• Laura Hay, Leadership |


Learning from history

History is replete with ‘fortunate’ catalytic moments, and that’s also true among many KPMG women who found their place in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), and later segued into successful insurance careers. Today, STEM is an exciting place to be, and the world is beginning to encourage more women - and talented persons of all diverse backgrounds - to pursue these fantastic skills. Insurance is a great place for individuals and teams alike and, this first article looks at some of the reasons why.

For example, Laura Gray, Partner and Head of Actuarial at KPMG in the US, received a helpful nudge: “My high school calculus teacher circulated an article that said ‘actuary’ was the top career of that year, and it made me curious to find out more.

Anette Bronder, Partner at KPMG Switzerland, also found inspiration in a chance interaction. “Near the end of my economics and politics studies, I met someone from a tech firm who was bringing technology and people together to enable business processes. I joined his team because he convinced me this was a ‘cool’ thing to do.

It was also a ‘happy accident’ for Jeanne Johnson, Principal at KPMG in the US, who recounted that she tacked technology onto her math and statistics track, because her audit office was beside the computer lab. “I saw that I could automate data to avoid doing so many calculations on an adding machine,” laughs Jeanne. “From there I never looked back!”

In contrast, some women faced obstacles on their path to STEM studies. Among them, Helen Stijnen, Partner and Head of Insurance at KPMG in the Netherlands, recalled how, “I liked math in school but I had a teacher who thought girls were not suited to that subject. The day I discovered that I was good at it, I surprised him, and that moment of glory spurred me on.”

Similarly, Jessica Hong, Digital Transformation Director at KPMG China, had to overcome attitudinal hurdles: “I started studying computer science but I dropped out after first year because I was one of only two females in my class. I later rediscovered my love of technology when I applied my commerce degree to develop digital landscapes to impact consumer behaviours and company performance.”

Such comments remind us that not long ago, and still today, prevailing bias can discourage high-potential women from pursuing the spark they feel to discover STEM possibilities.

‘Eureka’ moments also led to insurance:

There were also surprises for women who felt early confidence in their STEM affinities. Alison Rose, Partner and Actuary at KPMG in Canada, recounted how, “I thought I was destined to be a math teacher, until I met an actuary at a school career fair. At age 14, I said, ‘Woo-hoo! That’s what I am going to do'."

Other women were surprised - not by their path into insurance - but by the unexpected opportunities that awaited them. Fiona Chau, Partner and Actuary at KPMG China told us “I did an actuarial degree, so an insurance career seemed natural. But, I didn’t realize how interesting the industry really is. There are so many parts of the business, from actuarial, to distribution to underwriting.”

In fact, a number of interviewees were excited to discover how they could move from academic or theory-based STEM work to its practical and purposeful application, in aid of many big picture challenges.

Viviane Leflaive, Head of Insurance at KPMG in France, included how “I suddenly realized that insurance is about mathematics applied to the real world. I love that it connects theory to real world issues, like aging, long-term care for senior citizens, pollution, and so on.”

Leanne Allen, Partner at KPMG in the UK, agreed, noting that she has leveraged her data analytics foundation to deliver business intelligence for major company transformations: “I’m immersed in cloud technology, automation through Artificial Intelligence, to streamline processing, predict consumer demand and more.”

“My mother suggested insurance so I could combine business with my analytical side,” recalls Alissa Ristic, Advisory Managing Director at KPMG in the US. A skill that many insurers would agree bring excellent value to the industry. Holly Ou, Partner and Actuarial Lead at KPMG China agreed, responding “This industry offers so much breadth, and STEM runs across the entire insurance value chain. I’ve had the chance to try so many different jobs in insurance, from underwriting to operations,”

After a nearly 40-year career in insurance myself, I definitely echo what my KPMG colleagues say in terms of constantly new challenges to explore, and the resulting opportunities for women to reach positions of leadership.

In my own case, I’m a second-generation actuary, and my role model was my dad. From his executive role with an insurance company, he showed me that you can match math and leadership. And these days, STEM training can move you to the forefront, since this industry needs leaders with this knowledge and experience. Essentially, by marrying STEM with business sense and leadership capabilities, you can have a very fulfilling and vast career.

Turning history into new opportunities:

Thinking back to my own ‘eureka’ moment - and those of the other STEM-women I’ve described above - there’s no shortage of great challenges, and advancement potential, for STEM-minded women in insurance.

While each woman’s personal story is great to hear, now is the time to learn from them. How can more women be encouraged to study STEM? And how can you help ensure insurance welcomes them with every opportunity to contribute and thrive? Stay tuned, as these and other issues are discussed in the series.

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