May 21, 1998
University Gazette


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Affirming Action

Barbara Reskin's work is informed by activist background

By Alvin Powell

Contributing Writer

Barbara Reskin developed a passion for sociology during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She organized and picketed and pushed for change. She fell in love with sociology because it was the only discipline that explained the turmoil going on around her.

"I was instantly enamored," Reskin said. "I just thought it provided a wonderful lens through which to understand what was going on."

Today, Reskin is sharing that love with Harvard students.

Reskin, who chaired the Sociology Department at Ohio State University from 1993 to 1995, was named a professor of sociology at Harvard last September. Reskin is an authority on gender differences in employment. Her appointment fills an important spot in the Sociology Department, according to Department Chairman Peter Marsden.

"She brings expertise in gender stratification that we really didn't have here," Marsden said. "She's a wonderful person, genuine and animated. We're very impressed by the enthusiasm she brings to her research and teaching alike."

Reskin is recognized as the foremost authority on the subject of gender and the workplace. She has written five books, including Women and Men at Work in 1994. Her recent work, however, has branched into the overlap of gender with race and ethnicity.

Reskin recently finished writing a book examining the truths and myths surrounding affirmative action in the workplace. Called The Realities of Affirmative Action, the book shows that the actual impact of affirmative action is much less intrusive than many believe. Among other things, affirmative action requires large employers to post job openings and to use objective evaluation standards, measures that also benefit many people who are not members of minority groups.

"Insofar as affirmative action gets employers to standardize employment practices, it benefits many people," Reskin said. "It's much more positive than we might believe after listening to speeches by conservative politicians."

The book also presents poll data showing that the majority of Americans support programs that level the playing field in employment.

Support drops, however, when charged words like "quotas" and "preferences" are used. Quotas are illegal and Supreme Court rulings bar employers from what are popularly known as preferences -- race- or gender-conscious affirmative action -- unless they are narrowly tailored and address long-standing inequities.

"What the American people like, they are getting -- though to a lesser degree than they think," Reskin said. "There's really hardly any reverse discrimination going on."

The book is scheduled to be published in July by the American Sociological Association.

Reskin's ongoing research looks at occupational segregation by sex, race, and ethnicity. She is exploring techniques to assess segregation across multiple groups. She's also examining which characteristics of particular occupations influence the changing gender and racial makeup of workers over time.

Reskin was born in Minnesota and grew up in Seattle. She became involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, working in Cleveland with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the civil rights group that organized the Freedom Rides to integrate bus lines across the South.

Reskin helped to organize rent strikes in Cleveland in predominantly black neighborhoods. During the strikes, tenants put their rents in an escrow account until absentee landlords improved dilapidated buildings, many of which had neither heat nor hot water.

"The tenants were virtually powerless," Reskin said.

She also protested a new city school that was going to be built inside the ghetto, instead of on its edges, ensuring that the school would be racially segregated in an already highly segregated city.

"Being part of a social movement is extremely exhilarating," Reskin said. "What I learned is that if you can impose some kind of a cost on something you want changed, an actual cost or a public relations cost, you can get an organization to budge."

Reskin received her undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Washington. She has taught at several universities besides Ohio State, including the University of Illinois, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Davis.

She has received several awards and honors, including the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association Section on Sex and Gender in 1995. She also served as vice president of the American Sociological Association in 1990-91.

One of the things Reskin enjoys most about coming to Harvard is its students. Harvard students are more serious about their academic work, she said, and come to class better prepared than students elsewhere. The teaching also helps fuel her research, she added, because she's able to explore areas in her teaching that she also has a research interest in.

"Teaching allows me to engage students in things that interest me. I think if I'm interested, it'll be easy to get them interested," Reskin said.

Though she doesn't expect all her students to dive into social activism or sociology, Reskin hopes they do leave her classes understanding that society has barriers that keep people from certain groups from rising on their own merits.

"At a minimum, I don't want them to leave my class believing that the U.S. is a meritocracy. I want them to see the structural barriers that exist," Reskin said. "It's important for them to see that we know how to dismantle these barriers."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College