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Inspirational speech for women in math

June 22, 2011

I wanted to tell you about my experience a few months back sitting on a “non-academic career” panel at a women’s math conference at IPAM on the UCLA campus*.

The panel consisted of four women who have Ph.Ds in math and had left academics for other things. I was the only person from finance represented- the other women worked for government sponsored research agencies (NSA, Aerospace Corporation, and Los Alamos National Labs).  In fact considering the fact that I was unemployed you could say I was a bad role model but I decided to attend anyway because I thought I could contribute- and after all, being unemployed is part of life, especially outside of academics.  The audience consisted of about 50 women (and one man who never announced himself but I think worked for the NSF) who were either finishing up their Ph.Ds or had recently gotten them and were in post-docs – the perfect moment for a little inspirational speech.  The panelists were given about 10 minutes each to talk about their experiences and then the audience had a chance to ask questions.  Here’s (more or less) what I said to them.

Hi, I’m your unemployed role model.  I thought of not coming here today since, after all, I’m unemployed, and what kind of role model does that make me?  Actually it makes me a good one, and here’s why.  That job I left wasn’t good enough for me.  I didn’t get fired, I quit (although plenty of great people I know have been laid off so that’s no proof of anything).  The truth is, I deserve a job that I really like, where I’m challenged to grow and to learn and to do my best and I’m rewarded for doing so.  After all, I have a super power, which is mathematics.  So the reason I’m saying this is that you do too.  All of you have a superpower, which is mathematics.  You all deserve to work at good jobs that you actually enjoy- and if the jobs you have turn out to be bad, or if the become bad for some reason, then quit!  Get another one!  Get a better one!  I actually got a job offer on the plane over here yesterday (true!).  I know I’m going to get a good job, even in this economy, because I can do something other people actually regard as magical.  Mathematical training and thinking is something that everybody needs and not everybody can achieve, so remember that.  Never feel stuck.  This is not to say that the specific training you have right now is sellable on the open market, but since you’re a mathematician the one thing you can count on being good at is learning new stuff.  So if you decide to change fields, get ready to roll up your sleeves and work your butt off to learn the necessary stuff, but be sure that you can do it and that it will be really important to the people you work for.  And if it isn’t, or if you don’t think your work is being appreciated, go get a better job.  Thanks!

By the way, I thought I should give you a wee bit of context for the above speech.  It’s my opinion that one of the main reasons you don’t see as many women as men in great positions in the sciences is that, just around this point in their careers, women lack the confidence to sell themselves strongly in the job market.  In fact the confidence problem exists earlier- I don’t know how many times I’ve seen (at MIT and then at Barnard/Columbia) a woman in my class crying over a grade of 94 (out of 100) in office hours while at the same time I talk to a man who got a 64 who says, “no problem I’ll ace the final”.  However, once the grades stop and the field becomes more about confidence in yourself than in other peoples’ grades, women often flounder.

Just as a measurement of how much women need to hear this kind of stuff, I must have been approached by nearly all the women in the audience on a person-by-person basis, as well as emailed by quite a few thanking me for my inspirational words.  Many of them expressed relief and astonishment that their accomplishments are actually worthy of a good job.  These women need to hear this stuff- not to become arrogant but just to know that they really have something to offer.  Also many of them are married or engaged and many of them have small kids, so they also need to prioritize themselves, which is again something they have trouble with.

And one more thing:  I love encouraging young men in math too.

* This has been posted at my friend Chelsea’s blog already.

Categories: women in math
  1. Marli Wang
    July 5, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Thanks, Cathy! I tell myself that all the time, but it certainly helps to hear someone else say it as well. Also, great blog! I found you through Quomodocumque and I’m really enjoying it, especially your posts on childhoods and female boardmembers. A friend of mine from Princeton and I started a game theory blog around the same time you launched your blog, and we’re still trying to find a good balance of rigor and accessibility.


  1. July 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm
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