Kelvin Chamunorwa meets Fiona Morrison, new president of the IFoA, to discuss issues close to her heart, including gender balance within the profession and how actuaries are viewed on the world stage
Fiona Morrison's actuarial journey began when she was just 13. The new president of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries recalls her careers master colourfully describing the role of an actuary by using an example of a tight-rope walker, with an actuary calculating the probability of the acrobat falling and injuring themselves. He remarked, "Fiona would be really good at doing this," and so sparked Morrison's interest in the profession.
She went on to attend Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 1979. She then joined Lane Clark & Peacock (LCP), where she still works today, advising primarily on UK pensions, and was admitted as a partner in 1984.
Today, Morrison is in a cheerful mood. After congratulating her on her election, I ask her whether she thinks members will be able to vote for their president in future. Morrison suggests that the barrier to this is the likely level of member participation. "At the moment, Council elects the president-elect, and Council is voted for by members. But I think we need to get more engagement for Council elections and then come back to this question. It is only when we have this that we will have a platform to consider president elections." She goes on to say: "This year for the first time, candidates nominated for Council are submitting short election videos to explain what they are offering. The aim is to increase engagement, so we'll see if that will have an impact."
It seems that the issue of low engagement is specific only to elections as the picture is very different when it comes to volunteering for the profession. "About 3,500 out of 26,000 of our members volunteer," Morrison points out. "When non-actuary, lay members of our various practice boards see this statistic, they say that it is like no other profession they know. We have huge engagement generally, but fewer people vote than volunteer, so there's a mismatch there."
Tipping the balance
Coming back to Morrison's own election, it is not long before she makes her passion for gender diversity clear: "I have been overwhelmed by the way women view my election as president. Not because of me personally, but because I'm a woman. They say it enables them to see that they can progress, that it shows it is possible. That's brilliant if, as a consequence of where I have ended up, it makes a difference by helping others to achieve their career ambitions."
As she discusses her career journey, Morrison talks about her time at Selwyn College, Cambridge. The college had just become co-educational and she was part of the first intake to include women. She describes the challenge it presented: "In a predominantly male environment, you find that you are very visible, and that visibility comes with responsibility. It was a good foundation for this role I've now taken on."
The experience at university seemed to have played a part in forming her priorities when it came to job-hunting for a graduate role. She recalls: "Seeing there was a woman among the senior leadership at LCP was encouraging. In fact, I didn't bother applying to an employer where this wasn't the case."
As more women are now entering the actuarial profession, I ask Morrison what needs to be done to also tip the balance at senior levels. Morrison is optimistic, and believes it is only a matter of time. "When I joined the profession there were fewer women than now. The proportion of female entrants to the profession has been increasing, and gradually that has followed through to those qualifying. Now, women comprise nearly 40% of students and over 30% of actuaries. The balance has changed over the years and that trend will continue."
Morrison mentions that a member survey on diversity was recently undertaken, and it triggered a high response rate. She confirms that the results of this survey will inform the diversity strategy, which will be published by the IFoA.
The discussion moves to Morrison's theme for the coming year, summed up as 'promote'.
She explains: "I started by looking at the mission in the Royal Charter, which talks about regulating and promoting all things actuarial science. So when I was standing for election, I focused on 'promote'. One of the fascinating things as president-elect is that I've met many people outside the area in which I practise. I have seen what people are doing in different areas and how they are using their actuarial skills. My aim is to showcase this outside the profession, and also to future actuaries, to open their eyes to all the possibilities."
I ask Morrison for a prediction on what the profession will look like in 2035. Throughout the interview Morrison is frank and unreserved, but this time her response is non-committal: "20 years is a long time. Things move quickly, even in five years. People will be working in different areas. It will be a flourishing profession, I'm absolutely sure of that."
Her point is that it is difficult to foresee, and she uses the growth of the general insurance practice area as an example: "If I look back to when I joined the profession, it was a new area with only a handful of actuaries practising. Now, we have 3,500 members who say that they work in general insurance. It is the fastest growing area." She continues, "If I compare that to the many areas today where only a few actuaries are involved, it demonstrates that the range of possibilities is wide."
Elaborating on what is being done to facilitate this, Morrison reveals: "Council, in looking at strategy, is looking at what people will be doing, which influences the exams. We need to make sure that the education structure supports that forward-looking view."
I ask Morrison about the actuarial profession's activity in the public eye, and why it doesn't have a louder voice. Morrison takes a long pause, then states categorically that the aim is not to chase headlines. She explains: "Our approach is focused. Over the past year we decided on our four areas of priority [challenges of an ageing population, risk and investment, resource and environment and regulation], and we are now developing the thought pieces around those. What members will see is an increase in volume but underpinned by real quality in these areas, which are really important to help decision-makers such as governments and industry, as well as actuaries."
Inadequate pension saving, coupled with the risk of people underestimating their longevity, is one critical issue. I ask Morrison what part actuaries can play to encourage good outcomes. Morrison seizes the opportunity to emphasise that the profession is aware of the risks, saying: "I think it's an absolutely huge challenge - people not appreciating how long they'll live. This speaks to two of our priority areas: challenges of an ageing population and risk and investment."
She goes on to describe what the profession is doing: "We have put out some policy material on transfers from defined benefit to defined contribution arrangements, which is part of the issue. In terms of freedoms in retirement, people need to understand what they're doing, and they also need to understand that it is a complex area."
Morrison believes there is a real need for input from pensions and life insurance actuaries, hence the precautionary note addressed to both constituents of the membership in April. She says, "There is a role for actuaries in ensuring that the risks of transferring from a defined benefit pension scheme to a defined contribution scheme to access the freedoms are properly communicated. There is also a role for actuaries to understand customers' needs once they've transferred the money. This should inform the products that are developed. They need to be appropriate."
As an organisation that prides itself on having international reach, I ask Morrison to comment on the profession's profile outside the UK. Morrison recalls interactions she had with members of the International Actuarial Association at an event hosted by the IFoA in London. She says: "At the event, people described us as the 'mother actuarial organisation'. We are so highly regarded on the world stage. I have been pleasantly surprised at the extent of it. It's great because the world will notice what we do, so we have a real opportunity."
Outside work, Morrison's passion is skiing, particularly ski touring. As we conclude the interview and Morrison looks ahead to her presidential term, she alludes to having less time to pursue her interests. She says: "The challenge for the year ahead is finding the time. My passion at university was rowing and now it is skiing, particularly climbing mountains on skis." She can lay claim to having climbed the 4,180-metre Nairamdal Peak, at the tri-border of Russia, Mongolia and China, on skis. Morrison has also achieved the feat of reaching the top of her profession. The challenge now is to display and promote its talents to the world.