Empowering Society, the Actuarial Profession and Each Other

A Women’s History Month Q&A with two SOA Board members SOA Staff

Photo: Getty Images/DrAfter123

Sherry Chan, FSA, EA, FCA, MAAA
Karen Burnett, FSA, FCIA

The month of March provides an opportunity to reflect on the vital role of women in society. In recognition of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting female leaders in the actuarial profession. Two such leaders are Society of Actuaries (SOA) Board members Karen Burnett, FSA, FCIA, and Sherry Chan, FSA, EA, FCA, MAAA. They recently took time to share their experiences pursuing career goals and thoughts on the future of the actuarial profession.

Can you discuss an instance when someone’s support and encouragement helped you through a professional challenge or overcome self-doubt?

Burnett: The person who has supported me most is the person who interviewed me for my first actuarial co-op job during my second year of university. Ofelia Isabel, FSA, FCIA, has been part of my working life ever since and challenges my thinking, provides encouragement when I doubt myself and helps me work through and overcome challenging situations. She also has been a strong role model in demonstrating how far female actuaries can go and how our skills can be used in diverse ways. Her career has spanned consulting, managing a company’s pension and benefits program, leading many different lines of business (not just ones focused on actuarial work) and being a career coach to many. She truly has been an inspiration to me, and I thank her for her many years of support.

I encourage all young women to seek out a female mentor and be comfortable with not having all the answers. A mentor can guide you and give you a new way of thinking or problem-solving that will help you look at a situation from a different angle, which leads to better growth both personally and professionally.

Chan: Getting through my exams was challenging. Standing up for ethical approaches in a sea of workplace politics also can be challenging. And taking on some big and different roles at various points in my career was also not short of challenges. Throughout all this, I often found support not just from one individual, but from my network—of friends, family, mentors, peers and actuaries who are traveling or have traveled the path before me. Being able to glean perspectives, insights and encouragement—or simply enjoying their company—has made a world of difference, helping me get through challenging times and come out ahead.

Why is it important to have more diversity in the actuarial profession?

Chan: When you look up the word diversity, “variety” can be found as part of its meaning. Variety is important in the actuarial profession because it is through varied backgrounds, experiences and perspectives that we can deliver a well-rounded product to our customers and clients. Imagine developing a product that doesn’t serve, or correctly serve, a significant portion of the population because no one in the room represented a diverse enough view—this could equate to leaving a significant amount of revenue on the table, or worse, a significant investment into something that fails!

Diversity also can help introduce different ways of doing things—better, faster and more cost-effectively. All this points to diversity being important in all areas and at all levels of the actuarial profession.

Burnett: It is important to have diversity in the actuarial profession for similar reasons that it is important in all facets of society. Diversity in the workforce leads to a more inclusive and innovative culture, bringing together people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. From an actuarial perspective, increasing diversity will help generate creative and innovative solutions to complex risk issues that continuously evolve.

Are you seeing more women enter the actuarial profession? How do you see this trend evolving in the future, and how do you predict it will affect the profession?

Chan: When you look at college actuarial science programs, the male-female ratio is generally much more balanced than within the profession today. I think this college pipeline shows promise for a more gender-balanced profession in the years and decades to come.

However, we must continuously be proactive in retaining and supporting women in the profession to prevent gender leakage. We need to make sure we devote resources to policies surrounding fertility benefits, family leave, childcare, flexible work arrangements and equitable promotions.

Burnett: Throughout my working career, I have seen approximately the same percentage of women entering the actuarial profession. What I am encouraged by is the increase in the number of women finishing their actuarial qualifications and remaining in the actuarial field. I believe with the number of new opportunities on the horizon, coupled with the changes to the ASA and FSA pathways, this trend is likely to continue. Becoming more diverse can only benefit the actuarial profession and likely will lead to improved problem-solving, better decision-making and more inclusive working environments while being able to respond more effectively to the changing landscape of risk management.

What advice can you give young women pursuing careers as actuaries?

Chan: Try to get through your actuarial exams as soon as possible while also gaining actuarial experience. (I understand this can be easier said than done, of course!) Maximize your internship opportunities by trying various practice areas to see what you like before committing to a full-time position. If you prefer a different practice area early in your career, don’t be afraid to pivot, as it’s a time when you still have a lot of transferrable skills, generally speaking.

For More Information

Learn more about the SOA’s goals for diversity, equity and inclusion, including the organization’s strategy and activities.

If you’re ever faced with imposter syndrome (doubting your skills and talents with a fear of being exposed as incompetent) at anytime in your career, remember to believe in yourself! And lastly, regardless of where you are in your career path, consider giving back to help those following in your footsteps or in your community, so you can make their journey, at the very least, a little easier.

Burnett: If you are still working on obtaining your designation, stay resilient and persevere, believe in your capabilities and don’t worry about how long it takes you to complete it. Once you get there, being an actuary offers a rewarding and impactful career.

If you have been an actuary for a while, never give up learning or seeking out something new to try. The world is ever-changing, and new opportunities for actuaries are constantly arising. You never know, the next change might just be the best thing to happen yet.

Karen Burnett, FSA, FCIA, is director, Pension Solutions, at CAAT Pension Plan, based in Toronto. She is responsible for partnering with interested employers, organizations, unions and boards to offer Canadian workplaces access to secure, sustainable, lifetime pensions. She is currently a member of the Society of Actuaries Board of Directors and is also the chair of the ACPM Ontario Council.
Sherry Chan, FSA, EA, FCA, MAAA, is chief strategy officer of Atidot, a Palo Alto, California-based InsurTech. She is on the boards of the Society of Actuaries, The Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Abacus Actuaries, an international nonprofit she cofounded that is dedicated to helping Asians achieve success in the actuarial profession.

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.

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