How to become female leaders in the insurance industry

Female leaders in the insurance industry had to overcome great adversity to rise through the ranks. Find out what they are doing to break the gender barrier

How to become female leaders in the insurance industry


By Mark Rosanes

Historically a male-dominated sector, the insurance industry has since seen more women rise in the leadership ranks over the past few years. This comes as society continues to challenge traditional gender roles and increase representation in the professional environment. But female leaders still face deep-rooted gender biases and inequalities that hinder transformative changes from happening within the insurance space.

Every year, Insurance Business recognizes exceptional women leaders in the industry who have overcome career challenges to move up the ranks and become role models for female empowerment. We talked to two of this year’s recipients of Canada’s Elite Women awards. They shared their views on what it takes to be inspirational female leaders in insurance and what the industry can do to support women like them.

What does it take to become exceptional female leaders in the insurance industry?

The recipients of our Elite Women 2023 awards shone brightly in the face of adversity to foster meaningful change in the industry and set an example for aspiring female leaders. Their tenacity to break through the barriers of a still male-dominated sector serves as an inspiration for others who want to follow a similar path.

Here are some words of wisdom from two of our awardees on what it takes to become an exceptional female leader in the insurance space.

Female leaders must believe in their capabilities

Christa O’Neil, chief operating officer at McFarlan Rowlands Insurance Brokers, emphasized the value of self-efficacy in achieving transformative change in the industry. 

“Promote yourself,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of self-promotion or stepping forward into roles you’re not sure you’re ready for. Take that leap. Believe in yourself. Dare to be brave.”

Female leaders in insurance - Christa O'Neil, McFarlan Rowlands

This confidence in her capabilities has helped O’Neil rise through the ranks, starting as a commercial account manager for the company 13 years ago to the COO today. Among O’Neil’s most notable professional achievements are:

  • Spearheading McFarlan Rowlands’ creation of a hybrid work model
  • Serving as the firm’s operations director of commercial lines, leading innovative projects such as the BrokerLift platform and completing three successful brokerage acquisition integrations
  • Being a part of the firm as it won the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario’s (IBAO) Brokerage of the Year award in 2022
  • Serving as director of the Insurance Institute of Ontario’s Southwestern chapter, responsible for planning symposiums, moderating webinars, and hosting events 
  • Participating in the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario (RIBO) L1 competency profile review as a broker panel member 

O’Neil also shared that she had always wanted to “get into the business of helping people,” that’s why she pursued kinesiology in college.

“I was very interested in math, science, and physiology,” she added. “But I wasn’t sure if it was the right path, so I made the difficult decision of stepping away.”

 O’Neil said she was eventually offered a role in a local brokerage when she returned to her hometown of London, Ontario.

 “My intention was to return to university in the fall, but I ended up getting my broker’s license instead,” she bared.

O’Neil admitted that missing a university degree has been a motivator throughout her career. This has pushed her to pursue continuing education. She has already earned Canadian Accredited Insurance Broker (CAIB) and Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) designations and is currently pursuing her Advanced Chartered Insurance Professional (ACIP) designation.

Female leaders should support each other

O’Neil stressed the importance of having each other’s backs to succeed in the industry. She cited two aspects in the industry where female leaders can show mutual support.

“I’ll start with networking events where being a woman can be difficult at times,” she said. “When you walk into an oftentimes male-dominated room, you know how hard it is to break into a conversation that may be about sports or classic male stuff.

“So, when another woman walks in, it pays to walk to the person, extend a hand, and welcome her to the space. If we all can commit to doing this in every situation, then it can encourage more women to come to networking events.”

The other aspect is mentorship, which O’Neil describes as a two-way street.

“I’m mentoring three members of the operations team who are very strong females with unique strengths,” she shared. “As they learn from me, I learn from them, strengthening us both. Those internal female mentorship arrangements are important to develop female leaders and shape the next generation of female leaders.”

Female leaders must learn to set healthy boundaries

Melissa Bajwa, vice-president of compliance and broker network operations at PROLINK, knows very well how demanding being a female leader in the insurance industry can be. That’s why she has highlighted the importance of setting healthy boundaries.

“There are so many things that you want to do and that are important to you, but there’s only one you,” she explained. “You must learn to be kind and patient with yourself because a stressed and burnt out version of you cannot reach your true potential. You need to take care of yourself to be the best version of yourself in your career and other interests.”

And so far, Bajwa has shown the best version of herself en route to being named among this year’s Elite Women. Her professional accomplishments include:

  • Serving as an IBAO DEI committee member 
  • Being appointed as Insurance Institute of Canada’s career ambassador program volunteer 
  • Being nominated as chairperson of RIBO’s personal development committee
  • Organizing an International Women’s Day 2022 event, highlighting work-life balance and breaking barriers that RIBO approved for its ethics continuing education program
  • Being a recipient of IBC’s Elite Women 2022 and Women of Distinction 2022 awards

Bajwa also serves as a board member of RIBO. Her nominator said that Bajwa’s appointment “has not only given her a chance to be the voice of the modern broker, but also allowed her to inspire other young women to be courageous, put themselves out there, and be a voice of influence.”

Female leaders in insurance – Melissa Bajwa, PROLINK

The insurance industry must also do its part

The insurance industry also has a crucial role to play in helping female leaders rise through the ranks. Part of this is making sure that certain systems are in place to support them in their various roles both professionally and personally.

And according to O’Neil, implementing flexible work arrangements is a good start.

“I’m a working mother and a single mother for a time, so I know firsthand how important a flexible work environment is,” she explained. “At that time, we were working in a strictly office set-up, but my workplace allowed me to come a little later or leave early if I needed to. This allowed me to reconcile the energy that I gave to work and my family.

“Many working women still bear the burden of household duties and responsibilities. [Having a hybrid set-up] gives them an easier way to accomplish both. It is our responsibility as an organization and as female leaders to continue to pass that forward.”

Bajwa added that it’s also important to have work-life balance.

“We shouldn't be rewarding people for working around the clock,” she said. “As a manager and as leaders, we should find that unacceptable. We all have lives outside work and it’s important to find that balance.”

What challenges are female leaders in the insurance industry facing?

While the insurance industry has seen an increase in the representation of female leaders over the years, the sector remains male-dominated, with a long way to go before achieving gender equality.

Attitudes towards pay gaps, recruitment, and parity still need to change for the industry to create transformative changes in gender equality in the workforce. Here are some of the challenges that female leaders in the insurance sector face:

Unequal pay

Women with similar experience earn $4.13 less per hour than their male counterparts. The inequality is more pronounced for Indigenous women and women of color, who earn less than 76.8 cents for every dollar a man makes. This are just some of the findings of a recent study on gender-based pay equality in Canadian insurance companies conducted by a Walden University doctoral student.

Gender parity

Just slightly over a third, or 35%, of insurance professionals are women, with female broker representation at around 16%. For senior executive roles, only 29% are held by female leaders, according to the Million Women Mentors Women in Insurance Initiative.

Attitudes towards women

Women in the insurance sector tend to face discrimination and prejudice because of their gender, just like the sexist remarks Aviva CEO Amanda Blanc received in a recent shareholder meeting. The incident has left many insurance leaders, including Aviva board chair George Culmer, “flabbergasted.”

As a 2022 opinion piece on that incident declared, “there’s no excuse for sexism” in the insurance industry.

What should the insurance industry do to be more inclusive of women?

Despite these obstacles, the insurance industry can take several measures to increase female representation and be more inclusive of women. These include:

Equal pay

Insurance companies should ensure that the pay and compensation female employees receive are equal to their male counterparts. There is also a need for greater transparency when it comes to assessing the validity of insurers’ claims of gender pay improvements to accurately indicate the disparity between genders.

Breaking unconscious bias

Business leaders should take the lead in breaking unconscious bias and embracing gender equality to create a more inclusive work environment.

Invest in D&I initiatives

Creating policies focused on diversity and inclusion, including increasing representation at all levels, helps insurers establish an inclusive work culture. Initiatives that allow insurance companies to attract, develop, and retain female employees should also be implemented.

Career facilitation

Business leaders should cultivate and support female staff from the beginning of their careers to influence equal representation. This requires empowering graduates and entry-level candidates to take on more responsibility to allow them to progress as female leaders.

Who are the most exceptional female leaders in the insurance space?

This year’s Elite Women awards has a total of 55 recipients. Some of the other notable awardees are:

You can find the complete list of our Elite Women 2023 – Women Leaders in Insurance winners, along with the full methodology and judge profiles, by clicking the link.

What do you think should the insurance industry do to empower more female leaders? Who among the sector’s elite women do you look up to? We’d love to see your comments below.

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