Celebrating AAPI Month: Asian Actuaries in the Actuarial Profession

How Asian actuaries inspire the pursuit of excellence and drive positive change Elizabeth Walsh
Photo: Shutterstock/Somchai_Stock

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. AAPI Month is an ideal time to recognize and celebrate Asian actuaries and their diverse experiences and unique challenges. As an Asian American actuary, I have worked with Asian actuarial peers and role models, as well as allies and advocates of Asian actuaries, throughout my 20 years of professional actuarial work.

Growing Representation of Asian Actuaries

While I can’t pinpoint the very first Asian actuaries in the United States, Asian actuaries have been pioneers who contributed to the development of insurance and risk management. The history of Asian actuaries is intertwined with the waves of Asian immigration in the United States, the evolution of the U.S. actuarial profession and the advancement of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Their representation in the actuarial profession worldwide is increasing as well, including in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, in addition to the United States.1 In economies across Asia, such as China, India and Southeast Asian countries, the demand for Asian actuaries continues to increase as they play a crucial role in addressing the risk management needs of these emerging markets and driving sustainable growth.2,3,4 In my experience, Asian actuaries inspire us to pursue excellence, drive positive change and navigate challenges. This calls for celebration during AAPI Month.

Within Asian communities, there are distinctions between Asian immigrants and second-generation Asians. Asian immigrants are individuals who were born outside of the country they currently reside in and chose to migrate to a new country, often in search of better economic opportunities or educational prospects, or to escape political instability or persecution in their home countries. They overcome challenges such as language barriers and cultural adjustment. Second-generation Asians, also known as “second gen” or children of immigrants, are individuals who were born or raised in a country different from that of their parents’ country of origin. They straddle two cultures, balancing the traditions, values and expectations of their parents’ native culture with the influences and norms of the mainstream culture in their adopted country.

The Bamboo Ceiling

Regardless of the distinctions between immigrants and second generation, almost all Asian actuaries have experienced the “bamboo ceiling.” This is a symbolic ceiling of invisible obstacles that hinder career progression due to the perceived lack of leadership potential for Asians despite their qualifications and skills. Evident in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, the bamboo ceiling describes the barriers and challenges Asian professionals, including actuaries, face in advancing to leadership positions.

Asian actuaries frequently encounter stereotypes and biases that question their leadership potential, such as the “model minority” myth portraying Asians as hardworking individuals who pass actuarial exams quickly but lack leadership qualities and assertiveness, which can impede their advancement opportunities.5

Cultural differences in Asian and Western leadership styles also pose challenges. Asian cultural norms emphasizing humbleness, deference to authority and consensus-building are perceived as barriers to the Western corporate culture values of assertiveness and executive presence. Despite possessing technical skills and expertise, Asian actuaries may be overlooked for leadership roles due to biased performance evaluations, perpetuating the bamboo ceiling. Subjective criteria for promotion also may contribute to this perception.

In many Asian societies, the importance of academic achievement and being “book smart” hold significant cultural value. This emphasis on education is deeply embedded in cultural norms, family expectations and societal attitudes. In my career experience, Asian actuaries who have excelled academically in a school setting, some with coveted PhDs and graduate school qualifications, are disappointed when they are passed for promotions. It is important for Asian actuaries to note that higher education is not a guaranteed pathway to career success and advancement in the actuarial profession due to alternative forms of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence, creativity and practical skills.

After AAPI Month: Looking Ahead

Learn More

For more information related to Asian actuaries, read the Society of Actuaries (SOA) report, “3 Barriers Asian Women Overcome to Become Leaders.”

It’s important for Asian actuaries in leadership roles to actively engage and sponsor professional mentorship programs to support the next generation of Asian actuaries. Programs such as Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), which my company, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) sponsors, are dedicated to empowering Asian and Pacific Islander (API) individuals and communities through leadership development, civic engagement and advocacy. Organizations and leaders can implement diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at addressing unconscious bias, providing mentorship and sponsorship opportunities and fostering inclusive leadership cultures that value diverse perspectives.

My advice to Asian American actuaries who are early in their careers is to be courageous and attend local and national events and meetings. In my experience, social networking and informal connections play crucial roles in career advancement. Also, seek out relatable mentors and sponsors from similar cultural backgrounds who can advocate for your advancement. Cultivate an executive presence and practice communication skills in meetings, starting with your regular team meetings. Of course, being competent and excellent in your day-to-day role are table stakes. This term comes from poker, where players must place a minimum bet (i.e., the “table stakes”) to participate in the next game.

By acknowledging the bamboo ceiling, the actuarial profession can tap into the full potential of its diverse talent pool, fostering a more equitable and inclusive environment where Asian actuaries, along with professionals from all backgrounds, can thrive and contribute their unique insights.

Elizabeth Walsh, FSA, MAAA, is a vice president and actuary at TIAA. She is on the Executive Committee of the Actuarial Society of New York (ASNY) and is a contributing editor for The Actuary.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2024 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.