Adding up opportunities ? The plus and minus sides of a math career

by By Jacqueline Fitzgerald

For women who persevere with studying math, prospects are excellent for a variety of interesting jobs, many of them in business. But the cultural assumption that women and math don’t mix causes many to chart other career courses.p. Pamela Haag, director of research for the American Association of University Women’s educational foundation, says there is an overall trend that high school girls are taking advanced math and science classes, but are opting out of math and related fields in college.p. Meanwhile, a recent Catalyst study found women’s enrollment in MBA programs has reached a plateau at 30 percent, compared with 44 percent in medical and law schools.p. Of the female respondents, 56 percent said there were too few role models in business, 47 percent said business careers were incompatible with work/life balance, and 45 percent pointed to a lack of confidence in math abilities.p. Carolyn Woo, dean of theUniversity of Notre Dame University’sbusiness college, acknowledges that the plateau of women students is a national trend, but says that it doesn’t hold across the board. At Notre Dame this fall, she says, the percentage of women in the MBA program went up to 32 percent from 25 percent. And in China and Latin America, she says, there are many more women in MBA programs than ever before.p. Still, she acknowledges that women are thinking twice before enrolling. Some are exploring alternatives like forging a future in medicine or e-commerce, she says.p. Others feel that the tuition, which can run between $60,000 and $120,000, is too much debt to carry. Woo adds that the perception of a glass ceiling and the frequent travel involved in a business career can be turnoffs.p. Margaret Murray, an associate professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech, says that while many people assume math and science are masculine fields, attitudes are changing. “We may be coming to a point where we have a critical mass of female role models. That helps to turn the tide.”p. Murray, who attended Mother McAuley High School and the University of Chicago before earning a PhD from Yale University in 1983, is also the author of “Women Becoming Mathematicians” (MIT Press, $29.95). The book is a study of the lives and careers of women who got their PhDs in mathematics from 1940 to 1959, a time when females were a “startling minority” in the field.p. Although the number of women pursuing math PhDs today has increased since the ‘40s and ’50s, there is still not parity with men, Murray says.p. Rosemary Cunningham, economics professor at Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Ga., says some students are reluctant to take on a heavy load of math courses.p. “It doesn’t seem to be very positive for women, and they want to give it up as soon as possible,” she says, though the ones who stick with it are often surprised that they like it.p. She points out that one major step is learning math’s unique language, something women often find intimidating. “A lot of it is lingo,” she says. “Once you learn what the terms are, they aren’t all that complicated.”p. And, she says, career prospects are excellent for students who follow their passion for math.p. Susan Schanlaber, a board member of the fundraising foundation for the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, agrees that job opportunities are strong for math-savvy women. “Technology will be increasingly important as years go by and that is all math and science based,” she says.p. Besides raising money for the academy, Schanlaber is president and sole owner of the Landmark Group of Companies in Aurora, has served as a bank chairman and CEO, and has a degree in engineering as well as extensive post-graduate education.p. Schanlaber says she finds it discouraging that “there is a segment of very talented, highly educated young women who flounder because they haven’t figured out their priorities or their life paths.”p. Schanlaber advises women who have worked hard getting a good education to keep on working at figuring out specifically what they want to do with their careers.p. October 4, 2000

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