• Laura Hay, Leadership |

None of us like to make snap decisions, especially if it could impact our professional future. But that can happen when a woman faces unequal treatment and she must decide whether to ‘speak up’ or ‘turn the other way,’ and hope justice will eventually prevail.

Having been in this situation at times myself, it was terrific to chat with Marita Zuraitis about this issue. Marita, the President and CEO of Horace Mann, a major insurer to US educators, explained how she chose to react when she was mistaken for the ‘coat check lady’ (More on that later). During this talk, Marita described how she handled the issue, in a way that can drive change rather than make a scene.

Worked her way up into a career she loved:

It amazes me how many successful women entered insurance by accident, and Marita is no exception. She recounted how, as one of seven kids, her parents simply expected her to, “Work hard starting at age 16, go to college, but choose whatever career you want.”

With this prompting - and an older brother employed at a large personal and causality insurer branch - Marita got her first job in the mailroom before and after her university classes. After gaining four years’ part-time experience at the insurer, she accepted an underwriter role, at a slightly better pay than other companies offered the young graduate.

Marita didn’t feel that her gender stunted her advancement, since this company never hesitated to promote her, and she became the ‘first female manager’, ‘first female director,’ and so on. “They never said ‘You can’t do that,’ even when I was seven-months pregnant and I needed to ride the company helicopter to an important industry meeting,” chuckles Marita.

Why do they keep handing me their coats?

Based on her positive experiences at her employer, Marita didn’t initially see the need to join women’s professional groups or, say, celebrate International Women’s Day or Women’s History Month, as she does today.

“I didn’t want to attend a women’s forum. I wanted to be on the CEO panel with the men, and I didn’t appreciate how groups of women could help me,” recalls Marita. “That changed, however, over the course of my career, when I realized that the world wasn’t as open as it should be. Things weren’t changing fast enough, so women must advocate for each other. And, I’ll do what I can to help others cut through it a bit faster.”

In particular, Marita began to notice the ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘microaggressions’ that make women feel different: “In my case, it was all about the coats. I can’t count the number of times someone handed me their coat and asked me to hang it up!”

Marita lists many occasions when she was mistaken for the ‘coat check lady,’ when she was actually the keynote speaker or attending a meeting. It happened when she led an important reinsurance pitch to a room of regal London executives (And she was reminded to wear a skirt, not pants). It occurred again when she went to an exclusive Maryland men’s club to lead their insurance claim. And, it even happened just six months ago when she attended a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion meeting for top American business leaders.

What to do in an awkward moment?

If Marita’s coat check incidents leave you speechless, imagine how she felt having to make a split-second decision on how to react!

What did she do? Marita explained that, “The London meeting was the first time this happened to me, and I said to myself, ‘Okay, should I make this my issue?’ Instead, I took their coats. When my boss explained to the men that, ‘Marita is running the pitch today,’ they all realized their mistake. At the end of the meeting, I got everything I wanted, including a better price on the deal, because they were so embarrassed.”

Marita has repeated this graceful approach each time since. She says, “I didn’t make it my issue. It’s their issue. Don’t let the moment cheapen you, but find a way to make their unconscious bias conscious. By hanging up their coats - and letting them realize their own mistake - I made those people think about what they had done, and I made more of an impact that way.”

Take leadership for change

While Marita urges women to craft their own solutions to uncomfortable moments, she also sees the need for all senior leaders to make ‘big picture’ change. (In fact, she praises her boss at the London meeting for being an ally and correcting the group’s error): “If every leader deals with the issue openly in their organization, this is going to change. Sweeping it under the rug won’t solve things and it won’t help the organization either.”

For her part, Marita is driving that change. Ten years ago, when she relocated from the Boston area to the Midwest, US, she says that, “I walked into an 68-year old central Illinois company with one way of doing everything. I realized that we have really good people, who all want to do a good job and be good to others, so how do we help them do that?”
Her answer, which harks back to the values her parents gave their seven children: “I decided to create an organization where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, whether they want to be the best underwriter or the greatest maintenance person. Everyone who has goals and wants to work hard can have a place here. That’s what we’ve done, and today Horace Mann has an extremely diverse team who builds great solutions that don’t exist out there.”

While Marita acknowledges that change isn’t easy - especially for an individual facing barriers - she believes we each have the power to overcome: “There will be people around who create obstacles, but just don’t let them. That means making a choice if you’ve done everything you can to change a situation and the ‘doors are still locked to you’. So, create a new situation and find new doors to open.”

Thinking back to her own, ‘take their coat or not’ decision, Marita reminded me that, “Whether it’s taking their coat or taking a different job, don’t let anyone put limits on you. Make it about what you can do. You own that, and no one can take that away from you.”

More about Marita Zuraitis: Marita is Director, President and Chief Executive Officer of Horace Mann Educators Corporation, the Springfield, Illinois-based provider of individual and group insurance to America’s educators. She joined Horace Mann as President and Chief Executive officer–elect in May 2013 and assumed her present role in September of that year. Prior to joining Horace Mann, she was President of the property and casualty insurance companies of The Hanover Insurance Group with responsibilities for both personal and commercial lines. Prior to joining The Hanover in 2004, she served in senior management positions at The St. Paul/ Travelers Companies, USF&G and Aetna Life and Casualty. Marita holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fairfield University and has completed the Advanced Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Institute for Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters (The Institutes).

*The views and opinions [of external contributors] expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG International Limited or any KPMG member firm.

KPMG’s participation and contribution in this regard is not an endorsement, sponsorship or implied backing of any company’s products or services.

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