Share your Story: Part II- Actuarial Industry & DEI – Reflections & Perspectives – Olga Jacobs

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This week features the second part of Olga Jacobs’ (FSA, MAAA) story. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the first part of her story, you can find it here.

Q: We read your interview with HealthWatch and I know that you had mentioned that having a balanced life has been a challenge in your career.

First, what are some ways that you feel that you have addressed this challenge? And the second part is what are your observations of how that’s been addressed by society as a whole?

A: Starting with my own situation, I think it’s important to define what you want in a balanced life and not worry that your answer is different from anyone else’s. And then find the courage to ask for it or to do it.

In my own life, 23 years ago, I had this vision for myself that I wanted to be a telecommuter. Now that is a heck of a long time ago, it’s not like today’s environment. When my maternity leave was almost over, I went to my boss and said, “I want to work one day a week from home.” My manager was a very smart man because 23 years ago it took him less than one minute to say yes. That was unheard of. And so, I became a telecommuter 23 years ago working one day a week from home. The days at home grew over the years and probably 15 years ago I became a full-time telecommuter.

Leading from home is a skill that really helped me not just during COVID but way before that as I worked at a company that was buying other companies. One day you go to work and find out you now have a team in Moline, Illinois. And because I was already used to leading and working with people not being face to face, I was able to integrate and lead that new team. I could build relationships, do work, and lead a team of people that were across the country. So, when COVID happened – from that perspective – it was like nothing changed for me.

So, define what you want, if your manager approves it, then good for you. And just stick to your boundaries and don’t listen to the noise around you.

Do what’s going to work for you. And if that person isn’t going to give it to you, I bet there’s someone else who will. I should say the challenge isn’t over. You should be able to set your balanced life and leave at five or whatever it is that you want – for your family, for your hobby, for your passions, for being with your friends.

Q: Though there are a lot of positives with remote work, do you see it having a negative affect? Especially relating to younger actuaries as they don’t have the opportunity to be on site and benefit from something like a rotational program- What are your thoughts on that?

A: The thing that I worry about right now with telecommuting is the impact of having 2 tracks: one, where folks are starting out in their career and only choose telecommuting, versus the ones that say, I’m going into the office. The telecommuters are going to be at a disadvantage. It’s different if everyone is in a telecommuting environment. But if one group is interacting in person, having face time, and going to lunch, they’re building relationships and being top of mind to others.  That is an advantage that the sole telecommuter cannot overcome. No matter how many virtual coffee chats you’re going to put on, it’s just not the same. And I worry about that, especially for those starting out like summer interns and new college graduates.

So now you’re going to have two tracks, right? And you’re just never going to be able to bridge that gap. No matter how extroverted and outgoing you think you are, you’re missing out. I think that full time telecommuting is great later in your career. But as long as there are people who are still meeting in person and you’re not in that room, you are at a disadvantage.

Q: Being a former member of the SOA inclusion and diversity committee, have you seen a prominent change in diversity in the actuarial community since you joined?

A: I don’t know if SOA diversity numbers have changed in that short period of time from 2014 to 2023. But what I do see as a change is how open we are now in recognizing that diversity is important and celebrating that. During my tenure, I was part of some really – to me – revolutionary things at the SOA.  Putting together the very first program meeting session that addressed being LGBTQ+ in the workplace.  We had our first LGBTQ+ reception at an SOA meeting. When I did that, and I don’t know what year it was, we worried about how that was going to be perceived. Were people even going to come to our session and reception? Today you’re not going to think twice about putting together those type of events, right?

Some other things I worked on or was involved with that seemed like a “first” are the norm now and that is good progress. For example, I was the editor in the first Actuary magazine (published by SOA) that was totally dedicated to just doing features on DEI. I was a loud voice in the room – how come all our presenters are men? How come all we have are these panels of white men? We really don’t have any females or people of color to be on panels at SOA meetings? I don’t think so! You see diversity now in panels, diversity events are held, we write about diversity. So, yes, there is a difference now. We’re more open to recognizing and celebrating that diversity, inclusion and belonging is important.

Q: Even with the actuarial field being male dominated, have you seen more women entering the field since you started out at Travelers?

A:  There were too many times in my early career where I was the only woman in a room. Do I see more women now? Yes. Are we at least 50% in the room? No, we are not. Can you believe that in my 35-year career, I have never had a female boss?

Even if I look at my reporting chain from no matter what level I’ve been, it has always been male dominated. I’ve never worked for a woman, and I’ve never worked for a man who’s worked for a woman. Isn’t that crazy? I know some wonderful female actuarial leaders where their story isn’t that way and they’re at top of the food chain. But I just think like, wow, I’ve never worked for a woman.

As we continued to reflect on changes within the industry, Cynthia, Olga and I also spoke about technological advancements; video calls, new programming languages and the efforts to keep up…

It all brings us closer together and improves what we do. I’ve seen so many new programming languages during my career when I was a more technical actuary. The programming languages that I learned and used like APL, Fortran, and Cobal are obsolete now. I remember a tech change that almost killed us: Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel. We thought how can we possible move off Lotus 1-2-3 and survive?  We won’t be able to do our work. Well, we did transition and transitioned successfully. We look back and laugh now at the anxiety we felt back then. And so, technological changes will never stop, right? And that’s a good thing. Now it’s all about R and Java and Python. Now it’s about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

It’s just going to continue, so embrace it. It all brings us closer together and improves what we do.



Article written by Marilyn Simpson; transcribed & edited by Cynthia Perez.
Be sure to keep your eye out for our next Share your Story series topic where we continue to explore the topic of DEI, featuring some very special guests!  

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