• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Ambition in Many Dimensions

What really matters?

October 15, 2015

I love teaching Multivariate Calculus for many reasons. It is the piece of math that most reflects my training as an economist, is the area that is most open to bringing up topics relating to economics, and is, in fact, the area that allows me to teach undergraduate students techniques I learned in my Ph.D. program. However, I most enjoy talking to my students about the idea of imagining the world in more than three dimensions, a world that can include “n” dimensions, with “n” becoming as large as one might want it to be. Indeed, this is where I mention that, in my doctoral dissertation, I dealt with twenty five equations in twenty five dimensions. I always enjoy the confused looks this brings on faces of students who are used to thinking of the world as consisting on only three dimensions.

I found myself thinking of the many dimensions that are accessible through math when I read a recent article from Time magazine. Called “Why Ambition isn’t working for Women,”  This article explores the issue of how women approach ambition, even proposing that to call a woman “ambitious” is to insult her, in a back-handed way. Instead, the author of this article proposes that women are just as ambitious as men, but that their ambition reflects different types of ambition, including a search for a balanced life. I was particularly intrigued by one line that claims it is not that women are less ambitious, but rather that “They are just unable to commit to a structure that was set up for 50% of the population.” Of course, a similar thing can be said about the academy, as women here are again a recent addition. Indeed, can it be that women, in academia and out, are solving maximization problems that include more than the usual number of dimensions?

Of course, it is not just women who are seeking a balanced life. I recall one colleague I know who took paternal leave, a decision that probably slowed down his progress towards what eventually became multiple promotions and an administrative position. However, along the way, focusing on his baby daughter, now in college, took his attention away from his work as a professor. Even for him, it seems that the structures of the market for paid labor were indeed created by and for people who did not have to make such decisions in multiple dimensions.

When I think of what it is that I am ambitious about, I think of my work and my students, but I also recall that I want to do what I can to help my daughter live the best life possible. I want her to learn what she needs to learn to pursue the career of her choice, whatever that may turn out to be, and to make decisions that will help her find meaning in her life. I want to create a loving home for my family, one that helps us all to become the best people possible. And I want to nurture my family in a way that allows us to all leave this world a little better than we found it. Of course, when I look at my daughter who is growing up before my eyes, I am left with one thought. As far as she is concerned, she has already made this world a better place.

And so I leave my readers with the question; what are the many dimensions that you confront in making decisions about your own work choices, and how do you balance them?


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