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Where Are the Women?

Where Are the Women?

By Bob Rietz

Why aren’t there more women in the actuarial profession? A quick look around the next large actuarial meeting would probably indicate that women comprise less than half of attendees. I suspect that is emblematic of the entire actuarial profession. Why?

This phenomenon is not new, and I thought it was a “pipeline issue” 30 or 40 years ago. But the pipeline has not corrected itself in the intervening years. There still seems to be a pipeline issue today. What is preventing women from entering the actuarial pipeline and continuing through it to become a credentialed actuary?

Other professions with similarly long career paths as the actuarial profession have successfully addressed this issue. According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, women are 40% of physicians and surgeons, 63% of pharmacists, and 71% of veterinarians.

NASA did not admit women into its astronaut training program until 1978. Its 2013 astronaut graduation class featured more women than men for the first time, and women are now 34% of all active astronauts. Similarly, half of NASA’s last class of new flight directors were women.

So how long would it take the actuarial profession to achieve gender equality? Let’s create a fictional actuarial profession using NASA’s experience, so women would currently be 1/3 of the actuarial profession. Suppose, like the NASA data, that newly credentialed actuaries are 50% women and 50% men. Further assume that the profession grows a net 2% each year, comprised of 5% newly credentialed actuaries offset by 3% who leave the profession via death, resignation, and nonpayment of dues. My actuarial “best estimate” is that the 3% who leave each year are more heavily weighted toward men, say about 80% initially, but that percentage decreases 1 percentage point each year. A spreadsheet will show, if these assumptions are accurate, that gender equality won’t occur for another 28 years. Other outcomes are easily obtained by changing assumptions, but the results still tell us that gender equality is a long way off. I hope to see it in my lifetime, but that is a lot shorter than 28 years.

I was privileged to be a member of the Actuarial Board for Counseling and Discipline for six years. We received about 25 complaints against actuaries each year, culminating in about five hearings a year. In those six years, I can remember only one complaint against a woman that eventually matured into a hearing, and she was not disciplined. Additionally, the Academy’s website lists 36 members who have been publicly disciplined since 1975—all have been men.

Insurance companies, consulting shops, and accounting firms have instituted recruiting programs over the years to increase female representation in their respective workforces. These are not “feel good” initiatives, but rather tools these employers use to increase the depth and quality of their talent pools. One Big Four accounting firm projects in about two or three years that it will elevate an equal number of men and women to partner annually.

Maybe this issue arises earlier than the actuarial exams. It’s widely reported that grade school girls excel at math but lose interest by high school. “Tales of a Sixth-Grade Actuary” appeared in the last issue of Contingencies and related a female actuary’s lifelong love of mathematics. She persevered and made it, but how many other talented young women don’t?

The American Academy of Actuaries sponsored a “Magic School Bus” book on probability for grade school children to demonstrate how mathematics can be exciting. The children are introduced to Maxine, an actuary who uses mathematics to help people and their community. The Academy’s aim is to develop an ongoing interest in these topics that the children will maintain throughout their scholastic career. Hopefully, these seeds will bear fruit later.

There are likely many excuses for the gender imbalance in the actuarial profession. Is it an awareness and attraction issue, similar to the paucity of women in various STEM fields? Are there obstacles to joining and remaining in the actuarial profession that are unique to women? Are readers aware of barriers that affect only women? Have you encountered, and overcome, one or more of these hurdles? I’m interested in your stories and will honor any requests for anonymity.


BOB RIETZ is a retired pension actuary who lives in Asheville, N.C.

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