinctions are not something I think about, but rather are conventions I’ve developed over time based on familiarity, comfort, where I am in my own life, and, in a sense, external standards of political correctness.

Emily: If I’m in a group of only women, I usually use the word “ladies.” But I’m also a major fan of gender-neutral terms like, “folks,” “y’all,” and “friends.” When I refer to myself, I usually say “person” or “human.” Occasionally, when I’m frustrated by someone treating me a child—general infantilizing of women and/or infantilizing of millennials—I’ll refer to myself as a “grown-ass woman.”

Erin: I use “friends” if it’s among friends, “everybody” or “us all” or even “peeps”. “Ladies” in business environments, typically. Trying to work more “them-friendly” language into my life – that’s slow going.

Jill: I have given a great deal of consideration to the words that I use to describe people because I want to be accurate and inclusive in my use of language. When I am consciously thinking about it, I typically use the word “ladies” to refer to a group of women. I landed on this word because I like the slight connotations of formality, sophistication, and respect. To me, the word “women” feels a little impersonal, although I think it is also a perfectly acceptable word to use. “Gals” feels like an old-fashioned word that it is an afterthought to the far more common word “guys.” Occasionally, I will slip into saying “you guys” when I am talking to a group of women, although I am in general trying to remove that expression from my vocabulary because it implies that being male is a default.

On the other hand, I have been calling my close friends (mostly women) “dudes” since the time I was in high school. To me, the word dude is an indicator of inclusion in certain subcultures (i.e. stoners, surfers, skaters, particular music scenes). Often when women use the word, it is a way to subversively express a sense of belonging in those spaces, which are frequently male-dominated. I still use the word “dude” or “dudes” when talking informally to people of all genders, although I have recently come to consider that calling a transwoman a “dude” could be very offensive because it does, on balance, still have male connotations.

Megan: In the past, I’ve usually tried to say ladies or women, but in the last year or so, I’ve been trying to curb my usage of calling women ladies, though I haven’t been entirely successful. As I’ve been reading more feminist books and really evaluating my usage of language, the term “ladies” has begun to represent a group of women who act in accordance of the rules set out by our patriarchal society to me. In my opinion, while there’s nothing wrong with calling a group of women ladies, the majority of women I know and love don’t necessarily ascribe to patriarchal norms and in some cases, are actively trying to shake them up. Thus, ascribing a word that represents “proper femininity” to them doesn’t seem fitting to me. I’ve also heavily used “you guys” as well, which I’ve been trying to break myself from, but it’s proved much harder.

Then the usage of calling a group of women “girls”, by men irritates me to no end. While I understand that often that men don’t mean anything by it, it feels like a term that is diminishing to women. If a woman uses it, I’ll admit I side-eye it unless it’s someone I know well and understand that their usage of it isn’t representative of the way that they respect women. I sometimes use chicks, but that’s rare – I’m more oft to use “dudes”, though I’m much more likely to call a single person “dude” versus a group of people “dudes”. I’ve had conversations with several of my friends who are very active on the use of language in social justice about the usage of “dude” and largely we feel like it is a West Coast generational thing to use it, though we haven’t looked closely into it. However, now that I’m not on the West Coast, it does feel more foreign to me to use the term dude when referring to someone. I only use that term when I know the person (or group) fairly well though.

How do you refer to yourself? Any thoughts on why?

Erin: I used to be adamant about being called a “girl” until recently. Then I grew up. But now I just don’t care. Call me whatever you want, I know who I am and who you’re talking about.

Jill: I think that the times I am actually most offended are when men refer to women as girls because it is infantilizing. I am occasionally bothered when other women refer to me as “honey” or “sweetheart” because I feel like it implies that I am naive, inexperienced, and need to be cared for. I have always looked young, and I am particularly sensitive to people treating me like I am a child.

There are also contexts in which men refer to women as females, bitches, sluts, whores, etc., which are dehumanizing and thus offensive. However, there are ways, where in the proper context, humor can be used to take those words back. I think it is common for women who are very close to each other to call each other bitch, as in a context such as “Hey my bitch, want to go out for lunch?”

One time, while we were waiting in line at a nightclub, a man (boy?) came up to my four friends and I and referred to us as “five vaginas.” I was honestly more baffled by it than offended because there is no context in which that would be an appropriate way to refer to other people.

Megan: I refer to myself as a woman, since that’s how I identify, though I have been known to call myself a badass every once in awhile too. Who knows though, with our language changing, especially around gender, a new term that I love and feel represents me even better may be just around the corner.

Have you ever been offended by a term someone used to describe you? When/where/why?

Anna: Generally, I get offended when someone I don’t know refers to me in a familiar manner. Even though my husband, for example, calls me babe at home, it’s absolutely not acceptable for a stranger, especially a strange man, to call me babe.

There was another specific instance I remember being extremely offended by a reference. I was in law school in Seattle in the mid-2000s and ran into an African-American NFL player in a club in one of the more posh areas of the city. He called me “Candy.” This was the first time I’d ever met him, so he was not a friend, and every Candy I knew of had been a stripper. Interestingly, when I let him know he’d offended me, he did apologize and explained that the term was apparently a common name/nickname in his community. I’m not sure if he was sincere or not, but that instance still sticks out in my mind.

Emily: I have several friends and colleagues who use the word “guys” to refer to any mix of genders. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this offends me, but I definitely notice it and feel a bit of a sting. The problem is that the person who most regularly does this is one of my supervisors (a woman), and I don’t feel like I necessarily have the power to call her out on it.

Erin: Nope. I honestly just don’t care about that in the least.

Megan: I don’t know if I’d say offended because I understand that language can be generational and regional, but I’ve definitely been annoyed before. Moving from an area in the Pacific Northwest that is pretty conscious of how people refer to one another down to the South has been quite eye-opening for me. Right after we moved, I had an affluent older middle-aged white man call me “sweetheart” and “girl” and I was annoyed. I didn’t know this man at all and it felt presumptuous to call me “sweetheart” and diminishing to call me (a grown woman) “girl”, especially since I was buying bourbon at the liquor store.

When and where do you find yourself policing your language? Any particular reasons for this that you are aware of?

Anna: I definitely police my language around people and groups that I’m not familiar with. Because I don’t like it when people I don’t know take liberties with their references around me, I try to stick with the most common or politically correct terms and then wait for the person/people to correct me or let me know of their own personal preference. For example, I always start with African-American, Native American (or Alaska Native), and/or Mr./Ms./Dr. I have had people who preferred to be called by their first names or referred to as Afro-Cuban or Indian, and I always make an effort to remember their preference and respect that going forward.

Erin: I try not to police myself as it triggers my social anxiety in a big way. If people are offended by me, then so be it. My language tends to be pretty bland and I’m generally okay with that.

Jill: One of the main ways that I have really started trying to police my language is around issues of inclusion for trans-people and non-binary people. I think there is a shift occurring in language (at least in some circles) where we are either removing gendered language or acknowledging that people exist who are not strictly male or female. Still, it is hard to rework your brain to use new linguistic devices such as alternate pronouns. I think this is particularly challenging in situations where I know people before and after their transition. However, even though it may be awkward and result in an occasional blunder, it is still important for everyone to attempt rewiring their brains to include all gender identities. I have been to a few live performances where the introduction includes language such as “ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between and beyond” or “ladies and gentlemen of all genders,” and although that language is still a little bulky, it takes the important step of acknowledging the existence of all people.

How have you seen your ideas on this change over your life?

Anna: Both of my parents were the children of Army officers and were raised in a very formal environment, so they, in turn, raised me to err on the side of formality. My sister and I were some of the only kids who always referred to our friends’ parents as Mr. or Ms., and we always made an effort to refer to people based on more neutral characteristics such as city/state/country of origin rather than race or physical attribute. I have found that beginning from a place of formality, similar to at least trying to speak the native language when in a foreign country, lets people know you’re trying, and starts off the relationship on a more amiable foot.

Emily: I used to use the word “guys” to refer to all humans until I read an argument against it in college. I used to call my female friends “girls” until I read an essay about how we never call grown men “boys.” I think I’ve definitely done some learning and growing, and a lot of that came from being called out.

Erin: See [my response to the previous question] above re: girl. So much that my first husband had to take me as his “girlie” in our vows and not as his wife. That relationship had problems and lots of them were me.

Megan: Absolutely. Before university, how I used language to represent myself and others was never given a second thought, especially since I grew up in a conservative, patriarchal environment. Once I got to my very pretty liberal university and into my field of study, my mind was blown about how language can be used to represent us in both positive and negative lights. And after reading a few of the other responses for this blog post, I’ve realized how my language now may not be best epitomizing how I want to convey meaning and representation.

What else should I be asking/would you like to share?

Anna: The one area of language that I think is talked about less often but is becoming increasingly controversial is the issue of cultural appropriation. The most recent example is the use of “tribe” in the self-improvement community, which is perceived to be appropriated from Native Americans vs. taken from anthropology. Similarly, the use of certain cultural references in sports has also been under scrutiny. While the lines are a little more clear when it comes to whether or not to put a label onto someone else, it seems to be less clear when it’s alright to take a word from someone else and put it on yourself.

Erin: I like it when my current husband calls me “wife” or “wife-cakes”, if that helps. 😀

Jill: In professional settings, I think it is best to default to using more formal and less-gendered language, such as women/ladies or people/folks. Occasionally I think that when gendered language is misused, the intention behind is, ironically, an attempt to create a more friendly or impersonal workplace. However, attempting to imply a more intimate relationship in a professional setting has the potential to violate boundaries. I also think it is important to use the same principle when considering intersectional identities. Often the best course of action is to have thoughtful conversations about the words that people prefer. These conversations do not have to take a lot of time, and yet, they can go a long way in creating a feeling of inclusivity.

Megan: I want to share that I feel like HOW we speak to people about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive. There are so many regional and generational differences in language, that often people just need to be educated on why certain terms could be construed as offensive. And our language now is evolving around representation and gender at such a quick rate that it can be difficult to keep up if you’re not constantly reading or in academic circles, so not everyone will be up to date in how language is best used.

So, as for me, I feel my language evolving. When I am on social media, I often correct a “Hey girl” to a “Hey Lady,” or even just “Hey!” After reading these responses, I’m going to give the word “Lady” some thought too.

And let me say – I know there are many, many other viewpoints out there. As mentioned above, we are all women/gals/chicks/females, and we are all white. This is a limited sample. I’ve already been asked by some of my editors to pose these same questions to other, more diverse audiences. I hope to do that in later posts.

I am interested in your thoughts and ideas on this. What do you think about the words around identity? Have you seen your ideas shift in recent times? Where do you see yourself policing the language you use? Be sure to share.

As always, keep it positive, and have a great day!

Women in the Workplace – Are women their own worst enemies?

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

When talking with men in the workplace (and even some women) about why women are not making it to the CEO level, I sometimes heard the phrase, “Women are their own worst enemy.”

I bristled every time I heard this remark. I had certainly seen women behaving badly toward other women, and in fact had been the victim of a particularly vicious woman. But certainly this was a singular occurrence, right? What men were doing to hold women back, either consciously or unconsciously, was much worse, right?

It turns out there may be some truth to that quote. In fact, it has been given a name: the Queen Bee syndrome.

Before I go on, let me say this: while this article argues that the Queen Bee does still exist in our workplaces today, my studies show that this plays just a small role in keeping women from reaching the top of organizations. There are many other forces, discussed in previous and future posts, that are bigger culprits. However, it is important that women are aware of the Queen Bee syndrome so they can both prevent themselves from becoming one and protect themselves against them.

First, let’s define Queen Bee syndrome. The term was first introduced in a paper by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayartne, and C. Tavris in 1973. A Queen Bee is a woman who has risen to at least some level of power and then acts to protect her position, treating female subordinates more critically than male subordinates.

Hollywood has given us several examples of Queen Bees, several of which have become cult classics. Films such as Heathers and Mean Girls show what this phenomenon looks like in high school. Beyond high school we have The Devil Wears Prada, Clueless or countless others. In each of these films, women who are in power go to considerable lengths to keep other women from reaching their level. In this context, it is almost a shame that the Queen Bee makes for such great movies.

In the corporate world, most often the Queen Bee operates from a position of scarcity, believing that there is space for only one woman at the top. This means that the target of her protectionist actions are most likely other women. At the very least, she does nothing to support other women. At the worst, she actively works to thwart the advancement of other women in the firm. Most often, she shows incivility and rudeness to other women in the workplace.

Some social scientists have suggested that the Queen Bee sees the only way of reaching the top is to act like the men who have gone before her. In this way, she overemphasizes the male trait of disliking women – or more generally, the feminine stereotype. She sees “feminine” as a form of failure.

The discussion on whether the Queen Bee still exists in today’s workplace is hotly debated in academic institutions and in the press. Some say she still exists. Others say the Queen Bee is now extinct. A study in 2015 by the Columbia Business School showed that the Queen Bee was now nothing more than a myth. The same results were found in a Brazilian study conducted in 2018, looking at 8.3mil workers across the world.

And yet, a study done at the University in Arizona in 2018 is cited repeatedly in the news, with varying titles such as, “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee,” or “Proof that Queen Been Syndrome Exists in the Workplace.” The original article was titled, “Incivility at Work: Is Queen Bee Syndrome Getting Worse?” In this study, it was shown that women are more rude and more uncivil to other women in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had an interesting and provocative response to this study. She claimed that women are held to different standards, and that when they are not “nice,” they are seen as uncivil when men are not. This could be true – there is certainly plenty of evidence to show that women are punished when they act outside of their stereotypical roles. Because of this, and our tendency to quickly judge, we should exercise considerable restraint when naming an individual as a Queen Bee.

That said, my personal experience shows that there is a strong case to be made that Queen Bees still exist.

What is behind this Queen Bee syndrome? It is largely attributable to a lack of confidence and security in female leaders. They may have faced

So, are there still Queen Bees out there in the world?

My personal experience, and first hand stories from women I have interviewed and spoken with say that yes, the Queen Bee is alive and well. Sometimes she is as blatant as she has always been. And in some cases, she is more insidious than ever before, hiding behind an exterior that would suggest she wants nothing more than to raise women up.

Real-life stories of the Queen Bee sound like this:

  • When asking for a promotion that has been earned (and was (much) later granted), she says, “The best workers often don’t make the best managers. Maybe some other time.”
  • After a year of accomplishing major goals, saving the company significant money, and obtaining several industry educational designations, she also promotes a man who has done none of these things, saying “I think he will do a great job going forward.”
  • In a meeting with high-level officers of the company, she tells her female manager that her data is incorrect, and when the manager attempts to explain, she loudly tells her to “Shut Up!”
  • She belongs to several women’s groups, invites young women along, but then promotes men into the important roles in the company.
  • She coaches women to exacting standards on non-essential skills while coaching men on standards that matter to the business.
  • She picks one or two women to support and does so in a very public way, and treats other women with incivility, often out of the public view.

What do we women do when we encounter a Queen Bee? Here are some thoughts:

  • If the Queen Bee is your direct manager, the best advice is to find a new boss. She is not likely to change or to find more confidence. Save yourself a significant amount of effort and time, and find a boss who will support you.
  • When this is not possible, find ways to support her without threatening her status. This is part of the technique called “managing up.” For example, before presenting something to a larger group, be sure to first run it by her and then to give her some of the credit when presenting it (one assumes she will have added a contribution when you run it by her).
  • When the Queen Bee is not your direct manager, but you need to interact with her, always be professional and do your best to develop a relationship with her. Where there is trust, she will not, most of the time, undermine you.

Women will only get to the top levels of our organizations in large numbers when we are able to recognize that when we support each other in the workplace, we all win.

As a reminder, Queen Bees are not the norm. There are fewer and fewer of them in the workplace, to the point that there are studies showing that their number is quantifiably insignificant. Until they are all gone, however, we need to continue to educate ourselves on this.

Have you experienced a Queen Bee? What techniques did you use to help navigate this situation? Please be sure to share.

As always, stay positive, and have a great day!

Bloomers, Toxic Masculinity and the First Female Buddy-Cops – Feminism Served Three Ways

Cagney and Lacey – Season 1

In the last few weeks, I’ve come across some fascinating sources on feminism. I am avidly curious, and these various sources represent some of the diverse directions my curiosity takes me. One is a news story, one is a podcast, and the last is a 1980’s tv show. All of these have the common thread of looking at the struggles women face in society today, especially as they try to negotiate the world of men.

The first is a story from Slate.com that came across my news feed recently. It is a story of a woman from a local town who, in 1820, shocked her entire town and in turn the nation by showing up at church on her bicycle wearing her bright red bloomers. The story is cute and amusing, and was published in part as a response to the current uproar in the media around women wearing leggings to church.

This attention on the wardrobe and body of women is not uncommon. Not long ago, the women of Hollywood revolted against this, discussing the problems with the focus on “who” the female actors were wearing rather than discussing their next projects or their current achievements. There has been backlash against school dress codes that limit girls and not boys.

Many times, the need for these restrictive dress codes, as in the case of the current discussion on leggings, is unfortunately put in terms of how the clothing affects the men in the situation. In the recent ‘leggings letter,’ the mother writes, “I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings.”

As many people have responded, it isn’t the girls who need to solve the problem. It is the boys themselves, and society that supports the notion that men and boys just can’t help themselves. We would all do well to do as the preacher did in the 1820s – support the women in their decision to wear what they want to wear.

The second resource is a podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University entitled Scene on Radio. From July through December of 2018, they produced a series called Men, looking at the gender issue through the lens of what it means to be a man.

The entire series is a must-hear for everyone. Over a series of twelve episodes, they cover everything from the history of how patriarchy developed (spoiler alert: cavemen didn’t drag women by their hair!) to an important audio essay of a father interviewing his preteen son on homophobia at school.

I enjoy the discussions that put our current thinking on its head. For example, the host John Biewen shares, “Even within American culture, some of our ideas have completely flipped over time. A few examples: the Puritans thought women were the hornier gender. Most people would not say that today. Cheerleading started out as a guy thing. And a hundred years ago, Ladies Home Journal recommended blue clothing for girls and pink for boys, saying blue was more dainty, and pink the stronger color.”

Another fascinating story he shares concerns the drawings of skeletons in the mid-1700s (episode 3). This was the first time detailed drawings were being made of the female skeleton. For some reason, the drawing that became most popular was an inaccurate drawing produced by a French female scientist showing a skull that was much smaller than the male version, and a pelvis that was much bigger. In reality, there is very little difference between the skull sizes of men and women, and the pelvis is nowhere near as large as shown in the drawing. The drawing, however, was not corrected and taught in anatomy and physiology classrooms for a very long time.

One of the most fascinating episodes is #7. It is almost hard to listen to, but critical that we consider what is going on here. In this episode, a woman who was sexually assaulted examines the reactions of her friends and family to the episode. It is eye-opening, scary, and absolutely real. In this current world of #metoo, it is ever more important that we examine our reactions to these occurrences.

The third resource is just plain fun. I happened to come across the first season of Cagney and Lacey on Amazon Prime the other day. In the first season, only 6 episodes long, and aired in 1982, Meg Foster plays the role of Det. Cagney. She was replaced by Sharon Gless for the rest of the show’s run.

In that first season, one of the major themes in each episode is Cagney’s battle against the gender differences in the police force. In one episode, the women are excluded from a baby shower for one of the male detective’s wives. They are told the reason for their exclusion is potential jealousy on the part of the wives. They show up anyway, of course, and their appearance causes exactly the uproar their husband’s were concerned about.

Another episode, Cagney and Lacey are tasked with providing security for a prominent woman who was a vocal critic of the Equal Rights Amendment. This character says, “[I believe] that every American women has the right to be a full time wife and mother and not be forced to work outside the home.” Throughout the episode, the characters grapple with their opposing views, with the female cops, in the end, saving the life of their charge by using their unique skills of connecting with the would-be murderer. Perhaps having women on the force wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

These three resources are fun, interesting, and educational, and are all ways of understanding the difficulty women face trying to find their place outside of the home. I encourage you to take a look at all of these. Should you have other resources to share, please do so here! I’d love to know about them, and perhaps share them in a later post.

Please also consider subscribing to this blog by entering your email in the form on this page. That way you don’t miss out on a single post.

As always, keep it positive! Have a great day!

Next-level Diversity – 6 Ideas for What Companies Can Do Next

Diversity can be a puzzling issue to deal with. Even defining what diversity means can be problematic and fraught with missteps, over-simplifications, and mistakes. Lately, I have heard many business leaders describe the diversity they seek as “differences not just in the obvious ways, but also diversity of background, experience, perspective, all of those types of things.”

I have been doing a heavy load of interviewing as I am currently in a job search. I always ask the question (because it is important to me) about diversity in the workplace. Most companies, after using the quote above, will then point me to their Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and will occasionally share the names of some senior level individuals who are African-American or female. 

None of this is bad. In fact, the many accomplishments these ERGs and senior executives have made are impressive. The support the companies put behind them comes through in the sometimes staggering number of ERGs or in the types of programming they put on. For example, at one company I noted that a well-known national thought leader on women’s empowerment had been invited to speak at an ERG event.

This is all good news. Companies need diversity these days. Study after study have shown that diverse companies are more successful than their less diverse counterparts. And with the world itself becoming more diverse, it is in every company’s best interest to mirror their customers.

What I want now is something more than companies have been offering up to now. I am anxious for the next generation of diversity initiatives. More of the same just won’t cut it anymore. Here are just a couple ideas companies should explore next:

  1. Bring up the pride the company has in diversity without a candidate, investor, customer, or partner having to ask. Perhaps display a picture of the current Board of Directors or Senior Leadership Team that reflects that pride. Really any statistic that would help illustrate this would be welcome.
  2. Add a chair on the Board of Directors to be filled by a representative of the ERGs. This person would be responsible for ensuring the voices of the minority groups are included in any high-level company decisions. I can imagine that this might make some executives uncomfortable, but if the company is doing it right, there are already highly qualified diversity candidates at the highest levels that can serve in this roll.
  3. Involve the ERGs in real business problem solving. I can only imagine the incredible results if these diverse groups brought their talents to bear on, say, a new marketing campaign, the product development process, or on a customer service issue that needs to be solved. Plus, the experience and exposure that these individuals would receive being a part of such a project nearly makes me giddy.
  4. Develop a flexible holiday schedule, allowing associates to take off work on the days most important to them. Many companies have switched to flexible days for sick and vacation, lumping them in together. This just takes it one step further to include holidays.
  5. Share how you are specifically developing programs to help diverse employees throughout the organization to move up the ladder and how you support them at crucial points in their careers. With women, for example, there is a significant danger of them opting out as they move up the corporate ladder. What has the company done to keep this from happening? What programs have been explored? There are similar issues with other groups at various levels.
  6. Hire a diverse candidate to be CEO. There is certainly no better way to show the company’s commitment to diversity than to show it starts at the top. I’ve seen several companies point to the level just below the CEO as an example of diversity. Although this is wonderful to see, this is no longer enough.

I am certain there are other ways companies could show their next level commitment to diversity. What ideas do you have? What has your company done in this arena so far? What has worked? What hasn’t worked? I would love to hear your thoughts!

As always, keep it positive! Have a great day!

Women in Leadership – A Question of Ambition

This article is part of a series based on the research described in the doctoral dissertation by Dr. Melinda G. Hubbard where she studied why women continue to face challenges reaching the top level of organizational leadership.

I had a colleague say to me, during a heated debate on the question of equality in the workplace, “If women wanted to be at the top, they would be there.” You might guess, and you would be correct, that this colleague was a white male who was over the age of 55. At first, you might be like me, and simply dismiss him out of turn as a product of his generation, as ridiculous as he sounded and not worth the time and effort to even consider.

This particular colleague, however, was a highly educated man, and a person I respected greatly, so I decided to give him a chance to explain himself. What he said was intriguing and worth discussing.

What he then went on to describe was the seemingly endless number of executive women, who, having reached a certain level, seemed to disappear from the corporate landscape. Some quick online research of our mutual acquaintances showed that some of them had moved to a new company (clearly only disappearing from our landscape). Some of them had left to open their own businesses. Some we knew had left to take care of children or parents. Some had left to do something entirely different.

There is some research on this – the act of ‘opting-out.’ In fact, over the last several years there have been several sensational articles in the press about this phenomenon and the popularity of it among women leaders. The original article was written by Lisa Belkin in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine. In this article, Belkin interviews women who opted out to do something completely different, largely raising their children, giving up on successful careers and expensive educations. Subsequent articles build from here, though, showing that there is much, much more to this opting-out.

Was it a by-product of the glass ceiling? Was it fatigue from fighting a battle they were unlikely to win? Or fatigue from playing by rules that made no sense to them? Or was it, as my colleague suggested, a question of ambition?

Do women really want to lead?

I’ll save you the suspense. The answer is clearly and overwhelmingly, YES. Women want to be successful. Women want to be in charge. Women want to get ahead. Women want to lead. In study after study, researchers have shown that in professions across the board, from judges to scientists to sales professionals to academics that women have just as much, if not more, ambition than men. They want to lead, they want to be successful, they want to get ahead.

In my research study completed for my doctoral dissertation, I urged the women I interviewed to discuss their ambitions for the future. In only one case did I have a woman suggest that she was not interested in continuing to move up the corporate ladder. And the reasons that one woman gave were incredibly interesting in and of themselves. She felt that she would not be adequately supported if she were to move up, and so desired to stay in the role she had.

The rest of the women I spoke with, and the data I collected quantitatively, all reaffirm what the previous researchers have shown: Women are not lacking in ambition. Women want to lead.

This article is the first in a series. In future articles I will explore some of the reasons both my research and the research of others offer for the lack of women in the highest level positions. We will cover personal traits of women leaders, the current corporate environment and social forces that may keep women back or cause women to ‘opt-out.’ Stay tuned!

As always, stay positive!

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:

Anonymous (1998). “A Rich Heritage Since 1989.” Atlanta Daily World, Oct 18, pg 3.

Anonymous (1997). “Cigna pitches annuities to women as route to financial independence.” Best’s Review / Life-Health Insurance Edition,Vol. 98 Issue 5, p86.

Anonymous (1993). “Cultural Diversity and Its Impact upon the CLU/ChFC Movement.” Journal of the American Society of CLU & CHFC. Mar1993, Vol. 47 Issue 2, p88-88.

Anonymous (1996). “Diversity the focus.” Managers Magazine, Jan/Feb 1996, Vol 71, Issue 1, pg. 4.

Anonymous (1998). “Why Women are Different.” US Banker, Feb 1998, pg 13.

Bailer, D. (1997). “Fast-Track Group Offers Help to Women.” New  York  Times, Jan 12, pg WC4.

Bell, A. (1997). “Monumental settles harassment lawsuit.” National Underwriter, Vol. 101 Issue 40, p52.

Bell, A. (1997). “Women’s fraternals appeal to a niche within a niche.”
National Underwriter, Vol. 101 Issue 14, p7. 2p.

Christensen, B.A. (1994). “A look at the relationship between income and insurance.” Trusts and Estates, Mar 1994.

Esters, S.D. (1997). “Insurance women surveyed.” National  Underwriter  Property & Casualty – Risk & Benefits Management. Jul 21, pg 4.

D’Ambrosio, M.V., Hinchcliffe, R. (1995). “Female producers.” Managers Magazine, May 95, Vol. 70, Issue 5, pg 7-8.

Dunlap, D.W. (1996). “AIDS drugs alter an industry’s path.” New York Times, 30 July.

Geer, C.T. (1992). “Gender Gap.” Forbes, March 16, 1992.

Gilbert, E. (1994). “Nationwide targets female market.” National  Underwriter Property & Casualty -Risk  & Benefits Management, Aug 15, 1994.

Goch, L. (1999), “Marketing Traps to Avoid.” Best’s Review, Feb, pg 43.

Goch, L. (1999), “The 51% Niche Market.” Best’s Review, Feb, pg 40-43.

Hitchcock, C. (1992). “Why life insurance agents can’t work for you?” Consumers Research Magazine, Oct92, Vol. 75 Issue 10, p17.

Myers, G. (1996). “She works without a net.” American Demographics, Vol. 18, Issue 1, pg. 18.

Nelton, S. (1998). “The Rise of Women in Family Firms: A Call for Research Now.” Family Business Review. Sep pg 215.

Nussbaum, Karen (1995). “Women in Business: Working Women: Unfinished Business.” The Washington Post, Oct 17.

Quinn, J.B., Ehrenfeld, T. (1995). “Churn, churn, churn.” Newsweek, Mar 6,
Vol. 125 Issue 10, p46.

Quinn, J.B., Wilson, V. (1991). “Is your insurance company really safe?” Newsweek, 7/29/1991, Vol. 118, Iss 5, pg. 38.

Quint, M. (1995). “In Sales Pitches, Life Insurers Revive a Focus on Death.” New York Times, Sep 29.

Pasher, V.S. (1996). “IIAA spotlights cross-sale opportunities via survey.” National Underwriter, Vol 100, Iss 27, pg 1-2.

Pitz, M. (1999). “Metropolitan Life Insurance Settles Suit Alleging Deceptive Practices.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 8/19.

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Vol. 121 Issue 13, p64.

Shook, D. (1998). “Fraud Suits Make Life Difficult for Major Life Insurance Providers.” The Record, 12/13/1998.

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Treaster, J. B. “Life Insurance Loses Ground As Investment Options Grow.” New York Times, 8 June 1998.

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An Experiment All Leaders Should Try

judgment

I had an amazing experience this past week. I went to summer camp (Yes! Summer camp! For grownups!) up in the woods of Michigan with 70 or so other women. We did all kinds of fun things like swimming in the lake, having a pool-side happy hour, and sharing many deep and magical conversations.

We did arts and crafts, we danced, we did ropes courses complete with the biggest climbing wall ever (not me, but some stronger, braver people did). We cried, we laughed, we stayed up late and shared stories we couldn’t share anywhere else.

This was all due to the amazing work of Molly Mahar and her Stratejoy team. I give my highest recommendation for her work.

Underlying all of the fun, games and conversations at camp was one basic premise. This is what I want to bring back to all of you leaders.

In coming to camp, we all pledged to be completely judgment free for the whole week. We were coming from all corners of the US and further, and we were everything from doctors to lawyers, professional photographers to stay-at-home moms, vice presidents of life insurance companies (that’s me) to pharmacists, and everything in between. We were introverts and extroverts, early birds and night owls, single, married and divorced, young and old(er).

Bottom line, we were all very different.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to be judgmental. For most of us, it is nearly second-nature. “She shouldn’t be wearing something that short/long/tight/loose!” “Why does she talk so much/so little?” “Is she really going to eat that much/that little?” All of this is part of what we do to some extent every day.

Think about what it would take to remove all of this judgment. It’s tough! When someone sat right in the spot where I had been planning to sit, instead of thinking, “That jerk! She is so rude!” I had to think “Okay, that spot is now taken, and I can probably find another one that will work just as well.”

When someone kept talking for an extended period of time, I might have thought, “Dang it! Is she ever going to stop talking? Can’t someone else have a turn?” but instead I thought, “She has quite a bit to get off her chest, and I should listen to see if I can learn from her or help in some way.”

The results were astonishing. People were suddenly free to be exactly who they wanted to be and who they were meant to be. There was absolutely no drama. Women were able to share deep, intimate stories quickly and without fear or inhibitions. We could dress however we wanted. We could be comfortable and rid ourselves of self-consciousness.

A very wise friend and I discussed this phenomenon on the way home from camp. One of the main reasons this judgment-free stuff worked is that there was an explicit agreement on both sides of any interaction at camp that whatever happened would be judgment free. This built an incredible level of trust. The trust helped us connect quickly and easily. Without this trust, it would have taken much longer to make connections. Without this trust, a person could be taken advantage of. Or maybe not.

So, I have a challenge for you.

Pick an hour of the day. Or pick a particular meeting. Or a particular person. And then try removing all judgment.

Start small. See what happens.

In a meeting, instead of thinking “I hate when he says things like that,” try going deeper to figure out why you feel that way, and/or why he might feel the need to say the things he says. You might find yourself surprised at what you come up with.

During a conversation with a colleague, instead of thinking, “She is so ignorant! Why doesn’t she get this?” try thinking, “What can I do here to help her understand what I am trying to say? How can I be clearer?” or “What piece of information might I be missing here?”

Try it once, then try it again. Then keep trying.

One lesson we hear often that will help is the idea of listening to hear, rather than listening to respond. In other words, while someone else is talking, instead of trying to figure out what you are going to say next, stop and just listen to what the other person is saying. The difference is rather incredible.

This can open us to different perspectives, different opinions, and additional facts and ways of thinking. It results in a more diverse workplace where everyone feels welcome, and everyone feels comfortable sharing their knowledge and opinions. We would be more effective and our companies would be more successful.

I think we, as leaders, can set an example to others by being open and accepting and meeting people where they are instead of expecting them to meet us where we are. This can sometimes take more effort and energy. It will take attention and concentration. I think, though, that we can create a better world for our employees, our friends and our family members by removing as much judgment as we can from our daily lives.

If we as leaders can model this behavior, in doing so we can create open, sharing environments where we aren’t constantly overwhelmed by politics.

It will take extreme corporate and personal courage to make this work, but I believe that we can all do hard things.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!

As always, keep it positive and smile!