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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Wanna be in my gang?

One doesn’t bump into a great number of historians at cocktail parties. Two possible conclusions can be drawn from this observation: u upon graduating, history students venture below the Earth’s crust to join the massing ranks of the subterranean historian army which will one day rise up and enslave us all; u history students go off and get a real job.Leafing through a careers guide the other day I found that the top-ten degree subjects taken by actuarial students before entering the profession are as follows:1 mathematics 2 actuarial science 3 mathematics and other 4 actuarial science and other 5 economics 6 statistics 7 physics 8 physics and other 9 economics and other 10 statistics and otherDoes anyone else notice a pattern developing here? Why do we come from such a narrow range of backgrounds? I appreciate that our chosen profession is principally concerned with numbers and requires a certain familiarity with mathematics. But I don’t buy into this idea that we are the ‘high priests’ of mathematics. For the record I hold a first-class master’s degree in physics. Upon leaving university I was able to construct a helium molecule from pure mathematics and do very clever things with quantum mechanics.I was, however, unable to calculate the present value of a five-year annuity certain payable in advance.Although we cloak ourselves in our mathematical prowess, our work boils down to some basic addition and multiplication with a handful of simple formulae. I haven’t done an integration in anger in years.Returning to my original point, all the historians, classicists, and English students that I went to university with who are not currently sitting under bridges drinking Tennant’s Super are working in investment banking or some form of finance. If we can trust the markets to them, armed with only their A-level maths, then why can’t we let them into our exclusive little club?If we accept that there is nothing I can do that an intelligent history student can’t, then the reverse is certainly not true. A historian can consider a problem from a variety of viewpoints, find several different solutions, and highlight the merits and downsides of each. As a good little physicist I was brought up to believe in black and white.Why stop at historians? Let’s get some English graduates and musicians into the mix. And how mind-boggling useful would it be to have a language-student colleague on tap who was fluent in French and Spanish? Being more inclusive could also have an indirect beneficial effect by increasing the proportion of women in the profession. I’m not suggesting that women suffer the same barriers to entry that exist in banking, or that our profession is particularly macho in outlook (actually I can’t imagine being in a less macho career, aside from becoming a John Inman impersonator). But the fact remains that women make up rather less than half of our numbers and I think that a large reason is that fewer women choose to study maths and physical sciences at university.Making horrendous generalisations, I would argue that in this day and age women have more to contribute to the profession than men. In times gone by a ‘successful’ actuary was authoritative, confident in his own cleverness, and knew the right answer. Typical male qualities. But now all the right answers have been used up we need a different approach.The look of shock, confusion, and hurt on a finance director’s face when told that the surplus in his pension fund has turned into a massive deficit is eerily similar to the reaction of those who have been dumped by their long-term partner. When a girl breaks up with her chap her girlfriends gather round her in support. They analyse what went wrong, identify the warning signs to look out for in future, and devise a strategy to bounce back better than ever. Ice cream is then eaten. Whereas men give their dumped mate a slap in the face, tell him to get over it, and take him to a lap-dancing bar. Many of you may disagree (if so, please drop me a line and shout at me!) but I think there is less of a place now for mathematically trained males in this business, and a great many of us lack the skills to survive and adapt to the huge changes on the horizon. I appreciate that I am now arguing for my own dismissal! Our small profession can only survive if it attracts excellence from all areas and that includes becoming more accessible to women and people who can bring exciting new skills and viewpoints to the table.While it is beyond me to come up with workable ways to become more inclusive, I look forward to a physicist, a historian, and a musician sitting down at a table in the not-too-distant future and thrashing out a cracking PowerPoint presentation. Which then gets translated into French.