President and CEO
An accountant by background, Karen Gavan began auditing insurance companies about 33 years ago. When she left public accounting, she worked for a number of insurance companies, both life and P&C. When she retired in 2005, she became a corporate director for a number of corporations, including Economical. She joined the Economical board in 2008, and became president and CEO in 2011.
IBC: What were some resources or words of encouragement that helped you get where you are today?
Obviously, the natural things like education and experience are really important. Firstly, my father was hugely influential on me. He really taught me that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it – to aim really high, to work hard. He said it’s better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.
IBC: Has the industry changed in its treatment of women since you started in insurance?
Absolutely it has changed. I started my career in public accounting. Back then, the majority of the leadership teams were male. Female mentors were fewer and further between. Back then insurance companies had executive dining rooms and drinking on the premises. Female role models have changed a lot. When I look back on when I started my career, many female role models seemed to think they had to fit into the culture and be “one of the guys.” Not just in the insurance industry but also generally – when women came across as confident or assertive or self-assured, they were thought of as tough or bitchy.
IBC: Do women still face any challenges in the industry?
Women in insurance still face some of the cultural dimensions. We still have an industry where there are a tremendous amount of social events with tremendously long cocktail hours. While those are great networking opportunities, women have to be careful there. Women have to be very cognizant of the fact that you can’t drink or act or talk like you’re one of the guys. You come across in a totally different way. So being comfortable in your own skin is really important.
IBC: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be business leaders?
Being a naturally analytical person, [I think] you can’t always have every decision completely analyzed – you have to learn to rely on intuition and gut. You monitor it, and you may have made the wrong decisions – but as long as you’re willing to admit it and course-correct, making decisions allows the company to move forward. Not making decisions results in lethargy in the organization.
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