Making Their Mark: 5 Women Who Shaped Insurance

Making Their Mark: 5 Women Who Shaped Insurance

“Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on.” -Serena Williams 

March is Women’s History Month. Designated by Congress in 1987 as a month to recognize the value women bring to society, it is a time to reflect on and honor the powerful contributions of women today and remember those of the women who came before.  

We have the privilege of partnering with many women within the insurance firms we work with and advocating for outstanding female professionals. It’s incredibly satisfying to see that women now comprise around 60% of the insurance workforce, significantly more than the 46.8% of positions held by women across the US workforce generally. The gains that have been made over the last 15 or so years are something to celebrate. 

Women have made a profound impact on our industry. We’d like to introduce you to five of those inspiring women: 

1 – Bina West Miller (1867-1954)

Initially a Michigan school teacher, Bina addressed a significant social injustice affecting women.  At that time, virtually no one offered life insurance policies for women due to the high birth mortality rate at the time. This had significant negative repercussions for families and children, as Ms. Miller saw firsthand when the mother of two of her students passed away. Since there was no life insurance policy covering the mother, the father could not afford to work and care for the children. As a result, they were split up and sent to different foster homes. 

After learning more about the life insurance options available to men, Bina is recorded in a booklet titled A Golden Anniversary Tribute to Bina West Miller to have said: “I believe this [life insurance for women] is the greatest thing I have ever heard of. . . . I think I shall make this my life work. Here is a real need, and I know I can fill it.” 

In 1892, Miller founded the Women’s Benefit Association, one of the first organizations in the US to offer life insurance for women, forever changing the life insurance industry and social landscape. The organization survives to this day, known as the Woman’s Life Insurance Society. 

2 – Minnie Gedding Cox (1869-1925)

During the late 1880’s, insurance companies refused to cover black Americans, citing bogus “science.” Minnie, a black woman and daughter of former slaves and small business owners, decided to address the injustice. She and her husband founded the Mississippi Beneficial Life Insurance company in 1908 in the State of Mississippi. Two years later, it became the first black-owned company in the US to offer whole life insurance benefits.

During her husband’s lifetime, she operated behind the scenes, but following his death, Ms. Cox took full control of the company in 1916. The company had been mismanaged under its previous leadership, but she turned around the operations, cleaning house and making a bid to go national. In 1917, the company took the necessary steps to offer policies outside the state of Mississippi, and, at its height in 1923, it was one of the top three largest black-owned insurance companies in the US. 

By offering insurance solutions to marginalized people on such a large scale, Minnie Cox made an indelible mark on the insurance industry as a whole and on the lives of countless black American who could access life insurance benefits for the first time. 

3 – Virginia Mae Brown (1923-1991)

A West Virginia native, Ms. Brown made history within the political and insurance worlds. She earned a law degree from West Virginia University in 1947, and promptly began shattering glass ceilings. She held multiple positions at the state level that had never before been held by a woman, including the positions of Attorney General and West Virginia Public Service Commission member. Most relevant to those in the insurance industry, according to the Clarksburg Sunday Exponent-Telegram, in 1961, “[S]he was named West Virginia’s Insurance Commissioner, making her the first woman insurance commissioner in the United States.” Ms. Brown went on to serve at the federal level as the first woman to lead an independent administrative agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission. 

While most of her career was spent in civil service, Virginia Brown shaped the insurance industry landscape by serving as the first woman state regulatory leader focused on the insurance sector. 

4 – Inga Beale (1963-Present)

While perhaps better known in Europe, Ms. Beale has been a trailblazer in the contemporary insurance industry. An LGBTQ+ executive leader, Inga served as the first female CEO of Lloyd’s of London, one of the oldest insurance companies in the world, founded in 1688. She accepted the role of CEO in 2013 and held the position for 5 years. She is credited with leading a digital revolution at the institution, establishing a culture of innovation, and expanding access to new, high growth markets. In addition, she drove massive improvements in diversity and inclusion across the global insurance industry, advocating for equality for women and LGBTQ+ people. 

In an interview with London Business School’s online publication, Think, Inga shared her advice for professionals today: “I would urge anyone working today, whatever your role, to search for the courage to speak up for what’s right. Whether that means calling out inappropriate behavior or being curious enough to really listen when people share their experiences and embracing their perspectives. Be a bull in a china shop, but be smart about it.” 

In addition to serving as the first female CEO of one of the world’s oldest and most respected insurance institutions, Ms. Beale was awarded a damehood (the female equivalent of a knighthood) in 2017 for her significant services to the UK economy during her 3 decades of global experience. 

5 – Tricia Griffith (1964-Present)

Another contemporary leader, Tricia has shaped the insurance industry as a senior executive and the first woman CEO at The Progressive Corporation, one of the largest car insurance providers in the US. Starting as a claims representative at the firm in 1988, she worked her way up through the ranks to be appointed CEO of the organization in 2016, a position she has held ever since. Through her strategic guidance she has led the company through unprecedented growth, moving the company from the fourth largest car insurance provider to the third largest in 2018.

According to the Business Roundtable, employees credit her approachable and authentic leadership style as the differentiating factor in the company’s success. An advocate for diversity and inclusion, she has developed an engaged culture, with the company ranking in the 96th percentile for diversity and inclusion out of all companies surveyed by Gallup. In addition, the Wall Street Journal ranked Progressive as the number one corporation for diversity and inclusion in 2019; the firm also received the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award in 2021 from the National Association of Corporate Directors. 

Ms. Griffith knows creating a culture and workplace where women and minorities thrive is a long game and she’s in it to win. Formerly the Head of HR at Progressive, she says, “We’ve been working on this for probably 15 to 20 years, to make sure we were seeing the women that we knew could be leaders and actually making bets on some women. . . . [As Head of HR,] I had to use that position of power to make sure we really made a difference for both women [and] people of color. . . . The discussions in our boardroom over the last several years as we’ve changed the diversity have been amazing.” 

The world has taken notice of Ms. Griffith’s significant contributions as a leader. In 2018, she became the first woman to be named Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year. Fortune also named her on its list of most powerful women in business in 2018.  

Looking Forward

As a woman-owned company serving the insurance sector, we at the Newman Group celebrate the great strides women have made in the insurance industry. We look forward to seeing – and being a part of – the sector’s ongoing journey toward professional equality & advancement for women in insurance.