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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Sticky floors and glass ceilings

Sarah Winckless talks with Stephen Hyams about Project AMP, the newly launched mentoring programme for aspiring female actuaries which helps to support their career paths


Sarah Winkless MBE © Peter Searle
Sarah Winkless MBE © Peter Searle

I believe that mentors get as much, if not more, out of the experience as mentees

A large gathering assembled at Staple Inn on 6 November for the launch of the pioneering Actuarial Mentoring Programme (Project AMP), which aims to help promote a larger number of female actuaries in senior corporate positions. 

Research by the IFoA revealed that, on average, non-retiring female actuaries are leaving the profession at age 40, 13 years earlier than males. Project AMP was conceived to help retain women in the profession. Across the nine participating organisations, there are a total of 49 female mentees, each being matched with a different mentor from another organisation over the nine-month duration.

To find out more about it, I met beforehand with Sarah Winckless MBE, Olympic rower and neuroscientist, and, in this context, head of design and delivery at Moving Ahead, the specialist development and diversity organisation managing Project AMP. Its sister organisation, Women Ahead, runs a much larger mentoring programme for the 30% Club, a group of chairs and chief executives across UK industry committed to better gender balance through voluntary action.

I began by asking about the challenges facing women along their career paths. Winckless responds: “Organisations often have bias that is unseen and unintentional. If you invite a broad sense of perspective to a party, you also have to let them dance, but what we see in many organisations is that there is an unconscious bias in how they recruit. This can create a ‘glass ceiling’, where they are hiring unconsciously in their own form.” 

She suggests that diverse hiring panels can help, as well as non-biased HR job descriptions: “If you ask for the maximum amount of experience, then by the very nature of the job description you’re going to get more male candidates than female, because you have more men who have been that long in the workplace.

“You then get the behavioural bias we see primarily in women, which I think of as the ‘sticky floor’. They might wait until they are eight out of 10 on a checklist for a job description before applying, for example, and this is perhaps related to the rumour that women tend to be more risk-averse. A man might apply when he meets only two out of 10 requirements, not necessarily seeing himself as ready, but thinking of it as a good experience.”

Winckless goes on to explain that the male counterpart is often seen as ambitious and may be given a mentor to help him prepare for next time. Men are also more likely to get sponsors, who actively promote them within the organisation.

On getting the work-life balance right, she says: “The responsibility for this will sit with a woman in a household by tradition, although not in all cases. There are all sorts of challenges she faces on her career path, such as career breaks if she wants to have a family.”

The benefits of mentoring 

I ask how mentoring can help. Winckless explains that some of the mentees will get access to people they would not otherwise have met. There will be three events where everyone comes together, at launch, close and mid-point, and this provides a great opportunity to network and build powerful connections for the future. “Once it has finished, these mentoring pairs, because of the conversations they have had, very often endure in an informal way.”

Winckless points out that there are wider benefits: “We see a number of outcomes from mentoring with the right steps in place. I think you get people feeling more valued and increased staff retention. Mentors become better listeners, more curious about the talent of others and having a better understanding of what the world looks like from the other side of the lens; I believe that mentors get as much, if not more, out of the experience as mentees. You are challenged to think in different ways, and many organisations now look at reciprocal or reverse mentoring, where the younger employee is mentor to an older executive.”

Winckless explains how mentoring can help an organisation understand what is working well and how to become a better employer. “There’s that river of thinking which you don’t see when in a group. Sometimes there might be something that goes back to the organisation for a wider benefit.” 

The ability to share information in this way depends on the trust built up between the mentoring pair, with a mutual understanding of what is confidential and what can be shared. 

Matching pairs

We move on to discuss how mentors and mentees were selected and matched. “It’s key for Moving Ahead to work in collaboration with each of our nine programme partners (as we call the sponsoring organisations) to ensure they select the right people, depending on what works best for their particular organisations. Some invited applicants and then shortlisted, while others just give a tap on the shoulder. We had more mentees and mentors than we could use, which was a good place to be.” There are 10 places for mentees who are in career transition, such as having children or caring for others, and wanting to come back to work.

Mentors are senior leaders in their organisations. They are actuaries or people who work closely with actuaries, and the majority are men. “Having an actuary as mentor, you might ask about their skills, knowledge and career path – they can become a role model. 

I think there are also advantages in seeing different perspectives from someone who is not an actuary; you might learn a lot, especially about leadership and how it is to deal with other actuaries.”

Winckless explains how mentors and mentees are matched. “We have key criteria and often match on behaviour and attitude, so there are common values in place. We always double check with the organisations, who know their employees very well, although they may have some bias in how they see them.”

I ask what happens if the pairs don’t get on. “Our general experience is that most pairs rate their matches as very good or excellent. You might find slight differences and unconscious biases, with the mentee not quite sure how this person will help them, but through persistence we often find these are the bits of grit that create the pearl in the oyster when the mentee sees that different perspective. We talk about being ‘uncomfortably excited’ in these pairs.” Rematches are arranged if necessary, but that is rare.

Initial training caters for varying learning styles; the theory, as well as practical tips and enough action for those who learn by doing. Mentoring pairs meet once every four to six weeks over the nine-month period. While they are encouraged to do this in person, Winckless comments: “Virtual mentoring can get really intimate and honest quickly because you’re taking away the face-to-face aspect. Participants can then become quite nervous when they do finally meet.” 

There are three written requests for feedback during the process, as well as some informal telephone follow-ups and focus groups to get their feedback. “Engagement, perceived value and personal impact are the things we will be looking to measure, and stories about what they have got out of it and what they can share outside. Our programme partners are a key part; they keep the energy going and are the earpiece on the ground.”

Charting a course

Reflecting on the success of the mentoring programme run for the 30% Club, Winckless says: “We’ve seen it grow each year as firms see the value; it has moved from being FTSE100 to FTSE250, with 70 companies now participating. For Project AMP, starting with nine organisations is a very sensible number. We will do measurable work on that group and they will be the shoulders others stand on. This could be a big programme; we’d love to see it going the same way as the 30% Club.” Continuing to educate employers is crucial: “An inclusive leader is one who recognises situations when behaviour is most susceptible to being driven by unconscious biases. When we don’t have enough information to fill in the blanks, or have too much information, we simplify and look for stereotypes.”

Winckless is encouraged that many organisations view diversity in a positive light and are taking voluntary action. For example, those who sign up to the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter set themselves targets that are published, and this helps to demonstrate that they are good employers who value both their male and female employees. “Of course,” Winckless explains, “we all want meritocracy and not quotas; getting the right person for the role.”

On good practice hopefully spreading, she says: “We talk about how a rising tide lifts little boats; we’re hoping to also shift dials – in this instance, the diversity dial.” 

With glass ceilings falling, I ask Winckless for her advice to aspiring female actuaries on how to avoid those sticky floors. “Anything is possible. This is a really exciting time; there are opportunities and you are valued within the profession, so set your goals high.”

Project AMP is supported by the IFoA, sponsored by the Pensions Insurance Corporation (PIC) and is being managed by Moving Ahead.