Black female actuaries: Born or made?
The current context of would-be black woman actuaries
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines are characterised by a shortage of women. Actuarial science is no exception. This is especially true where black women are concerned. So, why do black females choose to study actuarial science? Why do they persist with their studies, and why do they remain in the profession? More importantly, how can this industry assist with the creation and retention of black female actuaries in South Africa?
Research suggests that individuals’ attitude towards science from school-going age, and also their aptitude and self-concept play an important role in addition to their beliefs about their academic ability and levels of self-efficacy when choosing a major subject at tertiary level. In the South African context, ‘black tax’ has become a major limitation for these individuals. The low socio-economic status of black African families persisting in black communities as a result of the apartheid legacy has meant that students often have to earn an income as soon as they graduate to support their families, more so than their white counterparts. In other words, black students who wish to advance in professions may need to study while being employed.
The active participation of senior scientists as mentors and role models has been found to be a major factor in attracting women to professions in science.
There may be hope in looking at what the research tells us about women in the broader context of science. The active participation of senior scientists as mentors and role models has been found to be a major factor in attracting women to professions in science, along with a supportive spouse. Within this context, however, a lack of black role models in the actuarial profession in South Africa has meant that black actuarial students do not have such mentors to whom they can look for advice, guidance, support and motivation. Also, many black South African students are often from low socio-economic backgrounds with parents who have not had the privilege of higher education and who are therefore unable to fill the gap themselves. The likelihood of South African black women choosing and persisting in actuarial science is therefore very small, unless industries support the attraction and retention of more black female actuaries in these communities.
To gain a better understanding of the factors related to black women entering and persisting in the actuarial profession, an exploratory study was conducted involving six participants and using two data-collection methods – narratives and semi-structured interviews. The findings of this study can indeed help to shed light on the future of black female actuaries in South Africa.
… a lack of black role models in the actuarial profession in South Africa has meant that black actuarial students do not have such mentors to whom they can look for advice …
The birth of the black female actuary
How can we determine if black female actuaries are born or made? What research tells us is that South African black female actuaries believed in their ability to succeed in actuarial studies, even as children. This comes despite the culture and image of a career in science being associated with ‘whiteness’ and masculinity. Men are seen as having a greater aptitude for mathematics and an inherent preference to study objects, whereas women are said to have an inherent preference to study people. Other research suggests that women are socialised and encouraged to pursue more nurturing roles and careers, regardless of their individual capabilities and talents.
However, natural curiosity is not a gender-specific trait, and it has been cited as a key factor in choosing a career in STEM, among other factors. Children from privileged backgrounds who had educated and supportive parents were found to be more likely to choose and succeed in a career in mathematics and science.
What research tells us is that South African black female actuaries believed in their ability to succeed in actuarial studies, even as children.
Conversely, it can be deduced that the participants in this study believed they were born to be actuaries or hold professions in science, having made the following statements, “I was good at all subjects, actually”, and “I used to do well in all my subjects and I just loved numbers … You know, as a child, and being a girl and stuff, you don’t really see yourself going down that path.” All the women interviewed were all-round top performers during their school-going years. It is worth noting, however, that academic performance is also an outcome resulting from inputs such as support, exposure and belief in one’s ability to succeed.
Furthermore, the participants in this study noted how their personalities matched the profession since their interest in actuarial science was piqued by the notion that it was difficult and challenging, and that the success rate was low. “I think it’s just my personality that I enjoy challenges … I mean … as soon as something intrigues me and stuff, I’m hundred percent committed, and I’m … willing to drive and finish it off,” was one participant’s sentiment.
These women wanted to become the role models they did not have, but they also were fuelled by the prospect of changing their communities.
Making the black female actuary
How are black female actuaries made? Participants in this study attributed their interest in the field to early exposure through junior mathematics and science-related competitions, and engaging with actuaries and professionals in STEM fields who shared information about the discipline. One participant said, “I first found out about actuarial science … when I was in Grade 7, so I was eleven.” Although the beginning of their journey towards actuarial science may have been activated by these interactions, key themes in this research suggest a combination of factors influencing their persistence and self-efficacy:
- Intrinsic belief and commitment to succeed
- Giving back or the desire to make a difference
- Top performer
- Early exposure to the field
- Support by parents, peers and partner
- Respected or prestigious profession
- Limited representation of black women in the profession
All of the participants said that, even as children, they believed in their ability to succeed in actuarial science. External factors and outputs served to fuel this belief and, even when they faced challenges, propelled them to persevere and, ultimately, be role models for other students. It can therefore be inferred that, although both internal and external factors are important in contributing towards achieving success in actuarial science, internal factors are pivotal.
It is safe to say that the potential of a black female actuary to succeed and remain in the profession can be made or broken by circumstances that influence self-efficacy.
Making the case for self-efficacy
Self-efficacy describes one’s conviction and belief in one’s ability to perform a particular task. It is created and subsequently altered based on people’s interpretations of relevant information from four primary sources: performance accomplishments or mastery experiences, vicarious experiences (e.g. observing role models), verbal or social persuasion (encouragement from others), and emotional arousal or physiological reaction.
The experience of success can influence one’s self-efficacy, demonstrating that the external factor (i.e. successful performance) influences the internal factor (i.e. self-efficacy). Some researchers have argued that self-efficacy is domain-specific. This means that an individual may be highly self-efficacious in certain areas and less in others. Self-efficacy beliefs are also organised hierarchically, such that students will develop it in a particular area of a subject, and then the next, and then the entire subject, and ultimately, to other subjects – developing into all-round top performers, which is supported by the academic achievements of the participants in this study.
In this study, the presence of female role models in actuarial science did provide encouragement. Role models not only attracted the women to the field, but also aided their persistence to succeed. One participant shared that her sister was her greatest influence as a black doctor, “… always pushing the boundaries and innovating … or doing things that you do not think that black women can do”.
Participants also stated that they looked up to their mothers. “I think … my mom’s been quite a big influence in terms of my journey and that kind of thing, and the type of person I am, because she’s actually quite a determined woman”. It also became clear that the desire to give back, which was influenced by the under-representation of black female role models in STEM fields, bolstered self-efficacy and played a critical role in their attraction to the profession. These women wanted to become the role models they did not have, but they also were fuelled by the prospect of changing their communities.
Longitudinal research has shown that mothers’ beliefs about their children’s capabilities influenced the children’s own level of self-efficacy, irrespective of the children’s academic performance. “But my entire life … it’s been my mum encouraging me, and also, … when I’ve been doing these sorts of Maths Olympiads and this kind of traveling overseas and stuff, she’s supported me a hundred percent,” said one participant.
Concurrently, due to stereotyping, black women are uncomfortable and may feel inadequate relating to the STEM fields, which can be a highly stressful workplace environment to which to adapt. Regardless, this study has proven that some of these women were fuelled by the idea of a challenging work environment.
Employers who wish to increase the participation of black women in actuarial science should therefore invest in brand and career communication to parents of girls.
The point: black female actuaries need support
It is safe to say that the potential of a black female actuary to succeed and remain in the profession can be made or broken by circumstances that influence self-efficacy. If self-efficacy can be positively influenced, nurtured and enhanced during the three key phases of becoming an actuary – namely school learner, student (pre-qualifying) and graduate (post-qualifying) – South Africa could attract and retain more black female actuaries.
The participants, for example, noted that their early exposure to actuarial science had informed their decision to enter the field. With an emphasis on the importance of hard work, effort and self-belief, and sharing information with parents and guardians on their role in supporting and nurturing self-efficacy, interest in actuarial science can be enhanced. The findings of this study hold important implications for the attraction and retention of black women into actuarial careers.
First, employers should recognise that women do not necessarily become interested in mathematics as a natural occurrence in their lives. Therefore, actuarial science can be highlighted as a potential career with good employment prospects for parents of young children. Through the encouragement of parents, young girls may take an interest in the field. Employers who wish to increase the participation of black women in actuarial science should therefore invest in brand and career communication to parents of girls. Furthermore, competitions and maths resources could be sponsored by these employers. This serves to strengthen the potential pipeline of black women actuaries for future employment. Emphasis should be placed on encouraging black girls to not only engage with mathematics but also to follow role models and to compete to become one of the best in a school or district. These measures should aid in building black girls’ levels of self-efficacy, which will ultimately lead to an increase in women’s participation in actuarial science. In addition, researchers have shown that employee workplace performance is linked to self-efficacy.
… the fact that black women actuaries know that they are part of a minority and therefore relatively unique in their career, should be harnessed by employers serious about increasing the number of black women actuaries.
The need for women to mentor and to make a difference to the lives of other black women, and the fact that black women know that they are part of a minority and therefore relatively unique in their career, should be harnessed by employers serious about increasing the number of black women actuaries. Qualified woman actuaries should also make an effort to contribute to early intervention programmes and provide mentorship to aspiring actuaries. Corporates, universities and the actuarial society could make a contribution in this regard by ensuring that they dedicate resources to establishing structured mentorship programmes that provide students with support from role models and mentors.
It has been found that women did not regard mentoring as significant in organisations where gender bias was low. The potential for gender bias may be high in a male-dominant environment such as actuarial science.
This study also highlighted the important role that mothers play in instilling self-efficacy in black women. Attaining the career aspirations that mothers have for their daughters is a big driver of competitive excellence for black actuaries in addition to fulfilling economic support expectations of their families and remaining employed as an actuary.
Being an outsider in mathematics by virtue of being black can be utilised to work in favour of young girls. Girls and women can be energised by the challenge of overturning commonly held notions of what it takes to be an actuary.
When considering an increase in employment for minorities in STEM, employers should recognise that their efforts and interventions should start long before black girls enter university. They should focus corporate and career branding efforts, involve parents, and continue with support throughout schooling, university and early career phases for black girls. With regard to self-efficacy, the power of the encouraging words and a vote of confidence can change the course of a girl’s life. Actuaries are not born, they are indeed made.
- Find the original journal article here: Phume, L. B., & Bosch, A. (2018). The Attraction and Retention of Black Woman Actuaries. Global Business Review, 21(2), 1-12.
- Prof Anita Bosch lectures in Women at Work, Human Capital Management and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.