Actuaries – How can we #BreakTheBias?

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Julia Lessing highlights the need for leaders, managers, and colleagues to take action to #BreakTheBias and reflects on the progress that the actuarial profession has made to address gender inequality. 

The UN Women theme for International Women’s Day 2022 (IWD2022) is ‘Changing Climates: Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’[1] and the global theme of IWD2022 is ‘Break the Bias’[2].

The themes recognise that, whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead and that action is needed to level the playing field.

Both themes also beg the question “do we have inequality or bias in our profession?”

Equality and bias affects people based on many characteristics such as gender, sexuality, race and socioeconomic status. While acknowledging the breadth of this issue and having written about diversity more broadly previously[3], I am going to attempt to answer this question focussing on women in our profession.

Surely, we have moved past this?

When I started my actuarial career with three small children, after being hired by some inclusively minded senior male actuaries, I genuinely believed that gender issues were a thing of the past.

However, it wasn’t long before I realised that gender bias still existed. More than just a pay gap[4], female actuaries today experience workplace issues ranging from unconscious bias to outright sexual harassment.

In two decades, I’ve had some incredible male mentors and managers who have opened doors and been sponsors for my career. But I have also experienced, and continue to hear about female actuaries experiencing, direct and indirect gender bias at work.

Female actuaries are in the minority (and that’s unlikely to change)

Our profession is, and will likely continue to be, male-dominated.

Despite efforts to increase the number of girls studying STEM subjects, approximately one third of students taking advanced maths subjects in Year 12 are female.[5]

Statistics from Australian Universities[6],[7] show a similar pattern across enrolments in undergraduate Actuarial Studies programs, with females making up between one quarter and one third of all students.

Actuaries Institute membership statistics[8] show 34% of current members are female, compared with 23% in 2001. It also shows 28% of current Fellows are female[9], compared with 16% in 2001.

Recent Australian statistics[10] show that most Australian mothers are in paid work, but many take time off and work part time when their children are young. So, at best, we may see one senior female actuary for every two senior male actuaries in our profession. However, anecdotally, it appears that this is not yet the case.

Does it really matter if the profession is male-dominated?

The optimist in me would like to think that working in a male-dominated profession doesn’t matter. But the research shows otherwise.

Numerous studies have shown how diverse teams can deliver better outcomes.

Management teams with more gender diversity deliver higher innovation revenue.[11] Compared with individuals, all-male teams make better business decisions 58% of the time, but with age, gender and geographic diversity make better decisions 87% of the time.[12]

The benefits of diversity can only be realised when there is genuine inclusion. Unconscious bias can lead to unconscious exclusion, so we need more than just striving for balanced numbers. Australian workers agree that diversity and inclusiveness are important at work.

In a Diversity Council of Australia report, 75% of Australians said they support or strongly support their organisations in taking action to create an inclusive and diverse workplace[13]. In addition, 80% of Australians admitted that inclusive and diverse workplace culture is a key consideration when applying for a new job.[14]

However, research shows that in male-dominated jobs, gender bias continues to exist and influences workplace decisions. One study[15] showed that when making hiring decisions, men were preferred for male-dominated jobs and male decision-makers exhibited greater gender bias compared with female decision-makers.

One senior female actuary I’ve known for some time has seen this. She told me “I have no doubt that my previous CEO is a genuine supporter of diversity at the intellectual level, but he seems to revert to ‘people like me’ when under pressure so the gene pool gets smaller not bigger”.

Another senior actuary described the support she’s received from other women: “My own experience is that on average, women have been much more supportive of my career than men.” This also suggests that there is gender bias in the profession.

If our profession continues to be male-dominated, and the statistics suggest this imbalance may persist, we need to take action to ensure that we are creating environments where women can progress to senior positions, which can protect and maximise the available diversity and check the inherent bias commonly found in male-dominated teams.

But, haven’t things improved?

Yes. Female actuaries who have worked in the profession for several decades often reflect positively on their career experiences. One actuary observed how things have improved for women during her career: “There has been some serious ground made up over the years. The fact that we have many fantastic female role models is testament to that. I do think that the current generation of leaders has many people that truly embrace diversity. When I started my career over 30 years ago, there probably weren’t all that many leaders like that, so that’s progress!”.

Is there still bias?

Yes. How can there not be due to the lack of gender balance in the profession? While sometimes deliberate, gender bias may be unintentional. Certain actions may feel justified based on our own world views and life experience (e.g. “she wouldn’t want to be on that project because she needs to leave at 5pm for the day-care pickup”). Bias is something that all humans display, regardless of gender or background.

Recent discussions with colleagues suggest that female actuaries are still experiencing gendered bias in the workplace. The issues facing female actuaries in today’s workplace range from well-meaning actions and assumptions that negatively impact their careers, unconscious bias, poor handling of women’s health issues in the workplace, through to outright sexual harassment.

One difference between men and women is the different health challenges we might face. One actuary experienced “brain fog” as a symptom of perimenopause, which affected her ability to concentrate and work effectively. Instead of being offered flexibility or extended sick leave, (no doubt well-meaning) management suggested she reduce her full-time working hours to a casual arrangement, and subsequently cut her work allocation significantly. Managing perimenopause on a suddenly reduced income felt unfair and left her wondering whether things would have been different if she was a man experiencing men’s health issues. “Don’t they have wives and mothers?” she told me.

The recent Jenkins Independent Review[16] highlights gender inequality as a key driver of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces.

Disturbingly, female actuaries are still experiencing unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace. For example, female actuaries have recounted recent situations where senior male actuaries have approached them in a work setting with inappropriate sexual comments, causing stress, anxiety and psychosocial risk, only to be told by others they should learn to take a compliment.

Not only is behaviour of this nature clearly and grossly unacceptable on any level, but it can also amount to criminal behaviour. This behaviour may constitute a breach of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Commonwealth) (the Act) and of the corresponding state legislation. Section 4 of the Act defines “health” including physical and psychological health. Organisations, their boards, directors and senior executives all have clear statutory obligations to proactively take reasonably practicable measures for ensuring the health and safety of their workers.

How can we #BreakTheBias?

If we are unlikely to reach gender balance in the profession and recognise that this imbalance has consequences, what can we do to address this?

As leaders

We need to model and set the standards for acceptable behaviour at work and call out and address poor behaviour when we see it. We also need to regularly revisit and update diversity and inclusion position as part of business planning, risk management and workplace safety agendas. I’ve written previously about practical strategies for leaders.[17]

As managers

We need to recognise the differences in workplace support needed by women. We should not aim for the same support at work, but we need to create an environment where everyone is supported to achieve the same career outcomes (e.g., inclusive sick, parental and carer support for all genders).

As colleagues

We must continually check our assumptions. Are we making assumptions based on someone’s gender and getting it wrong? We also need to call out inappropriate and offending behaviour, bring this behaviour to the attention of our employer, or contacting the appropriate health and safety regulator when we see or experience harassment and bullying in the workplace.

Conclusion

On this International Women’s Day 2022, let’s recognise the incredible progress that we have made to address gender equality since our mothers and grandmothers were young women. But in the actuarial profession, there is still gender imbalance, resulting in gender inequality and bias. We all have a role to play to #BreakTheBias and stand together as actuaries to uphold equality in the profession.

References

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