Women in business have come a long way since the dark days when they were assigned to the typing pools and secretarial roles of UK industry. Today female managers are more commonplace and according to a recent survey by the Institute of Management, they account for 22% of all British managers – a jump from 8% in 1990.

In the insurance, pension and actuarial group – a sector traditionally perceived to be male dominated – the survey found that an impressive 54% of all management positions are now held by women.

But the boardroom tells a different story. The new Female FTSE Index, undertaken jointly by the Industrial Society and the Fawcett Society, found that women account for only 5% of all directors of the FTSE-100 companies, with 45% of those organisations still having exclusively male boards.

Denise Kingsmill, deputy chairwoman of the UK Competition Commission commented at the launch that the lack of female representation is becoming a governance issue. “Many boards could use a healthy dose of diversity in their make-up. This would make them more dynamic and energetic,” she added.

It is perhaps something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later as research by the Canadian University of Alberta last month found that in Canada the old glass ceiling meant that a growing number of women were leaving corporate jobs for self-employment.

However, here in the UK, the insurance industry has a growing pool of female workers who are being recognised and rewarded, as these four high-flyers demonstrate.

Mary Towndrow

Underwriter of Chaucer Syndicate 587

When you meet Mary Towndrow, it's hard to imagine her as the single mum who joined the typing pool at brokers H. Clarkson in 1970 on a three-month contract.

With an air of efficiency and calm, no one could dispute that she has come far in her 30-year career, especially as in May 2000 she succeeded Ray Brick as underwriter at syndicate 587 to become one of only two female motor underwriters at Lloyd's.

“I didn't set out to work in insurance but in 1970 my husband left me and I had three children under five to support,” she says. “It was only supposed to be temporary just to earn some money but I ended up staying 18 years. It was a necessity rather than a planned career move. I wanted to just earn a living, work hard and make the most of things.”

Within eight years of starting work, Towndrow was manager of the motor department and by 1987 (the company was now known as Bain Hogg) she was director of the UK division. With young children to support during this time Towndrow has always tried to put her family first .

“It was very hard at first, juggling a family and a job, and I found myself hovering at 2am in the morning with no rest at weekends,” she says. “It was different then as you had to pretend you didn't have a family and you felt vulnerable.

“I was fortunate though as I didn't want to leave my children with a child-minder so my aunt gave up her job and looked after them. She is now 93 and lives in an annex in our house and we all now look after her. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be where I am today.”

It was also for personal rather than professional reasons, that she decided to move from Bain Hogg to the Chaucer Syndicate in 1987.

“With Bain Hogg I was based in Caterham in Surrey and I had to drive from Kent everyday. Family commitments where pulling me in all sorts of different ways. Ibex, as the Chaucer Syndicate was then known, was based in Canterbury and I knew the people there well so I moved. Twelve years ago the syndicate was quite small but it was looking to expand and needed a new underwriter. They offered me the job and I went in to help Ray Brick.

“I had always thought that underwriting would be a drag. Going to the other side was very strange because as a broker you are looking for all the business that you can, whereas as an underwriter you select business and you have to learn to say no.

“My background helped me get on with brokers and understand and weigh up both sides of the story. By 1997 I was deputy underwriting manager and the stamp capacity was £64m.”

In her new capacity as underwriter, Towndrow has many plans for the future of the syndicate. “At the moment we are reviewing every aspect of what we do and have a good team,” she says. “We are ready to hit 2001 running. We will continue in the private motor and fleet infrastructure and our aim is to be one of the strongest motor syndicates going forward.”

Towndrow doesn't believe that being a woman has hindered her career. If anything she believes women are suited to insurance as it is a multi-skilled job and you have to be adaptable.

She adds: “When I first went into the Lloyd's underwriting room in the 1970s there were very few women. Things gradually changed and we are now an accepted part of Lloyd's. Even today though, there are not many female motor underwriters.

“There is a glass ceiling for women at the moment but I think that one more generation will see it broken.

“It is all down to hard work and sticking to it. I don't think I was given any big breaks I just had the confidence to go forward and as I moved further up I was helped by the confidence that people had in me. It is common sense and application – there really is no mystery to it all.”

Lorraine Wright,

Managing director of Claims Plus

Imagine working 60 to 70 hours a week and still finding time to go the gym three times a week. Most people work the prerequisite 35 hours and can't find the motivation to go once, but Lorraine Wright, managing director of Claims Plus, insists it gives her the energy she needs to do her job.

Once a self-confessed workaholic she now makes every effort to at least keeping the weekends free for herself.

“I am a hands-on business person,” she says. “A lot of managers are detached from the actual mechanisms of their business, but I like to get in there. Just the other week I was helping sort out the post. I don't see any job as beneath me.”

Starting off in a small brokerage in her home town of Dromara in Ireland she feels she owes part of her success to two knights, two Mr Knights in actual fact.

“I got into insurance when I was 16. My milkman was the local insurance broker and he gave me a Saturday job. From there I moved to Belfast and worked in the Guardian Royal Exchange. This is where I came across my first knight in shining armour, Copeland Knight, who was head of the claims department and he moved me around the company.

“At 16 I was very keen and wanted to learn all about the business. During this time the insurance industry was going through its first phase of computerisation and there was very little concept of service. We had manual files which worked by a card index system and you had to hunt files down. When you couldn't find a file you would promise to call people back. Sometimes of course the call wouldn't be made.”

Her first break came when she was 17 and she was working on household claims. “I found that there were lots of claims going through for deep-fat fryers and I remember thinking: wouldn't it be easier if we set up an account with Argos? I suggested it to Copeland. I was thinking about saving the company money and he recognised this and gave me a chance.

“I moved to England when I was 19 because unemployment was so high in Northern Ireland and I worked at Europcar in Watford. I started as a supervisor and was then promoted to insurance manager quite quickly. Then in 1992, when I was 25, I was asked to set up a fleet accident management company for PHH by my second knight in shining armour – David Knight.

“David gave me an opportunity and I didn't want to let him down and wanted to prove to him that he had made the right decision.”

Her task at PHH was to build up a fleet management business on the American model but she didn't want that. Instead, she was determined to build a new model with a “crème de la crème” product.

By 1996, in the second full trading year, the division had generated more than £2m. And by May 1998 she had become a board director. “This was recognition of what I had achieved,” she says. “When I joined PHH, the senior management was mostly blokes aged 40 or more, and you can't help but think they must know more than you. But you have to have self belief and realise that you probably know as much as they do.

“I kept thinking that there was a secret there and I needed to get this recipe myself but it began to come naturally to me.”

Being a woman in business is sometimes difficult she believes, because a lot of the time her male counterparts will have a wife at home who will be able to keep things ticking over.

“I had to hire a cleaner – to be a woman in business you do need a sort of wife-substitute.”

Helen Merfield

Manager of AIG Medical & Rehabilitation

When Helen Merfield first trained as a nurse she had no idea that she would end up working for one of biggest insurance groups in the world and heading its pioneering rehabilitation company in the UK.

Rehabilitation has become something of a watch-word of late as more insurers are waking up to its benefits. It is only in the last couple of years that the UK has taken notice of developments in the US and started to apply them to the handling of personal injury claims.

Merfield, in her position of manager of AIG Medical and Rehabilitation, has become a champion of the service and can often be found as a guest speaker at a number of conferences and seminars.

After her general nurse training Merfield worked in the army for five years, mostly in the head and spinal wards, where she says she was fortunate enough to spend time at RAF Headley Court – an innovative rehabilitation unit.

After the army she took a year out to do a course in complementary medicine and then set up a training programme for “in the community” nurses.

“I was looking for a new career challenge,” she says. “And one day I was in a job centre with my friend when I saw this job advertised for a registered nurse for AIG.

In 1996 it had set up a specialist employers liability claims unit that began to employ early intervention techniques and a rehabilitation programme with the consent of the employer.

“I joined the risk management claims unit on a consultancy basis,” she says.

“It originally had two outside providers on a trial basis but they had no one medically qualified in-house to set up proper systems. I was employed as a medical adjuster to audit the companies and thought that AIG would have a higher service and better price if they did it in-house.

“Ivan Greenburg, who used to be president and COO of AIG, came to visit us one day and suggested that the unit needed a nurse; in April 1998 AIG Medical and Rehabilitation was set up and I was offered the position of manager. It was to be a specialist company employing registered nurses whose sole function was to work with the employer on notice of an injury to ensure the earliest possible return to work for the injured person.”

When she first started she says she had a vision of what needed to be done and saw the job as a big challenge. “I didn't want to be the same company as the insurance company. We have a duty of care to the injured person, not to any company. We started with two nurses and an administration person. Now there are more than 28 people in the company and we are still recruiting.”

Helen recently won a Young Achiever of the Year Award for her efforts in successfully implementing a new approach to work-related sickness and injury claims that has benefited more than 1,000 victims of workplace injury.

She has also relentlessly campaigned against the way the system often sees people who exaggerate their symptoms as malingerers. She adds: “The exaggeration is usually due to delayed care, so a big part of my job has been to re-educate loss adjusters and insurers about the benefits of interim payments once they have agreed liability. Before this, the patients could wait six or seven years before they got a lump sum. Insurance companies like to hang on to their money. But from a medical perspective you can't get well if you are worrying about your mortgage. They get rehabilitated quicker and they're back at work quicker too. So the loss of earnings is less.”

Amanda Fisher

Director of Axa Insurance

For Amanda Fisher, regional director of Axa Insurance, the best advice she has ever received is: if you say you are going to do something, make sure you do it.

Sensible talk for someone who is re-sponsible for liaising with hundreds of brokers on behalf of one of the biggest insurers in the UK, especially when that insurer has just come through one of the biggest mergers of recent years.

Fisher, a typical example of working your way up the career ladder, is also responsible for the business development and profitable performance of eight commercial branches, located between Scotland to the Midlands, with a revenue of £390m.

Her original career plan did not include insurance, but after graduating from Liverpool University in 1989 with a BA (Hons) in modern history she joined Commercial Union. Nine years later she was a regional manager.

“I had originally wanted to be a lawyer but when I left university I saw a job advertised for Commercial Union and I applied because I knew they had a good training policy.

“The regional manager job was the biggest changing point in my career. When I applied for the job I thought I'd have no chance of getting it.”

Her career took a change of direction in 1998 just after Commercial Union had announced its merger with General Accident.

“Things started to change at the company and I didn't want to be part of it any more so I left to do an MBA at Leeds University. I then moved to Ernst & Young and was a senior consultant on the Zurich and Eagle Star integration which was really exciting.

“I found the job stimulating, but I began to miss the customer side of things. As a consultant you get to walk away from things and I actually missed that part of the job where you see the consequences of your actions and the influence it has on the team.”

In 1999 she joined Axa Insurance and was once again working on an exciting integration project – and this time she could see the results of her actions and decisions every day.

“When the new company was launched in September I got my sleeves rolled up,” she says. “The UK regions for Axa are split into London, the south and the north and my job was to look after the north. In this region there are eight branch offices and my first job was to get the branches sorted out.

“In most there was a 70% ex-Guardian to 30% Axa staff split, so there were huge integration issues. But saying that, the percentage was actually a good one, considering how much bigger Guardian was in the UK than Axa.”

The task ahead of her is still a big one but she insists she never worries about the next career move – just keeps focusing on the job at hand.

She adds: “My advice to people starting off in the industry is to work hard but also enjoy your job. You also need to be credible and always make sure that you do what you have promised. This is the only way to build up relationships and trust.”