The Glass Hammer: Noelle Ramirez
Noelle Ramirez speaks with The Glass Hammer about creating a culture of belonging, expanding the diversity of recruitment, and the DEI work underway at PGIM.
Growing up in the South in the 1970s, I was a math kid. While other girls my age were going to cheerleading camp and swooning over teen idol David Cassidy, I was going to math camp and puzzling over a Rubik’s Cube, which made me feel like the odd girl out. Fortunately, there was a woman in my life who knew all about that feeling. “Your biggest ‘muscle’ is the one between your ears,” she told me. “Don’t be afraid to use it.”
That woman was my grandma, Thelma Bernice Murberg. She was born in 1915. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her, her two siblings and their mother to build a life in a world where a male head of household was expected to be the breadwinner. Intellectually curious with an independent streak, Thelma exercised her biggest “muscle” on her way to becoming her high school class valedictorian and the first woman in our family to go to college. To pay her way, she got a job as an actuary for a New York insurance firm, which was, to say the least, a rare occupation among women at that time.
I spent a lot of time with my grandma, staying with her in New Jersey for weeks every summer. We bonded over our love of numbers, and I was fascinated by her stories of working in the boys club of the insurance world, doing something she loved—even though, at age 25, many called her an old maid.
Eventually she met my grandfather, they married, and she put away her actuarial tables to focus on being a mother—to seven children. I knew she loved her kids and grandkids, but the way she spoke about her career, with her voice filled with pride, I sensed her regret that she’d given it up.
Whenever I got discouraged, she’d urge me on. “Tough it out,” she told me. Like her, I forged my own path, pursuing a degree in computer science, then an MBA. I worked my way up in the finance world. I got married in my late 30s. My grandma was cheering me on the whole time.
Eight years after she passed away, I became pregnant with my first child. Suddenly, I found myself thinking more and more about the choice she’d made—a choice that men were never asked to make. There was so little I knew about it. Had she been fired when her employer found out she was pregnant? That was the norm at the time. Had she wanted to go back to work when the kids were older? Did she have the choice?
A lot has changed for women in the workplace since then, but even in the ’90s, in the finance world, I found an environment that was still very much a boys’ club. I had to fight with human resources to get window blinds for my office so I could pump breast milk. I heard snickers from my male colleagues, but was also aware of other women at the office, women who weren’t in a position to make such demands and appreciated me challenging the status quo.
When I decided to take a leave of absence to focus on my kids, one colleague flippantly told me, “You’ll never get back in the game.”
His words shook me. But there were other words I chose to listen to. I would always have my “muscle.” I had to “tough it out.” I had the confidence in myself to walk away and know I could come back. And I did.
Choosing to challenge the norms has made all the difference in my life and career. Today, thanks to the efforts of those who came before us, there’s more focus on making sure the workplace is a place where women feel safe, valued, and treated fairly. But as far as we’ve come, that doesn’t mean we no longer face stigmas and biased expectations, and the pressures to “go along to get along.” It only means those challenges will be more personal.
The past year has made that even more clear, as women have experienced disproportionate job losses and are shouldering an unequal burden of caregiving responsibilities. With our support systems strained or absent, even getting through the day feels like a challenge. But we need to keep looking for opportunities, even small ones, to push back and question those assumptions and expectations when we can. Maybe it starts with simply taking a break from the day-to-day to learn something new, focusing on your physical and mental well-being, or connecting with a mentor to enhance your career. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to reach for the things we want, unapologetically, and break down the barriers in our way. Even if we feel like the odd girl out.
As a wise old actuary once taught me, without risk, return is pretty close to zero. And the best risk to take is one where you bet on yourself.
So, what are you going to challenge?