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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Calculating women 2

‘Studying during the war was difficult because of duties expected of civilians like fire-watching and first aid. Most men were off at the war and work was heavy for those left behind.’
So remembers Kathleen Gow, now Kathleen Myers, who joined the Yorkshire Insurance Company
aged 17 in 1941. She was officially an ‘actuarial
student’ although, ‘the salary was abysmal, not easy when one was living in lodgings’.

Kathleen Myers
How had she come into the actuarial profession? ‘I was good at maths at school but the funds weren’t available for me to go to university. My father knew someone in a good job at the Yorkshire Insurance Company and he asked him about the possibility of me training as an accountant. The contact recommended actuarial work as it was more mathematical. Plus it seemed proud of itself as a profession.’
The profession’s organisation came in for some criticisms as time went on: ‘I and the other actuarial student with whom I was working felt that the Institute was not very helpful to provincial students one particular series of seminars they would not publish for our benefit. Any meetings and discussions were of course always held in London.’
Looking back, she did feel there were some factors not least the domestic which made studying that little bit easier for men. ‘Men had more time to study because they didn’t have to go home and wash their tights in the evenings!’ she laughs. Her male colleague at the company still lived at home and had all his domestic chores taken care of by his mother.
Yet Kathleen passed her preliminary exam the year after she began working and continued to study towards parts II and III. ‘Exams were in May then and afterwards you felt free for the summer and could play tennis. Then you began the next slog for the next set of exams.’
With men being called up and away from office life, women were being given more responsibility. But when the men returned they were given priority, Kathleen feels.
One of those returning from the armed forces was a young actuarial student who came to work in the office. At first he was technically lower in the hierarchy than Kathleen and she taught him, but he was, she says, ‘brilliant’ and quickly progressed. Romance blossomed between the two and they married in 1951. Kathleen continued working for a while, but left work before their first child was born and she and her husband went on to have six children, one of whom is an accountant, another an actuary. She has thoroughly enjoyed family life and the time she devoted to it rather than to a career.
How did she find working as a woman in this very male profession? As an example she cites one senior actuary playfully rewording the Institute’s motto as, ‘I hold every woman to be decorative to her profession’. He felt that this would ultimately give women the advantage over men

Monica Allanach
The sensation of working through the war also remains vivid to Monica Allanach, who joined the Prudential in 1938 as an actuarial trainee: ‘I think the most scary thing was the flying bombs because you heard them cut out when they were going to fall. The nastiest one in Holborn was the one that took out the Institute. We initially had spotters on the roof and you shot down to the basement, but in the end there was so much time wasted we just used to dive under the desk.’
When the Prudential was evacuated to Torquay early on in the Second World War, Monica went with them: ‘We left just before the blitz. Other departments had gone down earlier, so by the time we went down there we were housed in huts. It was pretty basic. And all your records were in this beastly hut. But we just got on with it.’
Monica Allanach has done much research into lives of the first women FIAs and it was she who coined the term ‘The first eleven’ for this group of women spanning 1923 to 1951. Among her own ‘firsts’: she was the first woman to join the management of the Prudential and, in 1968, the first woman elected to Council of Institute of Actuaries.
Like Kathleen Myers, she had been drawn to an actuarial career through being good at maths at school, and knowing people in the insurance business who suggested the idea to her.
She also pays tribute to her school, Wimbledon High School, for encouraging girls to aspire: ‘You were expected to have a career at that school. People seem to think careers for women came later, but there were girls there who became probation officers, civil servants, bursars.’
At the same time there was not the money to go to university and her mother was widowed. ‘I really needed to start earning. I did think of other professions, but for practically anything except an actuary you had to be articled, which meant you were paying fees to do a job. And that would have been a drain.’
At the time the Prudential was the only company that would take women on as trainees preparing to take the exams, although women earned less than men.
Then, as now, studying was a grind and there were inevitable sacrifices as far as socialising was concerned: ‘Even now it’s a difficult thing to fit in a full social life with studying. But I kept a bit going, such as tennis, and the Pru had a good social life too. A lot of my school friends were all going round the marriage market. It sounded rather nasty, sitting on the sidelines at the squash club waiting for someone to ask you to dance!’
Monica qualified in 1951 and continued at the Prudential. Office life in the 1950s she sees as ‘ more formal, more formalised in a way, but still fun. We had these clubs, social clubs, tennis club and various other things. When I first went the office hours were 9.20am until the work finished. One of the chaps interpreted that to mean his job finished at 3.00pm. Until somebody spotted him!’
In 1954 she, along with others, initiated the ladies’ tea parties, informal women-only get-togethers held at the Prudential, with cress sandwiches and Kunzle cakes on the menu. An A-level student thinking of an actuarial career was invited to attend and was pleasantly impressed by how ‘normal’ actuaries seemed. The meetings were always intended to be ‘back-up’ rather than ‘breakaway’ groups that would distract women away from participation in the Institute’s affairs. Monica and the others were aware of the dangers that might arise if women were taken out of the mainstream in professional matters. Instead, the meetings were designed to ease any isolation women could feel who were working in a virtually all male profession.
Did women in fact feel isolated and discriminated against? ‘The general impression I have of that time is that females were tolerated by the profession, but not really accepted, certainly not on the same level as men’, one woman actuary commented. Some of the above anecdotes add weight to this view. Another woman FIA felt that once you had shown you could pass the exams, you were accepted as an equal among actuaries; but clients still sometimes assumed you were a secretary.
Looking into the future, Monica Allanach is enthusiastic about encouraging women into the actuarial world: ‘It’s a long haul but the training you get as an actuary opens up such a wide range of jobs covering not only maths, but knowledge of economics, investments, taxation, and so forth. With such a wide sphere, you can specialise wherever you like and be of great use in it.
‘You’re not in an ivory tower working out terribly erudite sums. At the end of the day you’ve come up with a practical solution to something. And that’s satisfying.’