Before I dive in to my own personal journey to becoming the ally that I consider myself today, I’d like to step back and give some context on the profession in which I operate. As actuaries, it is our job to assess risk across a variety of applications including pensions, healthcare, insurance, and more. In my experience, this job attracts a specific type of risk-averse personality; actuaries are drawn to measuring through metrics and solving problems with logic. As a technical field, we are subject to the same challenges as other STEM professionals when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These issues are not new, but there is a new movement to shed light on many of the issues that have existed for years, creating barriers to entry or difficulty of promotion among underrepresented minority groups and individuals who may not “fit the mold.” I am thrilled to see movement among employers taking ownership of their role in solving this issue. However, I challenge my fellow actuaries to consider the small actions they can take every day to show up for their team as allies and transform our industry into the welcoming, supportive environment I believe it has the potential to be.
Reframing my Fears
Throughout my life, I have had a constant fear of being “the other.” This fear has culminated in a near-obsessive effort to make others feel connected, both to me and to any greater group that I am attached to. During a year where physical interactions were nearly eliminated in my life, I spent a lot of time introspecting and digging into this fear. It has impacted my personal and professional life in so many ways, and upon further reflection, most of the impact has been positive.
Without feeling this other-ness, I wouldn’t have gained the self-awareness that comes with recognizing that someone may feel singled out due to their gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion, ethnicity, or otherwise. Without knowing what it feels like to be cut at the knees by a simple passive aggressive comment, I wouldn’t have that feeling in my gut when a comment is made by a peer that had a similar impact on someone else. Without having experience being the minority due to my gender or religion, I would not feel empowered to step up and utilize the privilege of being in the majority for most interactions in my life to fiercely protect those who do not have that luxury.
The outcome that we need to combat this “other-ness” is a sense of belonging. While perhaps more difficult to measure, “belonging” should be the true desired outcome of any diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative. Increasing DEI metrics will be meaningless if not accompanied with strong leadership that demonstrates true empathy when it comes to feeling like an outsider. More often than not, our leaders avoid vulnerability in an effort to appear invincible. Yes, diversifying your team is the right first step, but once that has been achieved, what is the point of bringing different perspectives to the table if we’re not going to celebrate what makes them diverse? Why invite “the others” to our team if we’re going to just hide the unique perspective that they bring to the table?
Leading from Fear
I have witnessed a wide spectrum of leadership behaviors throughout my career as a Division I student-athlete and employee at two large consulting firms. Each leader I have had the pleasure of interacting with has taught me valuable lessons – both positive and negative – about how to motivate a team to reach a common goal.
In starting my own consulting firm, I have reflected on behaviors I want to exemplify for my employees and strategic partners. In identifying these behaviors, I have thought through many of the milestone moments I have had with leaders over the years. I define milestone moments as the type of interactions that, looking back, changed the trajectory of that experience, or even, my life from that point forward. Many of my initial milestone moments were formative; they fell on the opposite side of the spectrum from that which I want to strive for as a leader. Sometimes effective in the short-term, the behaviors created divisiveness amongst the team members in an effort masked as “friendly competition”. Identifying team members’ weaknesses and then exacerbating them in a shameful effort to eliminate them didn’t work for me. I cowered into my own shell, sometimes physically paralyzed from moving forward in any avenue of my life. Always the perfectionist and people-pleaser, I viewed this time in my life as a failure and, therefore, myself as a failure.
Looking back, I am thankful for many things from this time in my life and for the opportunities that were afforded to me. It was my first formal reckoning with the feeling of other-ness that would eventually inspire me to do everything in my power to never let another human in my vicinity feel as though they’re alone again. Beyond resilience, I learned to separate my own personal value from my abilities – whether athletic or professional – and to empower mentees and direct reports to do the same.
Leading with your Other-ness
It was several years later that I finally found a leader I wanted to emulate; he demonstrated the value of creating a true belonging in a team-based environment. Instead of teaching his team how to conform to one uniform perspective, he welcomed any member of the team to challenge him or his opinions. He openly talked about difficult topics and empowered others to do the same. His team felt seen and continuously paid it forward by demonstrating these same leadership behaviors, even when nobody was watching. He was a magnet for “the others,” the individuals who, for one reason or another in their life, weren’t able to be their true self in other team environments until finding this one.
The value of this leadership style showed up in so many ways – employee engagement, overall job satisfaction, and a true business value driven by the creative approaches that are developed by a group of individuals unafraid to challenge their leaders and take a risk on approaching a problem. For me personally, my mental and physical health improved. I became more passionate about my fears, my goals, and my personal challenges and, in doing so, found “my people” by assembling like-minded practitioners equally as passionate about seeing change in our profession as an actuarial DEI task force.
So why leave the big firm environment behind? I had witnessed leading for belonging, leading from fear, and everything in-between. I’d witnessed the business impact of opening the door for people of different backgrounds to come to the table and what it looks like to celebrate these different perspectives instead of asking them to conform. My own day-to-day work life was as positive as I could have asked for. But something inside me couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if an entire company was designed with belonging at the forefront. What if our other-ness wasn’t just part of our internal team culture, but embedded in every element of the way a company is run, from top to bottom? What if the primary goal of a company was to empower each other to celebrate what makes us different and demonstrate to our clients the value that this approach creates for their bottom line?
Out of this wondering, Athena Actuarial Consulting was born – championed by our namesake, “the Goddess of courage, inspiration, justice, strategy, mathematics, and strength. She is a companion of heroes and heroic endeavor.” I received great advice many years ago when making the difficult decision to make my first change in employers: to always be running towards something, not running away. Athena is the product of feeling as though I had found the end of the belonging spectrum that suited me, and wanting to take it a step further. I wanted to keep “talking the talk” when it came to DEI in the workplace, but also to “walk the walk” by demonstrating that corporate social responsibility is more than a buzzword. It’s truly a responsibility, an obligation, with each win that we have, to step back and make sure we celebrate by making strides towards removing barriers that others may have in achieving those same wins. Doing so does not reduce the value of the hard work that you put in to achieve that goal; it recognizes that the hard work was combined with the privilege of the opportunity. Your success gives you the power to reduce the barrier to entry for others not afforded the same privilege.
The very premise of being “the other” is that others could not put themselves in your shoes. Whether it be religion, race, gender, disability, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, we cannot rely on our experiences to relate to those of another. However, you don’t have to have lived in someone’s shoes to know the feeling in your stomach when you have been identified as different than the group you are attached to or interacting with. We all also, hopefully, know the feeling of when someone steps in and demonstrates their willingness to show up as an ally and change the trajectory of the conversation, experience, or life of another individual. By reckoning with the things in our life that have left us excluded, barricaded from opportunity, or hurt, we demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. We take that first step towards showing up as an ally, and we create room for others to do the same.
An Ally’s Manifesto
Our world is made of arbitrary rules. Societal norms, stereotypes, and hypocritical core beliefs. Some of these rules exist for a reason, but how often do we stop to ask what that reason is? What if the problem isn’t that we’re not good at playing the game, but the rules established by an old-school, traditional workforce are not working for us anymore?
Introducing Athena, an impact-focused actuarial consulting firm which operates under the core belief that diversity of background, experience, and thought, when celebrated, come together to create outstanding impact for our clients, communities, and ourselves. We strive to break the mold of the traditional actuary and demonstrate value in setting up our own rules.
So yes, I am a credentialed actuary who demonstrated the resilience that comes with overcoming the rigorous decade-long actuarial exam process. I am a consultant with experience across private and public sector pension consulting. I am also Jewish, Italian, a cisgender straight female, a child of divorce, a sister and step-sister, an RV-er, a dog-lover, a feminist, a Philadelphia sports fan, an antiracist, a college student-athlete, and an avid seeker of self-improvement. How did we become so egotistical to think that these formative identities can be ignored in order to operate as a high-performing professional? Athena is born from the assertion that we are only able to achieve our full professional potential if we can authentically celebrate the identities and experiences that we bring to the table.
At Athena, we will prove that life doesn’t exist in neat, contained boxes. We will demonstrate that commitment to client service, community impact, and employees’ well-being can and should co-exist. We will create an environment where actuarial services are delivered with the highest technical proficiency by happy, fulfilled actuaries who inspire others in the industry to rethink the rules that they have never themselves question.
Taking Steps Forward
I am energized by the movement I am witnessing across our industry in making strides toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession. But we still have a way to go and we all need to take this moment to hone our own allyship to pave the way for others. It’s not just good for business, well-being, team-building, and corporate social responsibility; our entire profession will benefit from supporting actuaries of all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds. We need to accelerate progress in every facet of our work, culture, and behaviors, and allyship is a critical step to seeing real change.
Call to Action
- Talk About Your Other-ness. Celebrate your own uniqueness and talk about how your setbacks, roadblocks, or failures have created opportunities for you to demonstrate resilience. It’s easy to bond over wins, but being open and vulnerable about times where you have felt like “the other” will open the door for others to do the same. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it. Then, witness the real connection you feel with your team members both inside and outside of work.
- Create Milestone Moments for Your Team Members. What were your milestone moments? Have you operated thoughtfully to create these milestones for others? When you have, what did the “others” look like? Did they look, think, and act similarly to you or did you go out of your way to create these connections with individuals who you don’t immediately share commonalities with? Challenge yourself to go out of your way to mentor, support and create positive milestone moments for people different from you.
- Consider Your Leadership Style. We are all human and can’t be at our best all the time. But on average, where do you fall on the leadership spectrum? Does your style create a feeling of belonging among your team? Would you be proud if a more junior member of your team emulated your style? Talk to your team about where you feel like you may fall short as a leader or team member and set goals or reminders to go out of your way to create a sense of belonging through one-on-one conversations and group gatherings.