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OPTIMISM DRIVES COLLEGE WOMEN
FORWARD-THINKING '05 GRADS SAY THEIR MOMS PAVED THEIR WAY

After Allison Roether graduates from Geneseo State College in May, she's moving to Charlotte, N.C., to take a management-track job with Bank of America.

Kristin Saxer, a senior accounting major at Canisius College, is mulling over job offers from the state Department of Taxation and Finance and a private firm.

And Preethi Govindaraj will launch her own business consulting company soon after she receives her master's of business administration degree from the University at Buffalo.

They are part of a new generation of women who are entering the work force in greater numbers than ever before and, in some cases, entering fields long dominated by men.

"I think women are looked at differently now," said Carrie L. Ward, a Town of Niagara native who is earning a master's degree in school counseling at Niagara University. "They can do anything they want."

These young women are optimistic about their futures.

They recognize the glass ceiling still exists but don't expect to bump into it themselves.

"If that woman is determined, she'll get there," said Roether, a senior business administration major from Churchville.

'Whole world is open'

These young women say they've faced few obstacles in their lives due to their gender.

"The whole world is open to them in a way that it wasn't open to women of their mothers' generation or their grandmothers' generation," said Patricia B. Christian, an associate sociology professor at Canisius.

Overall, a greater percentage of American women are working today than at any other time in recent history. The percentage of women in the labor force rose from 36 percent in 1960 to 58 percent in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

"I think it's just more common now. We've had some women pave the way for us more," said Joanna Laker, a senior Geneseo accounting major from Hornell.

Most of the women graduating from college next month had a mother who worked outside the home, or who stayed at home because she chose to do so.

Roether said her parents both worked as executives at Kodak, until her father took early retirement and her mother became the breadwinner.

Younger career women are holding their own in some male-dominated fields.

Govindaraj did an internship with Compaq, where she helped lead training sessions for its sales representatives, most of whom were men. She suggested making her group's presentation more interesting by putting it into baseball terminology and delivering it in the voice of a "Sportscenter" anchor.

The presentation was a home run. "They had to stay awake and pay attention," she said.

And Saxer, a Williamsville native, has thrived in a field associated with the stereotype of the gray-haired, white male wearing green eyeshades. "I've always liked math, and there's a very good, logical system behind accounting," she said.

In the majority

These days, women are finding themselves in the majority in college.

Between 1970-71 and 2001-02, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women more than doubled, from 364,100 to 742,100, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Women earned 57.4 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded at American colleges in 2001-02, according to the center.

At the graduate level, while men earn more doctorates, women earn more master's degrees and are at or near par in medicine, law and other professional programs, said Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education.

Ward said about 80 percent or 85 percent of the students in her master's level school-counseling classes at Niagara are women.

"School counseling, it is a helping profession," Ward said. But she's encouraged that a number of the school principals she's worked with or interviewed with for jobs are women.

Saxer, the Canisius accounting major, said she's seen a number of female employees and partners at companies where she's interned or interviewed.

"In the interview process, they really want to make sure you know, as a female, there are opportunities for you," Saxer said.

Govindaraj, the UB student, has had a varied work experience that includes playing violin in a Dave Matthews tribute band.

Instead of joining an established firm right out of business school, she's starting her own consulting company. Her business is based on consulting work that she did while studying in Singapore on a Fulbright scholarship.

She cold-called Singaporean companies to persuade them to allow her to come to their offices and give seminars to their employees on appreciating music, film and literature.

Govindaraj's theory is that the employees relate what they learn in the seminars back to their own jobs. This provides such benefits as helping them to communicate better with co-workers and to look for more creative solutions to problems.

She's starting a locally based company that will hire college faculty to present the seminars to area firms.

"I'm toying around with a couple names" for the company, Govindaraj said, though she's ruled out PreethiCo.

As young career women enter the working world, their optimism about their futures may be driven by their success in the female-friendly realm of the classroom, said Mary Ellen Zuckerman, dean of the Geneseo School of Business, which is establishing a Center for Women and Business.

"They think things are going to be fine. . . . They feel they can go out and do whatever they want to do," Zuckerman said.

The students say they expect to be paid the same as their male peers, but economic data shows that's not necessarily going to be the case.

Among bachelor's degree recipients who were working full-time after graduating in 2001, women earned on average $6,800 less than men, or 83 percent of male salaries, according to a March report from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

None of the women interviewed for this article could recall a situation where they felt they had been the victim of discrimination or sexual harassment.

"I didn't feel at all that I was treated unfairly or differently because I was a female," said Laker, the Geneseo accounting student, who has accepted a job offer from PriceWaterhouseCoopers to work as an auditor.

Though the women said they aren't close to having children, nearly all had thought to some extent about the difficulty of balancing work and family.

Ward, the Niagara University student, said her mother started college, then became pregnant with Ward and left before graduating. Her mother is now studying criminal justice at Niagara County Community College.

"It is a hard question. I like to work. I hate to be bored. I like to have structure," Ward said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com