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First woman to earn a Ph.D. in business from Penn State reflects on a lifetime spent breaking barriers

October 1, 2020

Jane Offutt Burns ’76 Ph.D. said she always believed that she was different. She just didn’t know why.

Growing up in a small town in rural Kentucky, Burns often found herself as the only girl “playing with the boys.” Little did she know, her comfort as the only woman in a room full of men would take her places she could not have imagined when she was young.

From the time she was little, Burns said she understood the importance of a good education.

She vividly recalls telling her uncle when she was just 6 years old that her most cherished gift would be a college education. Her uncle began to send savings bonds to Jane and her brother for every special occasion. While her brother would spend them at every opportunity, Jane would go on to use them toward her education at the University of Louisville, where she was one of just a handful of women enrolled in their accounting program.

Burns became a campus leader, which helped her develop a deeper sense of confidence.

During her senior year, she began to realize that, despite an abundance of work for accountants, the demand was really only for male students.

“When I finally got an interview with a big corporation, a secretary pulled me aside and told me there was no job. I was only being interviewed as a courtesy,” she said.

Burns could have gotten up and gone home, but she said she was determined, and she knew that she had nothing to lose. Poised and gregarious, she was eventually offered a position in personnel and she immediately declined. She let her interviewer know she would only accept a position in accounting.

The interviewer told her that if she called him the next week, he’d find something for her. When she called, he offered her a position in tax accounting—her dream role.

Even as a young professional, Burns said she understood that there was something that set her apart from her peers. While she attributes much of that difference to simply “being a woman in a man’s world,” she believes it was also an innate curiosity and a love of mysteries.

“I’ve always thought of tax accounting as a mystery to solve,” she said.

She would eventually take her mystery-solving skills to a CPA firm.

“When I worked at the firm, I often spent my evenings at the University of Louisville’s library researching tax law. Within a short time, I was the No. 1 tax planner in the office.”

Burns went on to become just the third woman in the state of Kentucky to pass the CPA exam. She said she made it a point to be active in professional accounting organizations and often found herself to be the only woman in the room—a trend that would continue for years.

With her employer’s support, she returned to the University of Louisville to pursue an MBA and was the only woman enrolled in the program.

She recalled a professor that “believed in equal opportunities” so much that he called on her roughly half the time and the men in the program the other half. While she did not care for his approach, the experience helped her gain confidence and become comfortable speaking in public—characteristics that would carry her through the remainder of her professional career.

With grit and determination, she was able to complete her MBA at night while working full-time. It took her more than six years.

A chance meeting with the chair of the accounting department at Eastern Kentucky University at a statewide professional conference led to an unexpected opportunity. Over dinner, he explained to her that accounting students preferred to be taught by CPAs with professional work experience.

“I could understand why,” she said. "You really need that work experience to understand the intricacies of tax. It’s so much more than just a bunch of laws.”

She soon found herself at Eastern Kentucky University. And it is there where she found her two great loves: teaching and her late husband, Hank.

After Hank completed his doctorate, the couple moved to central Pennsylvania. While Hank began his teaching career at Penn State, Jane was able to pursue her own academic ambitions as a Ph.D. student in accounting.

“I knew Penn State was one of the best schools you could put on your resume and that I would see different kinds of careers and make the kinds of professional contacts that I couldn’t make anywhere else.”

Burns spent four years at Penn State, becoming the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in business from the University. In addition to accounting, she also studied international business, which would become a defining feature of her career.

“I realized I could research international tax and travel the world,” she said. “When I first started, there were just two men doing research in international tax, and they were doing things that were quite different from me.”

It created a lot of attention for her, and it helped lead her to the Frank M. Burke Chair in Taxation at Texas Tech University after Hank died, a position she held until her retirement in 1997.

“It was the best financial and status position for a tax faculty member in the country,” she said, “and it was a validation of my career.”

Burns was renowned for her research. But it was her role as a mentor that she said she most cherished.

“I started by spending extra time each month with our doctoral students, teaching them about research and what you have to do for tenure,” she said. “Later, whenever I traveled to a university to present my research, I always asked if I could also spend time with their masters and Ph.D. students.”

She has been recognized for her professional accomplishments by both her alma maters—as an Alumni Fellow in the University of Louisville’s College of Business and as the first woman to receive the Smeal College of Business’ Accounting Department Distinguished Alumni Award.

Given all of her accomplishments and professional accolades, Burns was surprised to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder six years ago. Looking back, she said she believes that it may explain many of the perceived differences between herself and her peers. However, she’s glad to have not known about the diagnosis during her working years.

“I had to adapt to the learning challenges I had. That made me a better accountant and a better professor,” she said.

Today, Burns enjoys an active retirement in Lubbock, Texas. She takes great pride in sharing her professional journey and hopes her story can inspire other women to find success in the fields they love.

Never one to dwell on the challenges of being a woman in what was considered a man’s profession at a time when most women were homemakers by the age of 30, Burns embraced her role as a ‘pioneer’.

When asked what sort of advice she might share with today’s business students, she did not hesitate to say, “Focus on what you can do and what you can do well. Save your money. I can't think of anything worse than being old and poor. And choose a career where you can always have mobility. Once I had my CPA, I knew I could go anywhere. Those three things kept me happy my whole life.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a year-long series celebrating the accomplishments of pioneering alumnae of the Smeal College of Business. To nominate someone, email Anne Louise Cropp, associate director of development communication, at all109@psu.edu.

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