Do The Math

Fall 2017, News



When it comes to women in math, some might say the numbers just don’t add up. Women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but represent just a quarter of jobs in mathematical and computer sciences, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP).

Some experts—including statisticians at the National Science Board—suggest this disparity is perplexing, particularly with enrollment in high school computer science AP courses comprising only 19 percent young women, but enrollment in AP calculus and statistics reflecting no gender gap at all.

While course choices in math and science appear to be balanced between the sexes in high school, career choices (and perhaps opportunities) tell a different story, with women representing just 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers and 18 percent of workers in the computer sciences, according to the NGCP.

This gap, however, may be more a catalyst for opportunity than a cause for alarm, as the National Girls Collaborative Project reports increases in both course enrollment and career participation for women in mathematical professions over the past two decades. This trend, coupled with strong mentors, means many women are leading the change, while concurrently working in their chosen fields.

“Through 2024, the areas experiencing the most growth will be actuaries, financial managers, personal financial advisors and financial analysts,” says Connie Knoche, Omaha Public Schools’ chief financial officer. This is good news, with U.S. women earning 52.1 percent of bachelor’s degrees in accounting, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The flip side? The NCES also reports degree attainment for women of color in accounting still lags, with just 7.5 percent African American women, 8.1 percent Asian women and 8.2 percent Hispanic/Latina women entering the field.

Regardless, Knoche points out, “the demand for finance careers will vary by the area of finance in which you choose to specialize. University-degree holders with specialized skills in areas such as financial analyst and business systems analyst are in high demand.”

As past finance director for Lincoln Public Schools, Knoche is no stranger to careers requiring a complex blend of accounting, budgeting and finance skills, as well as the ability to interface with Nebraska state senators. “I enjoy the Legislative process and working with state senators for the benefit of all students in the state of Nebraska. I work closely with our lobbyists, the Nebraska Department of Education and state senators to make sure I understand how and when funding will be coming from the state,” Knoche says. “I am in constant contact with our accounting office to make sure the revenue and expenditure forecast stays on track.”

Even so, Knoche notes, “unexpected events happen all of the time when you work for a school district, and we need to be able to react and plan for them.” In fact, change is part of the financial puzzle, and Knoche approaches the unexpected with strategic dexterity and enthusiasm. In Omaha Public Schools, that means meeting the changing needs of more than 50,000 learners and 7,000 full-time staff members.

“I enjoy what I do because there are so many challenges. You have to be able to adjust and direct funding to make it work. It’s not predictable and not boring,” she says, adding finance and budget are “the most challenging and exciting aspects of my job.” Knoche, who began her career as an auditor, says students who choose to major in accounting are equipped with transferable skills relevant to a broad number of careers. She notes opportunities for leadership in education, law and health care are available to accounting executives. “An accounting degree is very broad and can be applied in many career paths,” Knoche says.

Annette Devine: Vice President, Accounting Services, WoodmenLife

Annette Devine: Vice President, Accounting Services, WoodmenLife

For Annette Devine, a love of numbers—of computation, accounting and connecting sometimes disparate dots—came in high school. “I had great instructors in high school, and accounting and math came easily to me,” Devine says, adding she began a career at WoodmenLife almost immediately following high school graduation.

“I was very young at the time, newly graduated, and needed to know about insurance.” Devine says she “dove deeply” into her work as quickly as possible, earning her Fellow, Life Management Institute (FMLI) and Associate, Customer Service (ACS) designations before later beginning her accounting degree. “When I got my degree, the doors really opened for me,” Devine says, adding she has been with WoodmenLife 35 years and is currently vice president of accounting services.

Founded in 1890, WoodmenLife has seen decades of steady growth, surpassing $35 billion “life insurance in force” in 2013. The role of women in the organization has grown and changed as well, just as it has at many highly sustainable corporations globally. According to the Insurance Information Institute, 61 percent of the insurance workforce is women.

Within this sector, however, women holding executive-level management positions, such as Devine, are fewer. Panning out to accounting positions nationwide, just 22 percent of partners at CPA firms are women, says the Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance, of which Devine is the 2017-18 president, Omaha Chapter.

Just the same, the numbers of women in the field are growing, as are opportunities in accounting. The field, Devine says, is a versatile one, and she advises colleagues “not box themselves into one area of expertise. Accounting and finance have changed over time. Formerly, the practice was very manual, but now there is so much tech involved. I suggest being open to learning and to thoughtfully considering when someone offers you something new in the field.”

She says one strategy for furthering career goals—and giving back to the community—is service on area boards. “Being able to take our skills and share them with others is a great privilege. There is so much additional value you can offer when you are involved; it’s hugely beneficial.”

Gwen Fox: Math Teacher, Millard West High School

The U.S. Department of Commerce reports more than 76 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs are held by men, making Gwen Fox, a math teacher at Millard West High School, part of a growing percentage of instructors that researchers hope is on the rise. After all, more STEM teachers mean more STEM students.

“I knew that I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a little girl,” Fox says. “My parents were educators and I have their passion for teaching. My parents encouraged my sister and I to take as many math and science classes that we could. I knew by the time I was in high school that I loved math and that I wanted to be a math teacher.” Fox, who was valedictorian of her high school and college graduating classes, says she is “excited” daily to watch her students learn math.

“I really try to answer my students’ questions with very thorough explanations,” she says. “I will research information prior to class in anticipation of questions they may ask me. Recently I taught a unit about matrices in Algebra 2. I was concerned that my students would find matrices pointless so I researched career fields that use matrices. Did you know that video games would not exist without matrices?”

While young men and women enroll in math and science at similar rates prior to high school graduation, changes in course participation emerge during undergraduate school, with more men than women choosing math, science and engineering programs. Further disparities are apparent as students graduate college and enter the work force, with the Educational Research Center of America reporting only one in 10 minority women employed in such mathematics-heavy careers as science and engineering.

“The fact that women are still underrepresented in math fields is concerning to me,” Fox says. “It is a stigma that is not easily changed. When talking with parents, I often hear from the mother that she can’t do math and so Dad helps the child with their math homework. I am really trying to encourage girls that they are just as capable and competent as the boys in math. I believe that it does encourage the girls as they are seeing more female math teachers in their schools.”

Fox has a point, as the U.S. Department of Commerce reports “gender stereotyping” and a “lack of female role models” may contribute to reasons math-related fields appear more attractive to men than women. “All math teachers need to encourage their students, especially the girls, that doing well in math is something to be respected,” Fox explains. “Some girls are embarrassed about doing well in math because they might perceive it as geeky. It is important for the girls to embrace their intelligence and to share their knowledge and perspectives with others.”

One area of concern: declining numbers of women in math and computer science, as other areas of STEM are rising, says the U.S. Department of Commerce. Additionally, women in STEM continue to earn less than their male colleagues, with a 14 percent wage gap reported by the U.S. Economic and Statistics Association (ESA) in 2009.

Even so, earnings by women in STEM outpace earnings by women in non-STEM jobs, reports the ESA. Higher potential career earnings, however, do not come without commitment. “I would advise college-age women in the math area to be prepared to work very hard,” Fox says. “A good start is enjoying math but you will need to be prepared to study more than most of your peers in other fields of study. Since I loved math, it gave me the motivation to stick through the difficult times. I also learned to advocate for myself.” W


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