When Joann Eisenhart worked as a professional chemist in her late 20s, a male colleague introduced her to a group of clients by saying, “Not only is she a scientist, but she’s pretty, too.”
After the meeting, she mustered the courage to talk to the colleague about how his introduction emphasized her being a woman in a way that wasn’t relevant to her role as a scientist.
Eisenhart changed careers years ago and is now a senior vice president of human resources at Northwestern Mutual. In her career, she has earned two doctoral degrees: one in inorganic chemistry and one in human and organizational development. She was one of three people on a panel who spoke about empowering women in business Thursday afternoon at the Hartford Club to about 200 of Northwestern Mutual’s invited guests who were customers and people who sell Northwestern Mutual products in the area.
The event, “Inspiring Leaders: The Power of You,” also featured ForbesWoman Publisher Moira Forbes and Ingrid Vanderveldt, tech entrepreneur and host of CNBC’s “American Made.” Hartford was the second of three cities where Northwestern Mutual is holding the discussion. The other cities are Raleigh, N.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio.
The talk started with anecdotes about women lacking the confidence to ask for what they want in their professional lives, and also the barriers that keep women from building confidence. For example, when women are assertive, they are seen as pushy, bossy or another ‘b’ word, while men are commended for the same behavior.
“There are bosses who are bossy, and there’s bosses who are leaders, and those are two very different things,” said Forbes, a fourth-generation publisher in the magazine business.
“Being called bossy implies that you’re aggressive, that you take action without listening to others. And I think, as leaders, you have to gain the respect of others around you. You can’t necessarily be dictatorial in your approach,” Forbes said. “You want to be respected.
“I think, as women, too often we strive to be liked, and that’s not always the most effective route to go. Be respected,” she said. “Don’t always go for being liked.”
The message of empowering women is part of Northwestern Mutual’s strategy to reach an audience of women who are increasingly in charge of financial decisions at home, meaning they are a growing segment of the customer base for all financial service companies, including Northwestern Mutual.
The moderator, Northwestern Mutual’s chief compliance officer, Sarah Schott, said women make up the majority of college graduates, are the primary breadwinners in 42 percent of American households, and “are increasingly becoming more and more responsible for financial decisions in our families.”
Women are also a major part of the insurance workforce in Connecticut. Most of the employees at major health insurance companies are women: 76 percent at Aetna, 72 percent at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Connecticut, and 72 percent at Cigna Corp.
Those same health insurers have many women in supervisory roles, too. For example, women hold 63 percent of management positions at Aetna. Anthem said 56 percent of its leadership is women, including Anthem President and General Manager Jill Rubin Hummel. Cigna’s general counsel, chief accounting officer and head of marketing are all women.
Elsewhere in Connecticut’s insurance and financial-service industries, women are in management and executive positions. Prudential Retirement is headed by President Christine Marcks and four other women on the leadership team, meaning half of its top managers are women, and 60 percent of its workforce is women.
Nevertheless, board rooms and executive positions at insurance and financial service companies are filled mostly by men, most conspicuously at top positions such as CEO and chief financial officer. There are some exceptions, such as The Hartford’s chief financial officer, Beth Bombara.
“I think there’s a number of industries that have traditionally been more masculine, and I think this industry has probably been more so,” Eisenhart said of insurance and financial services.
The reasons why are more complex. It may have to do with lack of mentoring, fewer women getting into finance, and many more socio-cultural issues, Eisenhart said. It starts early with a more narrow social construct for girls than boys, she said.
“You listen to those messages about what you can and can’t do, and I think boys aren’t told those as much,” Eisenhart said.
“I think we do that to ourselves,” Eisenhart said of women. “I think that’s because we have the belief that the right role for a woman or a girl is this, and the right role for a boy is that.”
The point of conversations like the one Thursday, is to broaden those roles, she said.