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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Masculinism, feminism, and actuarialism

I came across a reference to an actuary in a most unexpected place recently. I was reading Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps, by Allan and Barbara Pease. In case you haven’t read this book, it’s an entertaining yet scientifically based look at how and why men and women are different, and one of its aims (apart from generating a healthy income for its authors) is to help people understand why their partners carry on the way they do. For example, it explains how most men’s inability to do any more than one thing at a time, and many women’s ability to hold a telephone conversation, feed the cat, and design an asset/liability model at the same time, stems from men and women’s different roles at the dawn of the human race.Anyway, the actuarial allusion came in a chapter about spatial ability. A test was carried out where participants are given a series of patterns which, if cut out, could be folded to make three-dimensional boxes, and asked to indicate which of a number of boxes could be made from the each pattern. The majority of people who could figure it out in less than three minutes were men, but one woman completed it successfully in nine seconds. And, you guessed it, she was an actuary.The authors went on to discuss the apparent link between mathematical ability and testosterone. One of their conclusions was that ‘a woman with a moustache is much more likely to make a better engineer than one who looks like a Barbie doll’.This editorial is not about whether men or women make better actuaries. Oh, no. That would probably end in (my) tears, no matter what I said. Instead, I thought I’d look at the reasons why fewer women than men choose to join the profession.The best part of a decade ago, my esteemed editorial predecessor, Jennifer Lang, looked at the issue of attracting women to the actuarial profession. She wondered whether discrimination was a problem, and said that, given the fact that there are so few female actuaries, we are more open to accusations of sexism than our legal or accounting friends.Should we necessarily strive to have equal numbers of men and women in each profession just because there are roughly equal numbers in the world at large? Is there something about actuarial work that makes it intrinsically less appealing to women? Jennifer thought not, but I am not as sure. Men and women who become actuaries may be equally good at being actuaries, but if Mr and Mrs Pease are to be believed, there may be simply fewer women who would be interested in, or dare I say it, have the aptitude for, an actuarial career in the first place.Now before you fill the letters page of next month’s issue with complaints about sexist editors, I’m not saying that I agree with this theory – I am simply reporting it. And I would also like to offer up another theory. Looking at the recent lists of new fellows, it seems that females account for around one in four new actuaries. The National Statistics website tells me that the proportion of female maths graduates is around one in three. The actuarial profession appears to be recruiting a broadly ‘fair’ proportion of women with maths degrees.But that is not the point. Actuarial work consists of more than just sums, yet if I was a student thinking about what career to pursue, the information available about actuaries (on careers websites, for example) does not reflect the diversity of work involved and skills required. The first sentence of every description I have seen (even in the profession’s ‘Who are the Actuaries?’ booklet) contains some form of the word mathematics. If the majority of maths graduates are male, so will be the majority of the people who want to find out more about being an actuary.A more careful description of the work that we do would not only help to provide the public with a more balanced view of actuaries, but may also lead to more and more women joining our ranks.