“If our daughters wonder why we were feminists I think I can explain it.”
So wrote Paula Noyes Singer ’66, a 2017 recipient of the UMaine Alumni Association’s Alumni Career Award. Singer made a career of shattering glass ceilings. Her story is a testament to dedication, hard work, commitment, and the power of a determined woman. Singer says her biggest professional obstacle was not that she lacked qualifications, motivation, or intelligence; it was because she was a woman.
In an interview looking back on her many careers, she notes, “I took the best opportunity—sometimes the only opportunity available to me at the time.”
Raised in Kennebunk, Singer entered the University of Maine in 1962. That spring, in order to pay her way through school, she convinced the head of the campus dining hall to give her a job, even though she recalls that freshmen were not allowed on-campus employment at the time. In addition to school and work, she, her husband, and her mother relied on student aid. In 1966, having been selected for both Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, Singer graduated summa cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in history and government.
After graduation, she sought to pursue her juris doctor at the University of Maine Law School and also applied for fellowships at other universities. She learned, however, that married women were not given aid for professional and graduate schools. Without the financial support, Singer could not afford the price of tuition.
Putting her dreams on hold, she began to look for employment. She recalled that at the time most classified ads were segregated by sex, with good career opportunities reserved for males. After enduring several humiliating and discriminatory experiences in her search, Singer accepted a position as a computer programmer trainee at New England Mutual Insurance Company.
She didn’t know how a computer worked, but she wasn’t deterred.
Singer became proficient in the design, programming, and maintenance of computer application systems. She joined Union Mutual Insurance Company (now known as UNUM) in 1968 and was promoted to senior programmer. But even as the company’s first female system analyst, she was not paid as much as her male counterparts.
The passing of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act allowed women to finally receive financial aid for professional schools, so in 1975 Singer enrolled in the University of Maine Law School and specialized in tax law.
After graduation, she hit her next obstacle. Law firms wanted “young” women, and many employers thought that the 34-year-old Singer was too old to enter a law practice.
Ultimately Arthur D. Little, Inc., the international consulting firm, hired Singer as its international personnel specialist. She handled immigration matters for the firm’s foreign national employees and for their tax matters abroad. She proved an asset to the company but, feeling underpaid compared to her male peers, she decided to leave.
Singer began practicing law and after four years, in 1989, became partner at Vacovec, Mayotte & Singer LLP. Her clients included U.S. companies relocating employees abroad, foreign companies starting in the U.S., and individuals, trusts, estates, and small businesses with international tax issues. She became a recognized authority on those subjects, publishing more than 100 tax articles and 11 tax guidebooks.
Ten years later, her knowledge of tax, immigration, and computer programming proved the perfect combination for Windstar Technologies, Inc., a company she founded with her husband, Gary. They developed software to allow colleges, universities, and tax-exempt organizations to comply with complex rules and regulations for payments to foreign nationals. Eventually she and her husband sold Windstar Technologies to Thomson Reuters, the multi-billion dollar consulting and analysis firm, and returned to Maine.
Once back home, Singer published her memoir, When There is No Wind, Row: One Woman’s Retrospective on the Most Transformative Changes Over the Past 50 Years (Swallow Lane Press, 2016). In it she pens: “I never had the wind in my sails. Most of the time, I had a headwind so I tacked. And when there was no wind, I rowed.”
She tacked “left to port, and right, to starboard to make headway,” throughout a number of careers, taking opportunities where she could, exceeding expectations, and garnering respect wherever she went. When she couldn’t tack, she rowed – right through the women’s rights movement, the boom of the computer age, and the rise of the global economy.
Singer received her Alumni Career Award on October 28 at the third annual UMaine Alumni Association Brunch and Recognition Ceremony.