If you’re of a certain age, you can hopefully remember the classic TV series, Mary Tyler Moore. It’s quaint to think of now, but back in 1970, it was really something to have a show centered around a woman who chose to be single and who wanted a career. In the very first episode, Mary gets a job interview with her future boss, Lou Grant—a stolid, rough-around-the-edges news producer in his forties—who asks her questions that today would land you in front of a labour board. She finally stands up for herself, which prompts Grant to square off in front of her with a broad grin and say, “You know what? You’ve got spunk!” Mary chuckles in that endearing, adorable Mary Tyler Moore way and offers a faint, “Well…” But then Grant suddenly growls, “I HATE spunk!”
It’s one of the most hilarious, famous moments in TV, and boy, did it peg things for women in insurance for quite a while. For decades, women couldn’t be ignored, so they were tolerated—just barely. At last, some male finally realized they could be clients, though in the November 1954 issue of Canadian Insurance, reprinting a piece from Marketing, they talked about women as if encountering a new species. Based on feedback over a radio show, a firm called Schwerin Research concluded:
“(1) Women like to be told how to make themselves more attractive.
(2) Women don’t like tips on how to do routine work.
(3) Women like to be told how to do unusual things…”
It would be interesting to know what the price tag was for such deep investigation.
Eventually, women would be colleagues. But there were always those who just hate spunk. “Why spend time and money educating young women in insurance when so many of them will be exchanging the typewriter for a dishpan after a year or so? There seems to be no very good answer to this objection. Every good Canadian is automatically in favour of marriage and babies, and girls will be girls.” Take a guess as to when this was written in Canadian Insurance: January 1960—far, far too late to be forgivable. And in the 1970s, readers were treated to photos of female insurance staff that chirped in cringe-worthy captions, “Here’s Nancy” or “Meet Alice.”
Flash forward to 2011 when Top Broker had five female presidents of insurance companies on its cover with the headlines: “Women in Insurance: Learn how these leaders made it to the top of the industry.” In a telling sidebar, then RSA senior vice-president Irene Bianchi told how she figured out how to work with an older, more experienced male staff member who kept ducking meetings and was reluctant to work with her. She took his usual breakfast from Tim Horton’s over to his office one day and told him, “This is my favourite breakfast, too. I thought we could enjoy it together.” There it is again, spunk—no, not spunk. As our publisher says, “spunk” is the kind of word you use for plucky little kids, for Pippi Longstocking beating the odds. What we’re talking about, as our publisher has put it, is balls, and funny how that quality is still a male word thing.
What would the old duffers—whether in walrus mustaches and watch fobs or in Herb Tarlick-loud plaid suits—have made of the fact that today in our offices, we have a woman publisher (and had others before her), we have a woman national sales manager, and we’ve already had several female managing editors? Half of this issue has been written by women, and our new associate editor is a woman. There’s no irony in a man writing about this; if anything, in a world where half the human race is still paid substantially less than men, we still need more men celebrating women’s business achievements. And that was also the point of the theme song for Mary Tyler Moore, because if you remember the tune, it ends with, “You’re going to make it after all.”
Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the February 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine