In past columns I've highlighted some of the reasons why women are so successful in the insurance industry. However, we still face certain challenges.
For example, attending insurance or financial seminars can be an intimidating prospect for women. I recall one seminar in particular with over 400 attendees, only four of whom were women. These events typically offer networking lunches and cocktail hours. While networking is an invaluable resource in almost any industry, being a woman in a sea of hundreds of men can be uncomfortable for some of us.
It would certainly be no different the other way around. Sure, men might joke that they would just love to be the only man in a group of hundreds of women, but the reality would probably make most men uncomfortable at the least.
To be honest, years of experience with this type of situation has left me pretty much desensitized to it. I work side by side with men so often that in my business world the gender gap has all but dissolved for me.
For women who are new to the industry, here's some advice: Take baby steps. Attending seminars is very beneficial to our industry, but the complimentary networking lunches and cocktail hours are not a requirement. While these social hours can be great for your career (I feel that we learn invaluable lessons and tips almost every time we talk to someone else in the business), they can certainly be saved for another time. If you stay in this business, you will most likely attend many of these events over the years.
Chances are, by the fifth or sixth seminar, you'll be as comfortable at the cocktail hour as if you were drinking coffee with your aunt Shelly. There's no need to jump into it too fast. If something makes you terribly uncomfortable, there is usually an alternative.
Here's another challenge women face: a relative scarcity of female mentors. There are lots of great, successful women in the insurance industry, but the field is still dominated by men. This is a wonderful advantage for us, and one of the reasons we can be so successful. However, it can also be a disadvantage when searching for a mentor.
Men and women are different - there is no doubt about that. Whether discussing the sports world, parenting, relationships, or business, we do things differently. So, a woman being mentored by a man - or vice versa - presents its own set of challenges.
Now, don't get me wrong. A man can be the perfect mentor for a woman. The problem for a woman who would rather have a female mentor is that it can be difficult to find one. At this point in my career, the difference between a male mentor and a female mentor seems insignificant. However, when I first started out, I think a female mentor would have been a better option for me. I could have identified with her more, emulated the way she balanced family life with career, better understood her take on the emotional side of connecting with possible clients, making a sale, and so on. As it was, I had no mentor at all, and so I made a litany of mistakes that might have been avoided had that not been the case.
So if you are a woman new to the industry and you think you would be more comfortable with a female mentor, find one. You may have to search harder, ask several people for a referral, maybe even travel a bit to work with her. This is an important, defining experience, and if working with a female mentor is what you prefer, you'll gain the most out of it by paying attention to your personal preference.
On the flipside, if you find a male mentor with a business style that you respect and you wish to learn his methods, start shadowing him right away.
What all of this boils down to is comfort and personal preference. Some women couldn't care less about the sex of the person they are working with. But some women do. The insurance and financial industries are definitely still male-dominated industries, and while women are joining the ranks more and more every year, that fact is not likely to change for quite some time.
Let's use this imbalance to our advantage. I have learned much of what I know from many extremely successful men - and women - in this industry. When we work together, the end result is always a better one than when we work alone.
Carst is a self-employed broker and consultant. She is the co-founder of Women Insurance Professionals. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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