By Carlos Fuentes
On March 2018 the Entrepreneurial & Innovation Section interviewed Dr. Meredith Reitman, president of Reitman Research and Strategy, on topics that deal with diversity and inclusion in the workplace with a focus on racial equity.
In this edited transcript, Meredith defines important terms, explains how underrepresentation is calculated, places the actuarial profession in context, discusses similarities with other professions, and argues that some of the typical explanations for lack of diversity, while correct, only scratch the surface of this complex problem. She also makes general recommendations to make the actuarial profession more diverse, inclusive and equitable.
CF: How did you first become interested in this topic?
MR: As a white woman, my conscious awareness of how race operates in our country came relatively late in life—not until my early 20s. I had been living in Los Angeles for a few years and had just made the move up to Seattle. I hadn’t really noticed the diversity of my life in Los Angeles, but arriving in Seattle brought it into stark contrast. Soon after I arrived I went to an annual music festival attended by thousands of people, most of them white folks. Something immediately felt wrong. That’s not to say I hadn’t been in all-white spaces growing up in the Midwest, or going to a private college, but this was the first time I actually noticed it. And, even more disturbingly, none seemed surprised. It took a while (too long) for me to realize that some Seattlites were indeed people of color, but the city was so highly segregated that it was rare for white people and people of color to even cross paths.
I ended up staying in Seattle to get my doctorate and decided that understanding this race stuff would be my focus. I needed to have this conversation—the silence was deafening. I ended up focusing my research on the local IT industry (Microsoft, Amazon) for exactly that reason: IT was predominantly white, but no one was talking about it. Of course, that conversation has thankfully changed in the past few years.
CF: Your example of the music festival brings up an important distinction. Obviously, there was a lack of racial diversity at the festival. But Seattle had some racial diversity overall, it was just highly segregated. How do you define these terms—diversity, inclusion and equity—in a way that enables meaningful discussion?
MR: Yes, I’m so happy to clarify this, because I think people don’t spend enough time slowing down to understand what these buzzwords mean. Here I’m drawing on the amazing report coming out of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners called “Unrealized Impact: The Case for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” 1 Though it’s focused on the education sector, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this topic due to the rigor of the research involved.
Diversity is variation. So, the population of Queens—where I live—is very diverse; there is representation from many different racial and ethnic identities in this borough. Inclusion is putting that diversity into action, making sure all groups have decision-making power. Queens is not particularly inclusive—borough and district decisions are made by a long-standing cohort of people who are mostly white and mostly male. Equity highlights outcomes across racial groups. Again, Queens does not fare well here—health, education, employment and income indicators show wide disparities between Black, Latinx, Asian and white residents. So, you can see how an overreliance on, for example, diversity alone can leave out a lot of important work to be done.
CF: You mentioned that your initial academic research explored the information technology (IT) workplace, which shares some similarities to the actuarial field in that they are both considered STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. What did you find regarding racial equity in that workplace?
MR: I found that there was indeed a story that was not being told 2. IT employees were predominantly white because the companies were hiring through word-of-mouth, which rides on the back of highly segregated social networks. Where there was more diversity was actually on the technical side of things—black folks seemed more able to obtain jobs based on skills when applying as software engineers. The mass of managerial and sales jobs, however, were occupied by a higher percentage of white folks than those jobs in any comparable industry I explored. On top of that, once there, employees of color were often subjected to a kind of combined scrutiny and exclusion that added a great deal of stress and distraction to their daily work lives.
All of this, of course, means that companies are not hiring the best folks for the job and are losing good folks if they get them. That’s no way to sustainably turn a profit.
CF: Often people claim one of the major benefits of diversity is innovation. Can you expand on this idea?
MR: Yes, absolutely. Research has shown time and time again that diverse teams—those that are varied—come up with better ideas. As a recent article in HBR 3 summed it up, “businesses run by culturally diverse leadership teams were more likely to develop new products than those with homogenous leadership teams.” That is definitely a major selling point for starting on this work. But I also want to bring it back to the idea of a sustainable organization—if you’re not hiring and keeping the smartest folks, how can you even begin to have good ideas?
CF: I know you’ve been taking a closer look at the actuarial field. What have you found?
MR: According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau 4, 82.7 percent of actuaries are white, 11.3 percent are Asian, 2.5 percent are black and 1.8 percent are Hispanic or Latinx. This varies significantly from the distribution of racial groups within the college educated population. Across the United States, only 74 percent of college educated people are white, only 9.3 percent are Asian, 7.7 percent are black and 7.0 percent are Hispanic or Latinx. If we use standard methodology to calculate underrepresentation in a workforce—i.e., less than 80 percent of what would be expected from the labor pool—we would indeed find severe levels of underrepresentation at just 30 percent for both black and Latinx college-educated workers.
The choice to focus on the college-educated population is intentional. Often discussions about racial disparities point to a “pipeline” as the primary—and often sole—cause of these types of disparities. Racial inequality is the result of our education system, this argument contends, so once young people are in the “pipeline” and facing poor schools, poor learning and no chance at college, their fate is nearly sealed. Any responsibility or potential for redress must come in the form of fixing or supplementing the education system. But what if we control for educational attainment by looking only at those who have completed a bachelor’s degree? We still see severe underrepresentation. Even in comparison with other STEM professions, actuaries rank among the lowest representation of black and Latinx employees. No doubt there are many things to fix about our educational system and the highly varied opportunities it provides. But clearly other factors are at play in the actuarial profession.
CF: What are some of the difficulties encountered when conducting research on diversity, inclusion and equity?
There are quite a few and they take different forms. I think the hardest one is when people just don’t want to talk to you about it. This may be because they honestly believe there is nothing to discuss, or that they know there might be a problem, but are worried about opening a Pandora’s box. A lot of my job as a racial equity researcher has been to provide a combination of education and hope—“there is an issue to address and there is a way to address it.” Once people get on board, it actually can be an incredibly exciting process as a whole new perspective opens up with its accompanying sets of opportunities.
CF: Based on your experience in STEM and particularly in the software industry, do you believe that the actuarial profession can take effective actions to become more diverse, inclusive and equitable? If so, how?
MR: Yes, absolutely. There are small things that can be done immediately—the first of which is to learn more about what is going on! Who is getting recruited, hired, promoted and retained? What are standard employment practices in the field and how are they helping or hindering progress? How do people feel about their workplaces? From there, organizations can make a diagnosis and choose from a wide variety of “treatments.” Really the hardest part, if I’m going to continue the medical analogy, is deciding to go to the doctor.
Meredith Reitman, PhD, is president, Reitman Research and Strategy, LLC a firm that conducts research on racial equity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Padamsee, Xiomara et al. "Unrealized impact: The case for diversity, equity and inclusion." Bellwether Education Partners and Promise54. Accessed at http://www.unrealizedimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Unrealized_Impact-Final-072017.pdf
2Reitman, Meredith. "Uncovering the white place: Whitewashing at work." Social & Cultural Geography 7.2 (2006): 267-282, and Reitman, Meredith. "Race in the workplace: Meritocracy, whiteness and belonging." University of Washington (2004).
3Rock, David, and Heidi Grant. "Why diverse teams are smarter." Harvard Business Review 4.4 (2016): 2-5.
4U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates, "Table S1501 Educational Attainment" and 2006-2010 American Community Survey, "Table EEO-ALL02W Detailed Census Occupation by Sex, and Race/Ethnicity for Worksite Geography, Total Population."