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Who's Your Baby Now?

Leadership qualities adopted by female corporate leaders help their companies outperform other Fortune 500 businesses—especially in tough economic times. Shareholders are taking notice.

By  Coletta Kemper

When I began my career at brokerage Alexander and Alexander, women in top management roles were few and far between. It wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed on the underwriting floor at Lloyd’s. The black-tie broker parties in New York were legendary for, well, men doing what men do. Even women who rose to upper levels weren’t invited to play golf or given keys to the executive washroom.

It’s no secret that women have made significant inroads into that world. Today women are found in top insurance positions, carrying titles of managing director, COO, CFO and senior vice president. Women also hold half the positions in the insurance industry, including 71% of underwriter and, according to a 2009 Deloitte study, 87% of claims and administrative roles.

Of course, there’s still a ways to go. Women still fall short in the senior ranks, where fewer than 20% of corporate officers or board directors are women. The study found no female CEOs.

Those numbers could be changing as gender diversity becomes the new buzz in the executive office. Brokers and insurers are creating programs to mentor women and bring them up through the ranks. Aon launched the Women’s International Network, which now has 30 chapters in 11 countries and is led by Denise Berger, managing director of Aon Global. New York Life actively recruits and trains women for sales positions and is opening career paths to management. Julie Schaekel, executive vice present and chief auditor for ACE Group Holdings, is director of the ACE Women’s Forum, which has the support of CEO Evan Greenberg. Chubb and others also have strong programs for women in the workplace.

For the first time in history, women make up more than 50% of the U.S. workforce and hold 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs, up from 26% three decades ago. Nationally, women account for 60% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees and nearly half of all law, Ph.D. and medical degrees.

Why focus on women now? Because promoting women makes good business sense. Research suggests that companies with women at the top outperform other companies. In a pivotal 2007 study, Women Matter, McKinsey found that companies that perform best on both organizational and financial measures have women most strongly represented at board or top management levels.

McKinsey’s follow-up report, Women Matter 2, came out just before the economy went bust. In that study, McKinsey sought to understand why companies with a “critical mass” of women in leadership outperformed other companies. It found that “women leaders adopted five of the nine types of leadership behavior that positively affect corporate organizational performance more often than men.”

These key behavior types were:

1. Participative Decision Making—Building a team atmosphere in which everyone is encouraged to participate

2. Role Model—Focusing on building respect and considering the ethical consequences of decisions

3. Inspiration—Presenting a compelling vision of the future and inspiring optimism about its implementation

4. Expectations and Rewards—Defining expectations and responsibilities clearly and rewarding achievement of targets

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