A Conversation with the Founders of the Network of Actuarial Women and Allies (NAWA)

by Sarah Manuel, FCAS, MAAA

The Network of Actuarial Women and Allies was recently founded and is already taking off. I talked with the founders to learn more about this organization, why it’s important, and what their hopes are for the future.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version was printed in this edition of Future Fellows due to space constraints.

SL: Sandy Lowe (she/her), FCAS, Co-Founder of NAWA
AO: Adrienne Ostroff (she/her), FSA, EA, CERA, FCA, MAAA, Co-Founder of NAWA
AR: Amber Rohde (she/her), FCAS, Co-Founder of NAWA


Why was it important to you to start NAWA:
AR: For me, working in different offices, countries, jobs, teams, have all really allowed me to analyze and better grasp how different one’s experience can be based on the diversity you’re surrounded by. Sometimes you can find yourself on a team where everyone sounds the same, there is one right answer and approach, and if you don’t identify with that it can be demoralizing, it can stunt your career growth, and it can really hurt your confidence. However, when you find teams like my current one, where diversity in people and thought is more prevalent and appreciated, it can make all the difference. You feel empowered, accepted, you grow, you add value, you’re much happier.

When we, Adrienne, Sandy, and myself were first introduced by a mutual friend, we spoke about our journeys and the possibility of forming this group. We met with other women and other diversity groups as well. Though we’re all in different places in our careers and have different experiences, we shared similar views on women and underrepresented individuals in the workplace. It amazed us that this group didn’t exist before, as there is a clear need for this. We discussed the latest McKinsey Women in the Workplace study and how after years of progress, some of that was anticipated to be wiped out due to COVID. Concerning was the situation for women of color and career progression for all women. We talked about CAS vs SOA stats. The recent survey results for both the CAS and the SOA indicate that women hold about a third (slightly less) of the designations. Scarier was, depending on how you split that data, the percent is possibly decreasing over the last 10-15 years. Something definitely has to change.

SL: I am really passionate and excited about what we’re doing because I noticed early on in my career the lack of women in this field. Less than a third of the members who hold designations are women, and my own workplace is no different in that there are noticeably more men than women. My employer and my department have done amazing jobs of finding ways to support women. We have a fantastic mentorship program for women from which I really did benefit - and I quickly understood the power and necessity of such a program. I began to realize that it would be really difficult for someone who works at a company that doesn’t have a similar program, or if someone is the only woman in their department and lacks a network to lean on for topics such as self-confidence, feeling qualified, and imposter syndrome, among others. These are all topics that we discuss within the safe space of our mentorship program. My eyes were opened once I realized I wasn’t alone in the difficulties I was wrestling with. I found value in being able to talk to others about their experiences and have seen myself and others grow and succeed with that support.

AO: I’ve worked at two larger consulting firms and had different experiences at each firm, depending on the project and team. These experiences were on both sides of the spectrum as far as feeling really inspired and included and welcomed by the culture that the leader I worked for created, and then totally on the other side, the particular teams were pretty cutthroat, and the way that I made it work was convincing myself that “I can hang in the boys club!”. Especially getting into a role that included more travel where there were less women willing to do it for a longer period of time, just seeing that that didn’t create the environment that I felt was really top performing, it was just that the individuals that were willing to assimilate to that environment were the ones that were getting ahead in that situation. Over the last couple years, I really started to take note of which teams I worked on that really felt like they were top performing, and as I started to staff my teams, I looked for people who don’t look like me or think like me at all different levels and making sure that I was aligning myself to leaders that I felt like really challenged myself in positive ways. Before I left my last firm, I was aligned to a leader that I felt represented all of those things. They were open, authentic, transparent, and the way that they led inspired the people below them to do the same. There was still work to be done in terms of the diversity of the team, but the inclusion was there and there was, as the inclusion started to grow, we realized that the team was more diverse than we anticipated at the beginning: people came forward and were more comfortable being their true selves. For example, I had never talked with my team about how I celebrate Shabbat on Fridays and that Judaism is really important to me. I think that seeing how that team came together and the diversity and inclusion, kind of that cross section, I realized that that’s really what makes a team high performing. So that inspired me to leave that firm, start my own firm, and just create teams that are like that all the time, and then I think it was really good timing for us to get together to talk about this organization, because my head was really in that space of “it doesn’t need to be like that, we don't’ need to assimilate to that environment and then change it in 20 years once we’re more in leadership, we don’t have to wait until the end of our careers, we can make that change earlier on.”

How was NAWA started, and how have things been going so far?

SL: We didn’t know each other before this - we were all introduced by Mallika Bender, the CAS DE&I staff actuary. I personally responded to a CAS DIG survey, so if anyone’s looking to get involved, they should respond to a DIG survey! There was a question related to “what are you passionate about volunteering for” and I said something along the lines of wanting to increase representation of women in the industry or find ways to increase the talent pipeline to include more women. From that response, Mallika reached out and said that there were a couple of other women interested in starting a women’s organization, and from there we met, brainstormed ideas, and ran with it. It’s been a great working relationship, and despite not having known each other previously, I think we work together really well and it helps that we’re all passionate about it too.

AO: We’re still very much in the beginning stages. We’re getting all of the infrastructure in place - the entity registration, the 501c3 application, etc. - what’s been really exciting has been the overwhelming response from women and allies in the industry coming forward to say “why didn’t this exist before? What can I do to get involved?” and it’s more people than we really know how to put into action just yet. That’s the overwhelming part but it’s really exciting because I feel like once we mobilize everybody we can put all of those people into action and I think we’re going to see a ton of progress. At the very least, even when we’ve just connected with some of those volunteers, just that moment is a networking opportunity, and getting to connect with some of the women who are passionate about empowering women and allyship and bringing light to unconscious bias - all of the topics that we’re so passionate about, I think it’s been like a magnet for those that think the same way or at least want to see the same type of progress, which is really exciting. So from that perspective I feel like it’s going really well. We’re kind of barrelling toward our NAWA launch event which will take place in late September/early October.

AR: The energy we’ve been getting from people on this is just fabulous. We hit over 700 followers on LinkedIn within the first two months! We’re not the only ones who feel that there’s a need for this and we can really feel that within the community.

What are your goals for the organization? What are some of the things that you’re hoping to do for the next year, and then what are your hopes for the organization long term?

AR: NAWA’S mission is to connect and empower women of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and life circumstances to be successful in the actuarial profession. Specifically, we have three foundational principles on which we’ll aim to focus our content and activities over the coming years (although these may evolve over time as well as we start to get input from our volunteers and members). #1: Increase equity and representation of women in the profession - at entry, in leadership positions, as speakers, as thought leaders, really in everything we do. #2: Create a sense of community across sectors, specialities, and all walks of life. And finally #3: We want to provide opportunities for personal and professional development tailored toward women as well as the allies who empower them. We want to expand the number of women designated in the field as well. So as we look to do this, we’re looking to how we can help via mentoring, how we can have a presence at universities, and so much more. Really we’ll be looking for all of your support as volunteers - feet on the floor, and really how we can better reach students or potential future students. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any opinions or want to discuss further! It’s important to hear from the community here.

AO: In terms of big ideas, we’ve talked about having mentorship programs - that can be really successful specifically for women, for actuaries, and specifically cross-company because it’s great to get advice, especially if you’re thinking about a career change, especially if you’re talking to somebody who’s not in your world. We’ve talked about doing an annual meeting, perhaps tacked onto certain conferences, certain in-person events, networking, and then have also talked about different trainings for allies. It was really important to us that “Ally” was part of the name of the organization to make sure that we’re not only being inclusive of allies, but recognizing that the problem is not only that women need to be trained and networked and mentored, but that allies need to be paving the way for those women to be empowered and continue to move up.

AR: At this point in our journey we’re very much in this info gathering stage, so not only do we want to hear from the people following us and potential volunteers and what not, but we’ve reached out to the other diversity networks and we’re trying to listen to their journeys and what they feel works well for their network that they’re trying to represent and what hasn’t worked well. And we’re trying to focus on what’s different about our group here and how that should work.

Is there anything you want to say to actuarial candidates about how they could get involved or any advice you’d have for them?

AO: What I think is great for people in school now and graduating, is that they are more demanding of their workplace and the culture than I think I was. As I interview college students, I think it’s amazing that what they’re asking of their employer is equity for all, and making sure that they have proper work/life balance, and I think that there’s a whole different mentality coming out of school and my advice would be to not let that go. Because I think you’re going to get challenged by the previous generation of actuaries that that’s not the way things are, and I think that that’s the way things should be. So if you see something that doesn’t feel right, you should feel empowered to challenge it, and I don’t know that I always was. I feel like I thought you had to assimilate first and then you could make change. So just continuing to challenge what looks like a norm that everyone’s going along with, more people have problems with it than you’d think, so I think challenging it is the right move. So, not to lose that.

SL: Think about what defines success. The definition of success often reflects a male perspective, and I think what we’ve learned is that how men achieve success shouldn’t be the only way, so don’t feel like you have to fit the mold. Building up certain characteristics can be positive, but don’t lose sight of the strengths that you naturally bring to the table. Find advocates who see the value in and will speak up for your strengths. Early in my career, the examples that I looked up to were strong women but also a lot of men, so naturally you try to figure out “ok, what characteristics are common?” However, those weren’t always as innate, or my strengths necessarily, and often I found myself trying to fit into that mold and comparing myself to those standards instead of realizing that there are other positive things that I personally bring to the table that can still lead to success.

AR: I love that, the theme I’m gathering is just “bring your authentic self!” and don’t let that go, and don’t be afraid to push if you have to.

AO: Because other people will, once they see you doing it too! Even though it’s scary and vulnerable.

AR: Yeah, you’re generally not alone, even if you think you are.

AO: For how to get involved, we have our email address Ally@NAWAactuaries.org if anyone wants to get involved as a volunteer. We are currently collecting volunteers who are interested in writing articles, speaking on a panel or joining one of NAWA’s four impact committees. Check out the link for the volunteer survey on our LinkedIn. We’ve talked about having ambassadors at different college campuses more long term - so follow us on LinkedIn for more details on that. As we have more formal committees we’ll be posting those there.

Could you tell me about a time when you had a wonderful advocate or mentor that really helped you?

SL: At certain levels within my company, there’s a posting process if you want to move into more managerial roles, and I didn’t feel qualified to post for some of the postings that were released. It was only after some of the conversations with my mentor that I realized that I actually was qualified and should pursue the posting. I really think that if it wasn’t for my mentor advocating for me, talking me through why it was a good opportunity, and helping me understand that not getting the job didn’t automatically mean failure and that I have people who would pick me back up and keep me moving forward, I would have waited much longer to actually post for a manager role. Thinking of the broader impact, we’ve talked about and seen statistics of how if you look at higher levels in corporations, the proportion of women drastically decreases. In other words, when you look at C-Suite representation there really is not the same representation of women as at entry level. I think that more often than not, men don’t share my same struggle with that internal battle of not feeling qualified, or thinking that my manager didn’t mention it to me so maybe that means he doesn’t think I’m ready, and other similar thoughts. This is a more common theme among women however, and I believe this difference is a potential driver behind some of those statistics and what plays out in how women maybe don’t progress as quickly or don’t feel comfortable posting for different jobs. Even today, I am still really thankful for my mentor who was willing to have that conversation with me, didn’t pressure me into posting, was understanding of my feelings, but wanted to create a starting point to at least talk about why I wasn’t considering the role.

What kinds of changes do you think would need to be made for the representation to hold true as people progress throughout their careers?

AR: A big thing here is that a successful career doesn’t just involve doing your job well - it involves networking and having those networks evolve into relationships and some of those into mentorships which could evolve into sponsorship and advocacy. And having that advocate and that sponsor throughout your career at various points can really have a big impact. I know for me that’s really helped, and at various points in my career I’ve had a strong advocate - he’s stepped in and maybe questioned decisions and done things behind the scenes that have really helped me, and I probably wouldn’t be in the same place without this person.

One thing that we need to think more about is not just that sponsorship and advocacy is important, but that we all have an affinity bias to reaching out and mentoring people that have similarities to us. Maybe we see a skill of ours that is in somebody else, and maybe we tend to bring them along the way with us. At every level, in the most junior and senior levels, we need to start to recognize the presence of our affinity bias and start reaching out and advocating for people who are different than us. Reverse mentoring would help with this, too - people who are perhaps different from us and look at things differently, get to know them and their perspective, and help bring them up and advance through their careers.

SL: There have been articles highlighting the difference between evaluating some people based on potential and requiring others to have a proven track record. When someone does resonate with you, there is more potential for that unconscious bias to creep in and you might start to look past a required proven track record and instead only focus on the potential. These are examples of some of the biases we hope to do more education on.

AO: We’re focused in this moment on current actuaries moving up the ladder, and in addition we should also look at the pipeline - we’re still not at 50/50. So awareness of the profession is really important across all of the diversity networks - just if people knew about it earlier, and awareness of the types of biases that exist and the way it can impact your impression of people’s performance, but also the awareness around why more women in leadership is better for everybody. There are a lot of studies showing how much better negotiations go, how much better a C-Suite operates. And diversity of any kind, I think, a lot of studies focus on that, but what NAWA is really pushing on is that more women in the workplace will be much better for everyone, it’s not just a selfless act by our allies to empower women moving up the ladder.

If you were to look at an actuarial department and pick out the things to figure out whether you’re on the right track - here’s how I will know if I’m doing a good job, and here’s how I’m going to move toward where I want to be - how would you evaluate that?

AO: Initially, I was like “I’m a woman-owned business, and I’m only hiring women!” and then I was realizing that really isn’t harnessing the diversity that I’m looking for, nor is it feasible in a profession with 15%-20% women. So, I feel like I’ve thought a lot about it especially because I feel like we work in a field where there are more men at entry, and at all the levels. I think the point is that a more diverse workforce is going to put out a better work product, have a more high performing team, have happier employees, and I think that the metrics that should be measured are more around those positive business outcomes. I think that we need to have milestones for the percentage of women, men, nonbinary, etc. and be looking at those things and make sure that people feel empowered to come forward if they don’t feel like they fit into the buckets that you’re saying are the buckets. I think the more important thing is looking at engagement, that feeling of wellbeing, feeling like if you do a survey and people are saying that if they saw something wrong they don’t feel like they could say something, that’s a problem that there could be really big issues that never get corrected. So I think that setting up the infrastructure in a way where you’re regularly checking on those things and making sure that people feel welcomed, included, mentored, advocated for, regularly asking those questions of your employees and having one on one conversations with them. Because with that survey alone, you’re not going to get all the details. Focus groups, really digging in, and asking people - because these are things that are vulnerable. And at least for me, working at a large firm, I felt a little bit of distrust of what that survey was used for, so I wasn’t always going to be super forthcoming, but if they really dug in and somebody met with me, then I would really tell them how I feel. So I think that really asking staff and having those kinds of conversations regularly will be the only way you’ll know that you really succeeded and created that environment because the whole point, I think, is that if you’re only focused on the breakdown, on the gender distribution, is it’s not recognizing the reason why we care to have that distribution is to improve all of these other metrics. The other big thing that I feel strongly about is that infrastructure within your company for performance evaluation and staffing - does it creates positive reinforcement for the behaviors that you want? If you’re in a very relationship-driven environment, and people are essentially rewarded for continuing to staff their mini-me’s, and they’re giving them good feedback and it’s this positive feedback loop up and down, you’ve created a system that is not really conducive to this inclusive environment . All in all, I think it’s continuously checking in that you have the right positive reinforcements for the behaviors that you want.

AR: I also want to add that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are three separate words and you do really need all of them to have all of them. Having an inclusive workplace where everybody feels like they belong, you’re not going to have diversity without that & you won’t retain that diversity even if you get it in through the door. If you don’t have equitable processes and systems in place for hiring, for comp planning, for all of that, performance evaluations, you’re not going to retain diversity. You need everything to really get to the right place with it.

AO: It really should be ingrained in every process and procedure, it shouldn’t just be this thing that one person takes care of. That’s really important, especially right now - I feel like a lot of companies are hiring that one person, and not ingraining the whole strategy into everything that they do.

AR: And this is why we specifically wanted the word “Ally” in NAWA when we were creating it - everyone needs an ally at times, and everyone should have the opportunity to be an ally, and that’s such an important part of feeling included. Everybody in an inclusive environment should feel safe, not judged, welcomed in the community, etc, which is going to benefit the diversity of the group as well.

SL: It does also make me think - many companies do have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives and trainings and encourage participation from employees. They also have corporate goals or department-wide goals. I think what is really important though is that if you have those goals, there needs to be accountability at an individual level. I don’t believe that individual accountability is universal among companies, but I don’t know how you’d get to achieving those broader goals without it. What is also important to keep in mind is that the people who go to DE&I sessions are usually those that personally align with those goals and seek to prioritize it, but to create a more inclusive workplace, we need everyone to be part of the conversation. I think it’s important to have sessions that encourage a larger audience, for example a general session at a CAS meeting, or ensuring that people get CE credit for attending, because then we can create more allies.

How do you feel about people who do not identify as women being a part of NAWA?

AO: NAWA is not just about women, it should be about everybody, no matter how you identify. A large focus of our group is on awareness, how to be a better ally in general to all individuals who feel like the ‘other’ or ‘only’ at any moment, which is every person at any point in your life will feel like an other. We feel like ally comes in all forms - women, nonbinary people, gender-fluid, men, beyond, so learning to be a better ally I think is a skill and it doesn’t just apply to how women are treated in the workplace it applies to us all, and how everyone is treated. So certainly everyone is welcome, and we want the content we’re pushing out to be supportive of all the ways that people identify.