Why is D&I Important to Me?
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Dear emerging ally
I mentioned Diversity and Inclusion is personal to me. I should try to explain. To give context. I grew up Quaker - a member of the Society of Friends. It is a small religion. But not uncommon in Philadelphia where I grew up. Quakers are pacifists. We do not believe violence solves an issue. This is where people’s perceptions of what a pacifist is come into play.
I was a recently out of college working as an actuarial trainee. For those unfamiliar with the profession it’s someone who uses math and statistics to do financial modeling - largely for insurance companies. It is a profession and as such has a series of exams to get licensed. To become fully licensed took 10 exams at the time. The exams cover Math, Statistics, Tort law, Finance and Economics among other things. It takes on average over 8 years to pass all the exams. Each exam requires 400 hours of study and the exams are every 6 months or so - at least they used to be. You do this while you do a full time job. The pass rate for any given exam is pegged at 35-40%. The other issue is your continued employment generally requires you to pass an exam every 18 months. If you don’t pass you get let go. When you do pass there are nice raises and promotions. It’s a real up or out profession. Hence exam passing is super important.
In a year or so on the job I had passed the first 2 exams and was studying hard for a third. When I passed that one I felt pretty good. One day my supervisor was talking to me about work and brought up my recent exam. He said he was surprised I passed. I was a little confused. I had studied after all. Did he think it was luck? Was my approach wrong? He said he found out I was Quaker so it was a shock to him. As a pacifist he wasn’t sure I had the drive to get thru the exams. The exams required go-getters and people that were aggressive. A passive person just was not going to make it. Perhaps I should consider teaching instead. Most actuaries become teachers don’t they?
I was stunned. I tried to explain that pacifist didn’t mean passive and that many business leaders were actually Quaker. Even 2 presidents: Nixon and Hoover - not our best work we admit. He seemed unmoved.
I had no sense of HR. No ideas about an ombundsman or even who to talk to. What if others felt the same? If he would say that to me it must be felt elsewhere. If people thought that what were my career prospects? Why would they support someone they didn’t think would ever get through the exams?
So I left the company and pursued the career elsewhere. It would be nice to say I found a place where I belonged and could be myself. But I simply took the chickens way out and hid my religion. I began years of hiding. Even worse when I started to fail exams - did I mention they are hard - I started to think he might be right. It ate at my self confidence. I started to self censor myself at work. Trying desperately to fit in with the group. Trying to be someone else. Fall into group think.
I told no one about this. It was embarrassing. I don’t know why but it was. After years I told my wife. She made me realize how ridiculous he was - using language I will not repeat - and she spent the next few years stitching back my self confidence. I passed the exams and am an actuary today because of her.
Putting that behind me also allowed me to thrive at work not just in the exams. I stopped self censoring. I became more me. Giving different thoughts and viewpoints at work. My thoughts. My views. And the career took off. Jumping into little known areas at the time like data warehousing and ERM. Was it a Cinderella story? No. Did I mess up? Yes. Would people still question my beliefs? Yes. But I flew higher than I would have and was much more comfortable at work as I was more me.
But I know I have the advantage. I am a white male. I COULD hide. But not everyone has that option. As I reflected on that I realized I could not walk just away. I wanted to see if I could make the journey easier for others. Be an ally.
I started to reach out and to folks. I joined Diversity and Inclusion committees. ERGs. Understand the issues. Mentor. Be mentored. Learn. I tried to help move the needle so hopefully others could have an easier time. I failed a lot. Got a fair amount wrong. But hopefully helped people and made some friends.
One thing I learned is that allies are crucial to overcoming these problems. Allies can help make things easier. More bearable. And can help others avoid potholes. Hence I thought writing a blog to help more people become allies would help move the needle further. After all if there are more allies then there are more people they can help.
I am not perfect by any stretch. You don’t need to be to be an ally. I am writing these to help others realize that they can harness their inner ally and help others. Because everyone has their own story of exclusion. And if you can get through yours you can be an ally for others.