American Sociological Association

Barbara F. Reskin

Barbara F. Reskin

Barbara F. Reskin served as the 93rd President of the American Sociological Association. Her Presidential Address, entitled " Modeling Ascriptive Inequality - From Motives to Mechanisms ," was delivered at the Association's 2002 Annual Meeting in Chicago, and was later published in the February 2003 issue of the American Sociological Review (ASR Vol 68 No 1, pp 1-21). Reskin is currently with the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington.

The following Presidential Profile entitled "Barbara Reskin: A Social Scientist Working for Social Change" by Mary C. Waters, was published in the September/October 2001 issue of Footnotes:

Tagging along with Barbara Reskin for a day you notice right away that she is fast—very fast. Barbara walks, talks, and thinks with a slightly dizzying energy and efficiency. On a typical day last spring, for instance, you would see her leave home and walk briskly toward the university, plugged in to her headphones as she listens to a book that her mother had tape recorded for her. Once at her office, she would put on her lab coat (a gift from her partner Lowell Hargens intended to support the fiction that she’s a “real scientist”) to ward off the arctic air conditioning as well as lunchtime spills. She would catch up on messages and talk with students and colleagues, with attention and humor, but in a way that suggests that she is thinking a mile a minute and trying not to waste time. When she started up her computer, you would see that she also types fast—95 words a minute on her last typing test for one of the pink-collar jobs of her youth.

Why is this brilliant, outgoing, down to earth, funny, and caring woman in such a hurry? Well, she is a woman on a mission. For Barbara Reskin is not only a world class scholar with a deep and abiding belief in social science and its ability to uncover truth, but she is also strongly committed to social justice and to changing the world in a radical and fundamental way. Barbara Reskin is a fast-talking, -walking, -thinking, -typing feminist socialist social scientist. She is also a wonderful friend, colleague, teacher, mentor and the new president of the American Sociological Association.

Barbara’s radical roots go back at least a generation. She was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and grew up in Renton, Washington, outside of Seattle and home of Boeing’s number 2 plant. Barbara’s father was a Russian-born immigrant. A Communist in his youth, he was kicked out of the party for insubordination. By the time he met her mother at a Minnesota Farm Labor party, he had joined a garment workers’ union and become a cloth cutter. When Barbara was seven years old and her sister Marilyn was eight, her father suddenly died. Her mother supported the family by doing traditionally female clerical jobs, with the help of public assistance checks. It helped when her mother got one of the few unionized clerical jobs available to women, typing freight bills in a trucking company. Barbara’s best paying part-time jobs were also with trucking companies, and, when she went to graduate school, she converted her membership in the Teamsters to inactive, but in good standing. She also worked typing insurance claims, processing airplane tickets, taking orders for steel wire rope, weekend and evening relief switchboard operator, and data-entry clerk, as well as picking strawberries and beans–her only sex-integrated jobs. So, when Barbara began studying the causes and consequences of gender segregation in occupations, you might say she had a head start through a lot of early fieldwork.

Barbara went to working class schools, and few of her classmates went on to college. She went on to Reed College where she immediately discovered how unprepared she was. She dropped out half way through her sophomore year and followed a boyfriend (to whom she was briefly married) to Cleveland where he attended graduate school while she worked in another clerical job. More important, she got involved in the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), an unforgettable exposure to the pervasive barriers our society creates to suppress African Americans. In CORE, she organized rent strikes, participated in sit-ins, and helped to organize a summer Freedom School. She vividly remembers that time, both for what she learned about American racism and for the horror she experienced when a friend and fellow CORE member was crushed by a bulldozer while protesting the construction of a school that the city had strategically located to maintain racial segregation. Trying to make sense of the city’s response to CORE’s challenges to racism led Barbara to her first sociology class, a night class at Case Western Reserve. Sociology provided an intellectual structure that made sense of the world, and the discipline immediately captured her.

Returning to Seattle, she received her BA in 1968 at the University of Washington. Although it never crossed her mind that she could be a professor (she had never had a female professor), she went on to graduate school in the hope that an MA would save her from another clerical job. But she found a home in UW’s demography/ecology program. Unlike myself and many of my academic friends, Barbara actually liked graduate school. She discovered both feminism and multiple regression, viewing the latter as a tool to be used in getting at the truth and hence fostering social justice. (As she got older, she has become increasingly convinced of the necessity of using both quantitative and qualitative methods to get at the truth.) With fellow student, Lynn White, Barbara started the Reproductive Counseling Center at the University, which gave undergraduates information about birth control. Out of this came Barbara’s and Lynn’s first publication (written with the assistance of Diane Hilton), a widely disseminated pamphlet entitled “How to Have Intercourse Without Getting Screwed.” Studying social stratification spotlighted for Barbara discrimination in academe. Her recognition of the exclusionary ramifications of her and other departments’ recruitment of faculty through old-boy networks was the first of several events in her academic life that illuminated the barriers outsiders faced. Barbara nonetheless had wonderful mentors in graduate school, especially for her dissertation—a comparison of the careers of male and female scientists. Barbara credits the publication of her dissertation as a book, Sex Differences in the Professional Life Chances of Chemists, to the high standards and pages of careful comments provided by her advisor, Herb Costner.

In the spring of her third year of graduate school, Barbara got a job offer out of the blue from University of California-Davis. Fearing that it might be her only chance at employment, she moved to Davis in January 1971 as an Acting Assistant Professor. She taught there for a year and half, before going to Indiana University as an assistant professor. Although Lowell, whom she had met at the University of Washington, also moved to Indiana and they made life-long friends among other junior faculty, Barbara found combining her scholarly and social change interests harder as an assistant professor than it had been as a graduate student. During the mid-1970s, there was a lot of pressure to publish, and the profession was not ready for a feminist approach to sociology. One reviewer of the first paper she submitted from her dissertation showing sex differences in career outcomes called it “an Alice in Wonderland analysis,” and another chided her for using the term “discrimination.” Later, when she got a large grant from NIMH to study jury verdicts in rape cases, her department chair discouraged her from accepting it because its hypotheses—that jurors’ notions about the victim’s appropriate gender role behavior and sexual property value would influence their verdicts–were grounded in feminist insights about the workings of social control systems. (Except in mistaken-identity cases, Barbara and her co-authors Gary LaFree and Christy Visher found that the feminist insights were right on target.)

After getting tenure at Indiana, Barbara spent a sabbatical year at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), directing a study of sex segregation in the workplace. The NAS study led to the publication of two important volumes, an edited interdisciplinary collection of papers entitled Sex Segregation in the Workplace and a book co-authored with economist Heidi Hartman entitled Women’s Work, Men’s Work: Sex Segregation on the Job.

She decided that she had been mistaken in her early approach to her work in this area in a few ways. She thought that if, as a social scientist, she showed clearly and decisively that things were not just or fair, a policy maker would fix it. What she learned in Washington was that no one will necessarily act on social science research that shows a situation or process to be unfair or discriminatory. The social scientist who cares about justice should also write about how to fix these bad situations. She also learned that you cannot wait until policymakers come to ask about your work. You need to seek them out and tell them. This is what Reskin does in her work—she studies organizational practices that promote equal opportunity in the workplace. She has argued that external regulation through laws and the setting of goals and timetables for hiring are critical. This engagement with the world beyond academia has had a lasting effect on how Barbara approaches her work. Thus, she not only has authored or co-authored some of the best social science research documenting discrimination and segregation—Job Queues, Gender Queues (co-authored with Pat Roos) and Women and Men at Work (co-authored with Irene Padavic), but she also has devoted a lot of time and energy to policy briefs and policy analysis and to expert witness testimony in real-life discrimination cases.

After her stint at NAS, Barbara moved to the University of Michigan, where she taught Sociology and Women’s Studies. In 1985, she and Lowell moved to Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and then in 1991 to Ohio State where Barbara also served as Department Chair from 1993 to 1995. In 1997, she came to Harvard’s Sociology Department; joined this fall by Lowell who will also be teaching at Harvard. It has taken a while for Barbara to feel at home at Harvard. While the department itself is as informal and welcoming as most sociology departments in the country, the University, frankly, can be an elitist bastion of privilege. I think Barbara felt really at home for the first time last spring when students sat in the University administration building to advocate for a living wage. While a number of Harvard faculty signed letters and petitions in favor of the students position, Barbara was a leading faculty supporter, speaking at rallies in front of the administration building and holding class in front of the open window so one of her students who was occupying the building could take part.

Barbara’s research addresses important questions of justice. She has documented the ways in which informal social practices at work maintain and structure gender and race segregation on the job. She has shown the cumulative disadvantages women face in a labor market in which employers assign them to particular roles and queues. She has branched out in recent years to study how racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation operate in conjunction with gender the labor market. Her recent book, The Realities of Affirmative Action (American Sociological Association, 1998), shows how affirmative action has helped to increase the hiring and promotion of women and minorities because it replaces informal discriminatory hiring mechanisms with fairer, formal mechanisms that allow qualified people to get in the door. The fact that Barbara’s first academic job was one she never applied or interviewed for has left a lasting impression. She remains skeptical of the notion that academia or any American labor market is a true meritocracy. Her work and her personal experiences have demonstrated the power of personal networks in hiring and the ways in which qualified people can be excluded.

Yet Barbara’s merits have been noticed and honored in the world of academia. She was recently elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the ASA Section on Sex and Gender. She was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and was the third Cheryl Miller SWS Lecturer. She has been a leader in the profession, serving as Vice President of the ASA and Chair of the Section on Occupations, Organizations and Work. She is perhaps most proud of her role as mentor and advisor to countless graduate students. Modeling her approach to teaching graduate students on Herb Costner’s painstaking mentoring, she has worked with students intensively throughout her career, providing them with detailed (often tape recorded) comments on drafts of papers, and intensive discussions about data analysis and research design. Many of these students have co-authored papers and books with Barbara over the years and gone on to distinguished careers of their own.

If we were to drop in on Barbara Reskin in the coming year, we would see occasional times when she is at rest. Lynn White, her friend and co-author from graduate school, has been teaching her to quilt, and often for a half hour after breakfast Barbara sews while Lowell reads aloud. But more often than not, we would continue to see a frenzy of purposeful activity. She will be busy studying race, ethnic, and sex segregation in the workplace, continuing a study of race and gender in lawyers’ careers; testifying as an expert witness in job discrimination cases; listening to taped books as she hurries to and from campus; and mentoring and advising students. Yet, this year she has added another task—leading the American Sociological Association, and, I can assure you, we are in very good hands.