Women make up an increasing number of the 18,000 actuaries who work in the field nationwide, but that wasn't always the case. Kirk recalls a distinct imbalance of men and women in the actuarial field in the late 1970s.
"When I first started, I was quite often the only female in professional meetings," she said. During annual actuary conferences, "the women would kind of clump together because there were so few of us," but that has changed.
At Indianapolis-based American United Life Insurance Co., about 30 percent of the company's actuaries are women, said David A. Brentlinger, senior vice president and chief actuary.
Kathy Garrity, a consulting actuary with Carmel-based United Actuarial Services, has also seen the numbers grow. Garrity has worked in the field for about 20 years, long before what she calls the "hoopla" surrounding actuarial careers. When she began exploring career options in college, few schools offered actuarial programs. Today about 100 schools, including IUPUI and Butler, Indiana and Purdue universities, offer the major.
As with Kirk, Garrity rarely came across other female actuaries during the 1980s, but the small number of women proved to be advantageous.
"Companies who didn't have women on their staff were keenly interested in helping female applicants succeed in their testing," she said.
As with other high-level careers, there are challenges with balancing work and family, Garrity said. "For example, as a consultant actuary you need to be there when they need you, particularly with mergers and acquisitions, which can require longer hours."
Opportunities for women to advance are equal to those of men, Kirk says, but "the more successful women in the field tend to have nontraditional families where the husband may be the stay-athome parent or work in a less stressful position."
Most actuaries agree that becoming an actuary is the hardest part of the job. Stu dents must pass a series of tests offered by the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society to achieve associate and fellowship status-which some people compare to a master's degree and a doctorate.
Kirk's initial round of testing included exams that ranged from three to six hours of testing. "To have any chance of passing the test, I had to study approximately 100 hours per each hour of exam," she said. "It helps to have a very supportive husband, because you pretty much give up your social life. I am convinced I would not have made it through those first big exams if I had had children at the time."
Emily Puntenney, a recent graduate of IUPUI's actuary program, works for Mer cer, a business consulting arm of global risk-management company Marsh & McLennan, in Phoenix, Ariz.
Though math is one of the subjects emphasized throughout grade school and high school, Puntenney doesn't think there's enough discussion of mathfocused careers, like actuarial science.
Job satisfaction is major perk
While landing a well-paid position is important, the women interviewed for this story agree that job satisfaction is one of the top perks of actuary science. Garrity enjoys the problem-solving aspect of her job, describing it as real-world applications in math.
"I like the challenge of explaining complex mathematical information to our clients," she said.
When interviewing potential employees, Kirk often talks about the high degree of job satisfaction.
"I always talk about the challenge and the puzzle-like aspect of the problem solving," she said. "It's like working a puzzle to figure out how to make something work. There's variety and challenge with the problem solving."
"And it feels good to have someone say, 'I get it now.'"