Insurance is no longer a man's world. Helen Yates asks some of the senior women in the industry what they love and loathe about the business.

Look hard enough and you can still find your stereotypical insurance professional. In fact, visit any popular watering hole in London and pinstripes and aftershave are still overwhelmingly prevalent. Yet the industry has moved on, and so have its movers and shakers. Some of the most influential and respected individuals in the industry today are women.

Sue Langley, director of market operations and North America at Lloyd's, Barbara Merry, CEO of Hardy Underwriting Group, Karen Clark, founder of AIR Worldwide and her new venture, Karen Clark & Company, Charlotte Boij, CEO of Wasa Run-off and Barbara Schönhofer, managing director of EJS Search, share the secrets to their success.

Before you started your career in this industry what were your impressions of insurance?

BM: I ended up in the industry purely by accident; I wasn't conscious of ever thinking that insurance wasn't of interest to me because it was a male-dominated world.

BS: Looking back 30 years or so... the only senior women I came across were in support roles such as human resources and legal - and even they were pretty few and far between.

CB: That it was boring. I didn't have any family working in insurance and I just thought it was something boring that you needed to have.

SL: My impressions weren't very positive. I didn't see it as a particularly dynamic sector. When the head hunter called me and said "insurance" before I said anything he jumped in and said "Wait, wait before you say no! There are some exciting opportunities - honestly!"

Why aren't there more women in top roles in insurance? Is this changing?

“The industry is so complex and if I knew everything from the beginning it wouldn't have been as challenging

Charlotte Boji CEO of Wasa Run-Off

BM: It's probably because it's got a reputation of being male-dominated and clubby. It's also not seen as particularly sexy or glamorous. Men are very good at building networks to provide mutual support - socialising, golf, rugby, football and other male activities. Women aren't as good at formal networks although they instinctively sense the value of relationships.

KC: I think [the number of women in top roles] is increasing, but it's the same in all industries. I never felt that being a woman was a problem for me. The first time I came to Lloyd's in 1987 I was seven months pregnant and I gave a presentation to a large group of all-male underwriters. I was totally unfazed by the whole thing but sure, some of the men looked like they were wondering, "What's going on here?"

What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you started in this industry?

BM: I had a sense this was going to be an interesting job when I started out, but I didn't realise the enormity of the interest I would have. It's so challenging from an intellectual perspective and that completely seduces people. The best time of my life has been working and being part of the Lloyd's market. It has permeated my entire life.

CB: The industry is so complex and if I knew everything from the beginning it wouldn't have been as challenging.

KC: I wish I'd known the importance of getting the word out to a wider audience and the importance of more communication with clients and potential clients. It is a relationship business and communication is such an important part of it, but I don't think I recognised that.

SL: How hard it would be to change years of tradition in a marketplace where everyone wants to be involved and has a view.

Insurance and reinsurance is still very much a relationship business. In what way does that play to women's strengths, if we're generalising?

“Attitude and approach make you successful - not your gender

Sue Langley Director of market operations and North America at Lloyd's

BM: Women can bring quite a lot to the party. The key things that knit the marketplace together are relationships and human interaction. Women have a lot of key skills at their disposal for dealing with people. They're more compromising and empathetic.

BS: Women are more likely to trust their own instinct without over-analysing. Men tend to want logical explanations. A woman will walk into a room and sense all the nuances. A man does this too, but is less likely to heed what his gut is saying.

When sourcing women for a top job, often the feedback is: "she is competent, she is clever but she can be a bit tricky". Communication is complex; women think and operate differently from men because of nature and nurture. This makes us seem to be "trickier" to manage in the eyes of some. After all, we remain a relatively unknown quantity in the boardroom.

SL: There are positive and negative sides to this. Women tend to focus more on relationship-building and consensus, so that's a strength in this market. Some women have said to me that they feel as if they can't "break in" in terms of relationships if all the others are men as it seems like a club - but there's no reason you can't. It's about having a positive attitude.

What do you love most about this industry?

BM: I love running a business and having the professional part of my career so knitted in with my social world. You play hard and work hard. I can't see why more women aren't interested in the insurance world.

BS: The people and the opportunity.

CB: The variety of it - the complex problems and the fact it is truly international. Either you're a person who likes to travel or you're not. You can see problems being solved in 15 different ways in different jurisdictions around the world and it makes it all so interesting.

“It is a relationship business and communication is such an important part of it

Karen Clark Founder of AIR Worldwide and her new venture Karen Clark & Company

What do you dislike the most?

BM: The only downside is that there is little privacy - everyone knows everyone else and their business (or they think they do!)

BS: Dyed in the wool attitudes and the fear of longer-term challenges.

CB: The very slow pace of change, which is hidden behind talk of tradition. To me, it's just cowardice.

SL: The push back from those that want things to remain the same, even though this limits the competitiveness of the market.

What for you have been the main challenges in getting to where you are today, and were any of them unique to being a woman?

BS: Accepting that I am (still) the exception to the rule and that it is ok. Accepting that powerful women are single-minded warriors - just like powerful men - and that's ok too.

BM: At times being a woman has positive benefits. When I joined Lloyd's, the environment was traditional and gentlemanly. People held doors open for you! I always wondered if the senior market people didn't want to criticise you too much because they thought you might burst into tears!

“I love running a business and having the professional part of my career so knitted in with my social world

Barbara Merry CEO of Hardy Underwriting Company

CB: I never had the intention of having a CEO title. When I decided I wanted to have a leadership role it all happened very fast, but I wasn't in a hurry.

KC: My main challenge was building a company and more specifically building a unique multidisciplinary team of people, which a catastrophe modelling company needs.

SL: I've been lucky in that I've had a number of opportunities; challenges have really been around tenacity. I came from the retail industry where there were a number of women, then consultancy where there were fewer but in insurance it's not unusual for me to be the only woman in a meeting.

What are the common myths that people have about successful women in this industry or any other?

KC: That there has to be a big trade-off between career and family. I have a wonderful family - three wonderful children - and I don't feel I had to sacrifice friends or family to have a wonderful career. One advantage women have is that they tend to be very good at juggling things.

SL: There are lots! Career-driven, single-minded, male characteristics (she-men) and no children. That they have to be tougher than the men in the market to compete - an alpha male. These really are myths! Women and men have different strengths - but even this is a generalisation. I get really annoyed with these myths. Everyone is different - and that's a positive thing. Attitude and approach make you successful - not your gender.

What key factors have enabled you to get to where you are today?

BM: I just kept at it and never thought that anything was too much for me. I also liked what I was doing and was always ready to take responsibility. I just enjoy absorbing knowledge, building relationships and moving forward. Having a very supportive partner has been vital.

“Learn what works and what doesn't work through the experience of others

Barbara Schonhofer Managing director of EJS Search

CB: It's important to have an understanding family and a superior who believes in you and supports you.

SL: Opportunity and tenaciousness. I always believe there is a way to do things - you just have to keep moving forward.

What advice would you give other women starting their careers in insurance?

BM: Stick at it. Women have so many skills they can bring to the party. Keep on pushing, but in a gentle way as being too strident is counterproductive. Take it for granted that you can do whatever you are asked to do and that you are as capable as your male counterpart.

BS: Join the Women's Insurance Network to gain a good support network of like-minded people, learn what works and what doesn't work through the experience of others.

CB: Being a woman in a male-dominated industry means you don't have to shout to be heard. That can be useful if you're not afraid of the attention. But most importantly, enjoy your work!

SL: Go for it. In spite of what I believed before I joined, there are great opportunities in insurance and the industry is undergoing a lot of change. More women are coming in so don't be put off by the gender bias.

Helen Yates is editor of Global Reinsurance.

Jessica Baylis was responsible for editing the interviews.