At Farmers Insurance, women represent 52 percent of the employee base and one-third of its leadership positions. Currently, its chief administrative officer, chief information officer (Shohreh Abedi – a 2011 WIL winner) chief communications officer and chief learning officer are women, and four members of its outside Boards of Governors are women.

Two years ago, a group of Farmers women set out to establish the insurer’s Women’s Leadership Network, which focuses on creating a culture that attracts, develops and retains talented women who contribute to the achievement of its business goals.

During the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation’s (IICF) Women in Insurance Global Conference in New York, June 12-14, INN sat down with four leaders at Farmers Insurance to discuss sponsorship and mentorship. To read about this, click here. These four women also arekey contributors to the insurer's network. Here, they discuss the success of its program:


Deborah Aldredge, Chief Administrative Officer 

Doris Dunn, Director, Community Relations 

Dale Marlin, Chair, Fire Ins. Exchange Board of Governors 

Laura Rock, Head of HR Strategy & Workforce Planning


Q: Why did Farmers decide to establish the network?

Aldredge: Two years ago, I found myself meeting with a number of younger women in the organization who were expressing an interest in learning more about other women like them — other women lawyers, other women in underwriting, etc. We operate out of 30 locations across the country; it’s not always easy for people to connect, so we started putting together little luncheons and breakfasts and things like that. Then we grew and decided we should do something a little bit more formal. So we got the support of the senior leadership team and we actually launched our Women’s Network.

Now what we did was a little bit different: We tied it to a number of our talent initiatives, and one of our talent initiatives was to increase the visibility of women across the organization. A third of our leaders are women in management roles and 52 percent of our employee base is women, but what we have to do is increase their visibility, give them an opportunity to network, and give the leadership team an opportunity to get to know them better. That was the whole basis for launching the network, and I think we achieved that.


Q: How did you accomplish that? What did you need to formally launch it?

Aldredge: We needed folks to be sort of the founding members. So we worked with a leadership team to identify women through the talent initiative who would be good representatives — women who are role models, they liked to be identified with these types of things, they're actively sought out for guidance — and we didn’t just stack the deck with the C-levels.


Q: How did employees react?

Aldredge: One of the things that we didn’t anticipate is how much the senior-level women appreciated the opportunity to get to know people they would never know or meet, you know their typical day just didn’t put them in touch with those folks, so that was a plus. Women did start to find women like them, so women in underwriting, in our litigation or our legal groups started to meet other women lawyers, which was great. They came forward with some great ideas for us to incorporate — development, mentoring, sourcing, etc. — which were kind of baked in our business as usual activities. Then we grew, and one of the things that we aspired to do was be very inclusive and instead we became very exclusive, because everything was pretty Los Angeles centric. We have big locations in Michigan, Delaware and Texas, so we knew we needed to change it. We sought guidance from other organizations such as Deloitte and a number of others that were much farther along with these things, and they said you really need to go to a local chapter [format], so that's what we launched this year.


Q: Where do men play a role in this network?

Rock: We learned that you want to be inclusive. It was an assumption going in that we would make [the network] only for women and only have women involved, but we learned it’s really important when you're doing a network like this, and if you really want to be successful and really make a difference within the organization, you have to make it available to men. Now, again, the focus is on developing women and furthering women in the organization, but we partnered with the other half of the population to do that. That's something that we actually discussed back and forth; we don't want it to be secretive, so I would just make sure you're inclusive. A part of this is educating not just women but men about some of the issues that women face in the work place, and you can't do that unless they're a part of it. Of our registrants, we brought one of our leading men in the organization and he jumped right in.

Marlin: It helped having a day where the women were asked, ‘How do you spend a typical day?’ The men were so surprised at how women spend their days.

Aldredge: Exactly, early on the founding members came together and we had a kickoff meeting with the CEO who was sponsoring it. We just went around the table and asked everyone to give an overview of who they are, what they do and then just describe a typical day. All of these women have had 10 hats, ‘I'm on two boards, I'm doing this, I’m doing that.” It was just humbling, and I remember the look on the CEO’s face as he said he was so humbled by this discussion. It was just fascinating about how many hats we wear and what we accomplish in a typical day, and I think the more we share, everybody benefits. So if the women come together and identify it as a business meeting, then people are interested in knowing more, learning more about it than if you're going to do some type of an event.

Bring people together to discuss or bring in some outside expert, somebody who is two or three steps ahead of anyone else, then open it up to everyone. Those who are intellectually curious, have the same passions, same desires to move forward are going to show up, which is great.


Q: How important was getting that high-level support?

Rock: You do have to have that sponsorship, and we made sure we did as we launched the local chapters. Each of the local chapter leads has an identified executive sponsor, and the role of that sponsor is two-fold really. One, just to get to know that particular talented upcoming woman who we think is accomplished and so that's kind of a benefit to that chapter lead; and two, to be a resource and help develop that awareness and that organizational support. While our chapter leads are all women, our executive sponsors are a mix of men and women, people who can help navigate that.

Dunn: I know our network is evolving, but one of the things I like about the original four original pillars of the network — leadership, networking, mentoring and community outreach — is finding an interest that women are looking for because each woman might be looking for something different. Are they looking for networking, are they looking for leadership, are they looking for community development — what are the things that are missing from their resume? Those are important pieces.


Q: What’s your advice for women who don’t work for an insurance organization as large as Farmers or an organization that doesn’t have a formal program?

Aldredge: What I have seen work very well in smaller companies is that they find organizations within their own locations that bring women together, so you have more diversity of thought, and you can start to understand how different companies have come together. I recently joined an Advancing Women Executives (AWE) meeting for a group of women in southern California, and 80 percent of the companies represented were less than 15 employees. These women wanted to connect and work with other women, so they started this organization as a sort of grassroots thing so women could come together. They started by just having a luncheon, and now formally they come together quarterly. They had a fabulous speaker on negotiation. She was from one of the California state schools and she was speaking about how you ask for a raise, how to ask for funding for your budget, role plays, etc. I was fascinated because the group was two years old, and they now have a pretty strong network of 200 women. There are so many of these women’s groups. That’s one thing you can start with; get involved with these groups.

In part II, these four women talk about their own sponsorship and mentorship experiences

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