Jenny Condron is chief actuarial officer at Mercer and became the first female chair of the Association of Consulting Actuaries in 2018. Here she tells Laura Miller what it takes to make it in a man’s world, the one thing that scares her most, and why Queen Elizabeth II beats the Queen of Pop.
Condron, as part of a six-strong advisory board, is helping Professional Pensions shape the inaugural Women in Investment Festival, which will take place on Tuesday 3 March 2020 at The Brewery in London.
You graduated from Oxford University in 1991 with an MA in mathematics. We know STEM subjects - which lead to better paid careers - are still dominated by men. What made you choose maths, and how do we get more young women into STEM?
Maths was the only subject I was good at, at school. I loved it - there is a certain satisfaction working through a problem and knowing you have the right answer.
I went to a girls' school - so there was never any question of which subjects girls should or should not do. I remember very clearly, though, my first tutorial at university. In a mixed-sex group my immediate (and mad, with hindsight) reaction was that I was not good enough. Mentoring would really have helped.
The Association of Consulting Actuaries (ACA) appointed you as its first female chair. Women comprise less than 2% of global financial institutions' CEOs. How did you break into the boardroom, and what advice would you give to other women to crack it?
In truth, it was an accident. I agreed to become treasurer without realising the likely progression would be to chair - and by then it was too late. Again, I think for some, mentoring can really help in building self-belief and self-confidence. Tackling imposter syndrome is a tough one for many of us.
Critically, keep saying ‘yes' to interesting opportunities as they come along - you will always learn something new.
You have been working in financial services for the best part of three decades. Who are the inspirational women you have met, particularly in the investment sector, and what do they have in common?
I met Helena Morrissey [chair of the Diversity Project] around 25 years ago. She was a number two to the lead consultant then, as was I, and I remember she had a place at the table, and was given ‘space' at the meeting to present. It must have made a huge difference in her development and belief that she had a right to be there. We need to ensure all of our upcoming talent also get that chance.
I think many women in the industry are expert jugglers - of work and life - it is quite amazing what we all achieve.
What is the worst example of sexist behaviour you have come across in the financial sector?
Unfortunately, there are so many who unwittingly put women down or make assumptions about what they can and can't accommodate when juggling life and work.
I have, in recent years, been referred to as ‘my glamorous assistant' and am still asked to join pitch teams because we need some diversity on them. We need to keep calling it out when we experience it, and gradually change will happen.
What role do men have to play in increasing diversity in finance?
Their role is hugely important in increasing all types of diversity, and there are many I have worked with whose impact is clear. What men and women want from a career is often identical - opportunities to progress but also to juggle work-life balance.
Those men who doggedly resist recognising this will become very isolated - simply put no one will want to work with them when there are others who will give such support.
You have been at Mercer working in pensions for the best part of three decades. Women's pensions are on average almost 40% less than men's. What can the investment sector do to fix that?
There are a huge number of factors underlying this issue. For all of us, saving earlier and at an appropriate level, is the only way by which we can build up pension, or other savings pots, to meet our retirement aspirations.
You are a mentor at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. What do you do there?
It is about being a mentor for women who often simply want a sounding board to reassure them they're on the right path and what they are trying to achieve is doable. I have been amazed by the ambition and successes of some I have spoken to.
In the spirit of *that* now infamous interview with Theresa May, what is the naughtiest thing you have ever done?
Probably copying someone else's homework - but quickly realising that, with maths, it is a road to ruin as you have to show all your workings too.
What scares you most?
Failing to be a role model for my children, in terms of building their self-belief and that expectations of men and women should be the same at home and at work.
Madonna, Margaret Thatcher, or Queen Elizabeth II - who is your spirit animal?
The Queen - she is an amazing woman who has navigated a very challenging career (and still does!).
If you hadn't been an actuary what would your dream job be?
A seamstress. Turning shapeless fabric into something beautiful is as rewarding as solving a maths problem, but the rewards are very different.
If you were prime minister for a day, what would you do to improve the country?
Where to begin? The fact almost a third of children, four million, in the UK are living in poverty is truly shocking. We all need to do more to give them opportunities for a better and fairer future.
Women in Investment Festival
The Women in Investment Festival - being held in partnership with Professional Pensions along with its sister publications Investment Week, Professional Adviser, Retirement Planner and Investment Europe - is a one-day festival that aims to celebrate successful women in the industry. It is sponsored by HSBC Global Asset Management and will take place on Tuesday 3 March 2020 at The Brewery in London.
For more details on the line-up, and to buy tickets for the festival, please click here.