Sarah Rawson considers her experiences as a female actuary in senior leadership
How did your actuarial career start?
Out of the blue! When I was a teenager, I had my sights set on becoming an airline pilot, and actually flew a plane solo at 16 and got my private pilot’s licence at 17. However, the industry changed. Many airlines stopped sponsoring individuals to train, instead only taking people who could already fly. It would have cost a
fortune to train as a commercial pilot, so I needed a new plan! One day, one of my friends came back from a careers fair with a pile of brochures. I was flicking through them and saw one about actuarial careers. Given my strong analytical skills, this felt like something I could do. She left me with the brochure, and I never looked back.
What has been your path to leadership positions?
For the past 13 years I have worked in numerous roles at Swiss Re, including in pricing, reserving and risk management, but it’s not all been plain sailing.
When I first stepped into a leadership role as head of the UK Actuarial Reserving team in 2013, I went through a prolonged period of imposter syndrome. In fact, I don’t think it ever goes away completely. There always seemed to be someone stronger than me technically or commercially, or who was simply able to write a better report than I could. I have a clear memory of sitting in a room with two actuarial modelling wizards, discussing a complex modelling problem, and the conversation went completely over my head. I was sure I was in the wrong job! However, over time, I came to recognise and appreciate my own strengths, and realised that while I wasn’t necessarily the quickest mathematician in the room, there were some things I was really great at, and my strengths could make hugely positive impacts on the business and the team. Now, whenever the imposter syndrome hits, I push it away by thinking of the positives I bring.
“One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that the picture of the ideal leader is changing”
In 2019, I was promoted to a managing director role. This role involves overseeing a range of operations, including actuarial reserving, claims management, technical accounting and the management of our in-force business. It allows me to marry many of my personal passions together. Firstly, my ultimate purpose is to make the world more resilient. With responsibility for a large life and health portfolio across multiple countries, my team and I play our part in helping people during times of loss and uncertainty. Secondly, my role allows me to put a real focus on people development and wellbeing, bringing to life the values that many in our industry have been calling for. Finally, I choose to dedicate a large amount of my time to diversity and inclusion, chairing and serving on UK and group-wide committees for gender equality and acting as a mentor for female graduates. I have seen the benefit of having a truly diverse team, but have also experienced many of those stereotypical gender-related judgments. I know that it can be hard for women to push themselves forward, and I am on a mission to help women overcome these barriers.
Do you think there are additional challenges to being a leader for women?
Definitely. I have felt many micro-inequalities during my time as a leader – those little moments where you are treated differently just because you are female and you are the one in charge. The comments that perhaps I missed an important topic because I went to pick up my son from school, the interruptions by male voices when I am trying to make my point in a meeting. I’ve even been in a meeting where one of the male participants happily gave eye contact to all the men in the room but refused it to the women. It can be subtle, but it’s there and you feel it.
A key challenge for women is finding the balance between success and likeability. There seems to be a positive correlation between these two factors for men, but a negative correlation for women. Studies have shown that the male stereotype is to be the provider and to be decisive and driven, whereas women are the caregivers, more sensitive and communal. To be a female leader could be perceived as going against this stereotype, and this often holds many women back – sometimes unconsciously.
However, one of the few benefits of the pandemic is that the picture of the ideal leader is changing. I work hard to link my business responsibilities with my passion for bringing a caring and sensitive approach. I often have to make quick and tough decisions, to challenge and take actions, but I refuse to lose who I am or push my natural personality to the side. I see the significant benefits that compassion, authenticity and transparency have brought to my professional relationships and to the strength of my team. This makes me believe in the power of a softer leadership style than has been adopted by leaders in the past, and it will stick with me throughout my career.
What does being a mum add?
Being a working parent is hard whether you are a man or a woman, and during this past year, a gale has turned into a tornado! I will not be the first parent to say that guilt is one of the hardest things to deal with. As a single mother, having my four-year-old son at home during the pandemic while I’m working has made this past year the hardest period of my life. The guilt goes in all directions, whether it’s about not giving enough attention to my son, to a work task, or to those in the team who see an increased workload due to the pandemic. Despite (and because of) this, I think I’ve become more resilient than ever. I’ve found ways to overcome anxiety, and learnt that it is okay to accept when I am not coping, and to share and get support and advice.
What do actuaries bring to senior management?
Many actuaries are very deep thinkers or introverts. They may not be the loudest voices in the room, but
when they do speak, it is to share something with a lot of reasoning behind it – something that is important and shouldn’t be ignored. Introverts tend to be critical thinkers who are detail-orientated, focused on the growth of others, and able to truly stop and notice things. These are all fantastic attributes for a senior leader, and introverts can be very successful in management if they embrace who they are and use it to their advantage. I would also encourage the more extroverted leaders to bring those introverted voices in and let them speak. Diversity in all senses of the word is important.
What advice would you give to young actuaries, especially women?
My advice to any young actuary is to look at things with a holistic and not just a technical actuarial view, although that is clearly also important. Imagine your company is your own business, and use that to help you make decisions. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes and ask yourself, ‘what would they do?’ Control the imposter syndrome by identifying those things you are amazing at and what they bring to the team and business. Most importantly, link your work to a wider purpose that you truly buy into, as this will encourage you to give it your very best. If this purpose isn’t there, perhaps you are in the wrong job! And for women? Don’t feel you need to change your personality to progress. The world is opening up and starting to recognise the benefits that diversity offers. Bring your true self to the table, be transparent in your style and see the significant extra value this diversity can bring to delivering a truly successful business vision.
Sarah Rawson is head of life and health business management EMEA at Swiss Re