Woman at Work: Why Women Should Lead Risk Management

Lori Widmer


May 1, 2013

When Pamela Rogers entered the risk management field in the 1980s, women’s role in corporate America was one of trying to fit into an atmosphere that was all business. “There was nothing personal at all,” she said.

Since then, Rogers has seen a metamorphosis. Since 1982, she has watched the industry evolve into an atmosphere where women’s natural people skills combined with learned analytical prowess can create an unstoppable force.

During her tenure at Marsh, where she was senior vice president and managing consultant, Rogers says there were a significant number of senior-level female managers. It was a huge change from her first days in risk management when there were “very, very few” women in high-level roles. “Let’s face it—35 years ago, who ever thought of work/life balance?” she said.

Women are still routinely out-earned by men, which makes the reliably high salaries in risk management attractive.
A survey of 64,000 people across the world lends a lot of evidence traditionally feminine values and traits are vital to leadership.

Rogers, now vice president of enterprise risk and insurance management at Weight Watchers in New York, now thinks that today’s business environment is suited for women to capture those coveted C-suite positions and start leading culture instead of trying to fit in.

This has been a long time coming. As the 1990s progressed, so did a softer attitude toward a family-friendly workplace. Then, when the bubble burst in 2000, employers were clearly back in the driver’s seat—but only for a short time. As the economy recovered, there was a return of work/life balance.

Then the bottom dropped out for real. When the economy fell hard in 2008, suddenly employers were doing more with fewer employees. Not only that, the labor force had gradually been morphing from a labor-intensive, manufacturer-driven model to a service model. But that change may be the reason more women are rising to the top of the business world. To Rogers, service is where women excel in business.

Still, the corporate world may not have caught up with Rogers’ personal experiences. Depending on which report you read, women are either rising to the top in management positions or floundering in corporate limbo. Last year’s Grant Thornton International Business Report detailed the dismal news: women in senior management comprise just 21% of the global corporate population, a mere 2% more than in 2004. Likewise, a 2010 Catalyst study revealed that just 2.4% of Fortune 500 chief executives were female. That’s 12 women, in case you’re counting.

One thing is certain; the United States is lagging far behind most other countries. The proportion of women in senior management in the United States paled by comparison to countries such as Russia, with 36% of all senior execs being women, and Thailand, which topped Grant Thornton’s survey with 45% of senior managers being women.

While statistics specific to the risk management field are nil, there are inklings of what’s happening coming from various professional associations. The UK-based Airmic risk management association has seen a doubling of female membership in the last 10 years. The Federation of European Risk Management Associations (FERMA) has an 11-member board, four of whom are women. The leadership of the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS, publisher of this magazine) has seen a turning of the gender page as well: it has seven women on its 16-person board. In terms of membership, while RIMS does not require gender affiliation as part of the application process, 2,913 of its 7,738 members (37.6%) who did indicate a gender are women.
Why Women Rock

So what’s the big deal if women rise to the top or not? In a word, profitability. Several studies suggest that women are making a bottom-line difference. Pepperdine University studied Fortune 500 firms and found that companies that promoted women most often made  18%-69% more in profits than median companies in their industries.

Women are also game changers inside the organization. A 2009 Catalyst report shows that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in senior management roles ranked higher in organizational excellence than their competitor companies. As far as performance goes, those same companies outpaced the competition by 40% or more.

There are many reasons why women are bringing strength to business and risk management. “Women are naturally innovative, strategic thinkers,” said Julie Pemberton. “We have a natural ability to scenario plan and find creative solutions. That’s key to success in risk management.”

Pemberton, director of enterprise risk and insurance at Coinstar in Bellevue, Washington, thinks part of this success could be generational. She points to the last generation of mothers who started to enter the workforce and ascend to management roles. Though they were still rarities in a business world dominated by men, those who reached the top taught their children—by example—that leadership opportunities exist for women in corporate America. “As a result, daughters with these ambitions grew up with the confidence to pursue similar opportunities and tout their talents a bit more,” she said.

Women’s communication strengths also help, particularly in enterprise and strategic risk management, where Pemberton says it is key to “establish a solid rapport with a company’s broader leadership.”

At the core of that is the need to establish trust, respect and transparency while understanding the general temperature of the room. “There’s something to be said for a woman’s intuition,” said Pemberton. “We have a natural ability to be sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues that lead us to probe a bit deeper and ask deeper questions.”

Having begun her career in a support role, Pemberton, now an 20-year veteran in risk management,  went “kicking and screaming” into the discipline but soon became enamored by it.  Her interest led her to pursue her business degree in the evenings. “Working my way up in the ranks has definitely helped me get a broader perspective as a leader,” she said.

Like Pemberton, Deborah Luthi didn’t begin life as a risk manager, but she found her career there nonetheless. Luthi says she has seen the opportunities grow in risk management since she first started in the field. That was 30 years ago.

Since that time, Luthi herself has risen within the ranks of risk management. Now the enterprise risk manager for San Francisco Public Utility Commission, Luthi served as RIMS president in 2012 and has sat on numerous boards.

She recently read an article that sums up her thoughts about why feminine qualities are so beneficial to leadership in general and risk management specifically. The piece explained that success in business requires leaders who are comfortable being at the center rather than at the top. There, she says, “women have an advantage; I thrive in being at the center and working with a team of people.”

Perhaps this is because she started her working life as an educator, a traditionally female-dominated profession that she believes was a perfect transition into risk management. A former art teacher, Luthi is lured to the creativity of risk management and brings her teaching experience to each challenge. Teaching requires listening, wanting the group to succeed and understanding what needs to be done to help them get there. “It’s not always about having the answer,” she said. “It’s about taking the group through a process and helping them to come to the answer.”

Janice Ochenkowski is another who sees the qualities ascribed to women as critical in risk management. “Attention to detail, collaboration, strong communication skills—those are the three things that spell effective risk management,” she said. “That’s what’s leading us forward.”

Ochenkowski entered the field in 1980, as assistant to the risk manager, and says that it was a great career choice. Currently a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, she is also a past president of RIMS, and says her work within the society helped her understand how to manage people, including personality types and generations. “I was able to make mistakes, but I brought back those lessons learned to my company.”

Ochenkowski points out that in the early days of her career, there were very few women in business, let alone in risk management. Today, the gender of the risk manager is no longer a subject for comment at the beginning or end of her meetings—a telltale sign of progress. She listed a number of C-level positions filled by women in her company.

It is a transition many firms have made, and for her, it is the opportunity to perform well and compete equally with male peers that’s exciting. “I don’t want to be thought of as a strong female risk manager,” said Ochenkowski. “I think it’s important for us to be strong risk managers and for gender not to get in the way.”
Opportunity in Risk and Insurance

Pemberton, Luthi and Ochenkowski saw the opportunities for career success, and all three say there are traits inherent in women that were essential to the risk management function. Statistics back up these feelings; according to at least two studies conducted in the last four years, evidence suggests that women are more risk averse than men, which helps them make more sound financial decisions than their male counterparts.

The Rothstein Kass Women in Alternatives Hedge Index shows how this can drive profits. In the first three quarters of 2012, the 67 women-owned or managed hedge funds in the index realized an 9.0% return. That’s 6.3% more than the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index, which came in at a 2.7% return. What’s equally impressive is that, in the entire five-year period studied, the women managers also outperformed the S&P 500. That evidence is backed up by a 30-year study by Hedge Fund Research that revealed that hedge funds run by women delivered nearly double the investment performance as those run by men. Men may make more headlines in the hedge fund world, but women make more money.

Risk aversion and sound decision making aren’t the only reasons women have risen to the top. Richard Meyers believes the influx of women leaders in the insurance industry as a whole is thanks in part to the creation of the risk management and insurance degree. Meyers, president and CEO of the Warren, New Jersey, talent management firm Richard Meyers & Associates, Inc., says it’s a huge shift from the genesis of insurance, which by all appearances began as a good ol’ boys network.

My how times have changed. In an industry that is terminally conservative and cautious, gender shifts at the management level have made the insurance industry much more progressive than the entirety of the Fortune 500. That same propensity for progress seems to have filtered rather naturally into the risk management profession, perhaps by association, but more likely because of the changing nature of risk and the traits needed to conduct business.

Meyers says he is now accustomed to conducting job searches with an emphasis on diversity, including gender. This has driven change, but it also highlights a fundamental shift in the attitude of corporations. “They no longer hire for today,” said Meyers. “They’re hiring for tomorrow.” And those companies that understand where the future—of society and profits—is headed are increasingly looking for women in leadership.
Women Are Our Future

While it may not be easy to predict what tomorrow’s business will require from its leadership, a new global study shows that the traits once expected from leaders are no longer those suited for the global business structure. John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, co-authors of The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, studied 64,000 people in 13 countries and found that feminine traits are not only prevalent in business—they are highly valued.

Those traits include many adjectives that risk professionals preach: collaborative, inclusive, patient, intuitive, reasonable and consensus building. But of all the attributes most valued, one stood out: empathy.

In their research, Gerzema says he and D’Antonio uncovered a growing dissatisfaction with men in power. Their survey revealed that 57% of people globally are unhappy with the conduct of men in their countries.  “What’s interesting is there were an equal number of men and women who agreed with that statement,” he said.

Gerzema attributes it to a larger macro-shift toward global transparency since the financial crisis in 2008. Within this new structure, the age-old strategy of fostering aggression and setting up a winner/loser scenario just doesn’t fit, he says. “The trend we saw in a lot of the interviews were that people were thinking of winning as plural, that it was important for multiple outcomes to happen in business.”

When asked if “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women,” 66% of those surveyed agreed (including 63% of men and an overwhelming 79% of Japanese men). Nearly three-fourths also agreed that “women are more patient and able to plan for the future.”

Perhaps even politicians are getting the memo. Gerzema says he and D’Antonio studied two countries in crisis: Japan and Iceland. In the midst of the crises in each country, Gerzema says that the leaders adopted feminine-style traits to alleviate the crises. “In Iceland, there was an emphasis on consensus-building, collaboration and inclusivity,” he said. “They actually crowdsourced a new constitution.”

Gerzema says his study does not suggest men are irrelevant in modern business. On the contrary, men are still strong, effective leaders. But today’s most successful men, he suggests, are ones who can adopt the softer skills needed to create a more team-oriented approach. “It’s less about women and more about the ways of women that any of us can possess,” he said.

As evidenced in the example of Iceland’s leader adopting a more collaborative approach, good leaders of any gender can possess qualities that move companies (and countries) forward, Gerzema says. “They are things we can learn and we can apply.”

Ochenkowski echoes Gerzema’s sentiments. As companies become more global, she says, there needs to be a greater acceptance of cultural differences and operational differences. What distinguishes those companies that are performing well in that environment, she says, are the feminine traits such as empathy. “If those traits are fostered at the top, they will intrinsically lead to greater opportunities for anyone who displays those particular qualities,” said Ochenkowski.

That women are making such an impact on corporate success is of little surprise to those quoted here. They know that women have unique gifts to bring to business and risk management. They know first hand that, at those companies where men have learned to drop what Luthi calls the “old-school, hierarchical structure” and apply a more collaborative and empathetic approach, business growth is inevitable.
Lori Widmer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in risk management and insurance.