During the mid-1960s, I trained as an insurance agent with a large firm. At that time, it was mainly an occupation dominated by men. When I was awarded the role, I was to be the first woman who acted as an agent in that office.
On my first day at work, I was asked to wait outside my boss’s office, while he went through a briefing for the day.
I could hear all the men talking in the next room. My boss informed them that a new agent had arrived. One of the men asked, “What’s the new fellow’s name?”
My boss told the men that the ‘new fellow’ was in fact, a woman.
First, there was silence. Then a lot of muttering. Eventually one of them said, “Not a bloody woman on the insurance team. She’ll be fluttering her eyes and expecting us to do all her work!”
Hearing this from the other room, I felt both embarrassed and annoyed.
After a few more minutes, the boss called out my name and asked me to join the meeting. As I walked into the room, all eyes were on me.
Five men were now all looking at me as I stood there. Four agents and my boss. All sitting around a large round table.
I knew in that moment, they were all summing me up. As I took a seat, I decided to stand my ground with these men.
My boss introduced me by my first name, and then, in turn, introduced the men who each nodded.
He then asked me if I would like to say something, and share a little about myself. I decided in that moment to stand up and address them.
“Gentlemen, I am a married woman with three children. I would like to be called Mrs.H. Just like you, I am here to do a job to earn money for my family. I will do my best to fulfill my position in the way I have been trained. I look forward to working with you. Thank you.”
They all looked at me in silence.
The reason I wanted to work in insurance was because I believe it is a great asset to protect a family in times of need. My parents died very young, leaving behind young children; luckily for us, my father was insured.
I decided that I would do my best to stand shoulder to shoulder with these men. Against the odds, I would make this career a success.
The man who had earlier complained about a woman ‘fluttering her eyes” was an older man named Leo. I took special note to keep a wide berth and give him no reasons to complain about me being on the team.
I was always polite to Leo, and the other salesmen. Whenever I needed information to help me in my role, I would always consult the person who had trained me. I did this because I didn’t want any favors. I didn’t want them to have reasons to say they had to do the work for me.
For the first few months, I left the men in the office alone and focused on my work. After about six months, the men began to slowly accept me as one of the group.
I would use my family’s story as a lead in with my prospects. It meant that many of them became my clients and I was able to sell insurance successfully.
In fact, I was able to reach second place for sales in the state and first place in my division. This was great as the insurance business is very competitive, especially between divisions. It was certainly a great way to show that I could manage the role as well as the men could.
For three years I continued in my role. Eventually, due to family commitments, I decided to leave.
During my last week at the company, my boss called a special meeting.
I was told that even though it was my last week, I had to attend. The meeting would be held on Friday morning at eleven o’clock in the local Workers Club. I felt it was a little pointless, but as I was still an employee, I went along.
After all the business was concluded, we were all invited by the company to have a three-course lunch and a glass of wine.
During the lunch, my boss stood up at the head of the table. He gave a toast wishing me all the best for the future. I was given a farewell gift from the company. Then to my surprise, each of the five men, in turn, stood up and thanked me. We had worked side by side for over three years together, and they each said how much they’d enjoyed working with me.
The last to speak was Leo. “I would like to raise my glass to Mrs. H. If I may, I will now call you Nancy. When I was told that a woman agent was joining our group, I was not pleased. You have been a great agent that held your own and a lovely lady at all times. During the past three years, you have changed my mind about working with women. I would like you to accept these flowers and chocolates from me.”
I smiled and told Leo that yes, he could call me Nancy.
I told them all it was a pleasure to be part of the division. I thanked them all for everything and wished them well in their future with the company.
That was over 50 years ago, and the lessons I learned still stay with me today.
When the odds are stacked against you, when you don’t fit the mold, you always have options;
- You can give in and let others dictate what you can or can’t do
- You can stand up and be counted
I believe that we can overcome any obstacle as long as we are willing to take responsibility. To do things correctly and be mindful of the feelings of others.
If you seek respect – and just not the attention – it lasts longer.
Respect can only be earned. Honesty is always appreciated, then trust is gained, and loyalty is returned.