Women in the Workplace – Lack of Fit

This post is going to require some work on your part. Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult. But before moving on, I’d ask that you open a blank Word document or grab a pen and paper before you read on.

Your first assignment: Picture a CEO. Jot down some of your thoughts regarding the image in your mind. Just a few sentences or adjectives will do. DO NOT overthink this, just go with your first impression. We’ll get back to this later.

Now for a story. Have you heard this? Its an oldie-but-goodie. A man and his son are out one night, driving along a dark, winding road when suddenly a major storm moves in. A deer jumps out of the woods in front of their car, and the father, in an attempt to avoid the deer, swerves and smashes into a tree. The emergency personnel rush to the accident and tragically pronounce the father dead at the scene. The young boy, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As he is wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon looks down at the young patient and exclaims, “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son!”

How can this be? If you are like most people, the first time you heard this story you were confused. Didn’t the dad die at the scene? Does the boy have two dads? No. In fact, the surgeon is the child’s mother.

Why is it that our instinct is to assume that the surgeon is a man?

Back in 1973, an astute social scientist named Virginia Schein was asking questions about why more women were not being promoted into leadership roles. At that time, Dr. Schein worked as a manager for MetLife in New York. The prevailing answer to her question at the time was that women simply did not wish to be leaders. Dr. Schein believed there was more going on below the surface.

In a series of research papers published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Schein asked research participants to list the most important traits of a successful leader.

Go ahead and do this for yourself. You can simply add to the CEO traits you listed above, or if ‘Leader’ brings to mind something new and different, make a new list.

Next, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with men.

Do this yourself as well.

Then, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with women.

Again, jot some ideas down.

Finally, she compared the lists. What she found uncovered an uncomfortable truth – the list of the leadership traits and the male traits were very similar, while the list of the leadership traits and the female traits varied significantly. This led to the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ theory that has been proven in many studies since then.

One of the interesting parts of the initial research – all of the participants were men. Likely she had a problem similar to the one I faced in my attempt to include women of color in my studies – she just could not find enough female leaders to include in her studies.

But it does highlight another problem – the dominant culture will be the group to define the rules of the game. Research seems to indicate that it isn’t that male qualities are the best leadership qualities, but that since men are in leadership, they will necessarily believe that their qualities make for the best results.

Opinions on the “best” leadership qualities have changed since the 1970s. Back then, words like commanding, or assertive, or even aggressive were common. Nowadays, you likely included something along the lines of collaborative, or even supportive, or perhaps even inclusive.

And yet, even with leadership qualities that are more aligned with the female stereotype, I’d ask you to look back at your description of a CEO. Did you picture a man or a woman? Some of you did, in fact, picture a woman, and you are wonderful for that. Most people, however, pictured a tall, white, older male. If you did, don’t worry – you’ve just uncovered a hidden bias! Now you can work on adjusting it.

The impact of the ‘Think-Manager, Think-Male’ phenomenon is significant. It means that when company leaders are looking to fill a management position, their inherent bias toward picturing men in the position will lead them toward male candidates more readily than female candidates. This is true no matter the gender of the hiring manager.

It means that men will be considered for roles they aspire to while women will only be considered for roles they have already proven themselves in. It means that men will be supported despite failures and a woman’s failure will be seen as inevitable.

The solution to this issue is a catch-22. To get more women (or any other minority, for that matter) into leadership roles we need more women (or other minorities) in leadership roles. If the images we see when the letters CEO are uttered are not just white males, but truly reflect the diversity of our society, then we will disrupt the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ paradigm. To get there, we need to recognize our inherent biases and actively work against them. When choosing our leaders, we need to ensure we are intentionally looking in all directions for the best candidate, regardless of their personal qualities.

For a final assignment, I encourage you to consider ways in which you might stretch your mind when considering candidates for the next leadership role you will help to fill. Write them down. And then when the time comes, use them.

As always, keep it positive!

Selected further reading:

HBR – Alice Eagly: Women as Leaders. Dr. Eagly is an expert on gender and leadership.

Fast Company – The Gender Divide

Psychology Today: Why Women Make Better Leaders than Men

Inc. Magazine: 7 Traits of True Leaders

Women from the history of Life Insurance, Part 1

 

I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the history of the life insurance industry in the US. This is due in large part to the fact that I work in this industry, but also because I find that it is fascinating story filled with countless inspiring individuals. I think we can find heroes anywhere if we just simply look, and the life insurance industry is no exception.

A few quick points on the early history of the industry to help orient you:

  • The concept of life insurance can be traced back to ancient Babylon where it is found in the Code of Hammurabi – the family of merchants killed by brigands were awarded silver1
  • 1583 – The first recoded life insurance policy, a 1-year term policy that paid out a 400 pound sterling benefit2
  • 1759 – The first life insurance company in the US is established in Philadelphia: The Corporation for Relief of the Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers
  • 1839-1840 – States pass the Married Women’s Property Act which allows, among other things, life insurance proceeds to be passed to a widow without being subject to the demands of the husband’s debtors3

Women have played an important role in this industry from nearly the start. In this post, I’d like to share two important women from the early years of life insurance in the US.

The first is Bina West Miller.

Bina West Miller (1867-1954) was an incredible pioneer and entrepreneur. She saw a problem, understood how to fix it, and put her plan into action. She did this so well that the company she founded is still here today.

Bina began her career as a young school teacher in Michigan. Through her work, she witnessed first hand the struggles a family went through when the mother of two children passed away while the children were still young. The father carried life insurance on himself, but at that time, no company would cover women – in large part due to maternal fatality rates during childbirth. The father, left with no means to care for his children was forced to send his children to foster homes where they were sent out to work.

Bina saw the injustice in this situation and took bold steps to address it. In 1892, Bina founded the Women’s Benefit Society in 1892. Her objective was to be “The Largest, Strongest, and Most Progressive Fraternal Benefit Society for Women in the World. Offers more opportunities to women than any other fraternal insurance society.”5 Her organization offered women more than life insurance; it offered women a support network and a way to connect to their communities.

Bina successfully served as the CEO of her company for over 56 years. In 1996 the organization was renamed Woman’s Life Insurance Society, (I have linked to the company page on their history) and remains in business today. There is quite a bit of research out there on Bina West – I will list a few sources at the end of the article and I highly recommend you take a look.

The second woman I would like to introduce to you is Minnie Geddings Cox. Minnie’s story is rather different than Bina’s, but like Bina, she was a pioneer, an entrepreneur, and an important leader in the history of the life insurance industry. Much of what Minnie is known for revolves around what is known as the Indianola Affair. Minnie, serving as the first African-American postmistress in Mississippi (serving in Indianola), was forced to flee her city due to racial tensions and personal threats. When she attempted to resign from her post, President Roosevelt refused to accept it, and instead closed the post office for more than a year. Eventually, Minnie did return to Indianola.

Minnie was born in Mississippi in 1869 to former slaves. She attended Fisk University, and initially set out to be a school teacher. After her return to Indianola in 1904, she and her husband opened a bank, the Delta Penny Savings Bank, only the second African-American owned bank in Mississippi.

Shortly thereafter (1908), Minnie and her husband started the Mississippi Beneficial Life Insurance Company, the first African-American owned life insurance company in Mississippi. This life insurance company and the bank were described by Minnie’s husband as “monuments of protest to the injustices inflicted upon him and his wife.”6

When Minnie’s husband passed away in 1916, Minnie immediately stepped into the leadership role of the bank and the insurance company, and began improving the company. She expanded the company to nearby states, added training programs, and organized and held district meetings for her agents. Despite significant hurdles, Minnie was a rousing success. She passed away in 1933. The company no longer exists today, but was swept away in a variety of acquisitions by larger insurance companies.

There is an excellent paper written by Shennette Garrett-Scott on the story of Minnie Geddings Cox and her life insurance company, and I am linking it here. I encourage everyone to give this a read – you will not be disappointed.

To know that in 1892, a woman started her own life insurance company, and in 1916, an African-American woman was running her own life insurance company, should give us considerable hope for the future. We need to talk about these women, celebrate these women and recognize all of the female role models we have in this industry.

As always, keep it positive and smile!

1: Anonymous. “Life Insurance – It Goes Back a Long Way.” Nation’s Business, Jan 1975, p. 24

2: Walford, Cornelius FIA (1885). History of Life Assurance in the United Kingdom. History of Life Assurance, Jan, 114-133

3: Jones, Bernie D. (2013). Revisiting the Married Women’s Property Acts. Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 22(1), 1-57

4: Anonymous. “Bina West: Founder of the Woman’s Life Insurance Society.” http://www.historyswomen.com/socialreformer/binawest.html Accessed 3 May 2018.

5: https://fee.org/articles/bina-west-miller-pioneer/

6: From the Mississippi Historical Society: http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/421/minnie-geddings-cox-and-the-indianola-affair

Additional source on Bina West Miller:

From the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.michiganwomenshalloffame.org/Images/Miller,%20Bina%20West.pdf

Additional source on Minnie Geddings Cox:

From blackpast.org: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/cox-minnie-m-1869-1933