By Liz Warren-Pederson
Barbara Gutek, a pioneering researcher in gender and workplace issues whose personal story reflects a facet of the women’s movement, retired this year after 22 years with the University of Arizona.
In 1981 Gutek and a colleague published a groundbreaking book on women in the workplace. She went on to study sexual harassment — coauthoring many influential papers, holding leadership roles in professional associations, and frequently serving as an expert witness in court cases.
But of her time growing up in Flint, Michigan, she remembered, “My father would say that grades weren’t important because I was going to get married and be a housewife.” Gutek refused to skate by. “My mother managed to convey that she expected a lot of me.”
Still, after a year and a half of junior college, Gutek did in fact get married, had two kids, and became a housewife. At 22 years old, she got some news that changed the course of her life. “After my son was born, the doctor told me that I had a heart problem and that he expected me to be disabled in a few years,” she said. “I didn’t know how much time I had left.”
She’d always wanted to continue her education. “When I went back to school, it was like a world just blossomed, in contrast to all the ironing and Chef Boyardee that was life as a housewife in Flint at that time,” she said. “I had been stewing over the fact that my life wasn’t interesting to me. So when the doctor told me I was going to be an invalid in a few years, I just had to get out and do things. I wanted to see the world.”
While her husband worked at GM, she enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She squeezed all her classes into two days and began driving back and forth — an hour and 15 minutes under good driving conditions, which were rare in the Michigan winters — completing her undergraduate degree and then preparing to enter a master’s program.
“I started the master’s program in social work, but I was bored with the coursework,” she said. “The assumption was that students had no experience with social sciences, and it felt like a repeat of my undergrad.” A professor in her psychology class suggested that she change to a doctoral program in psychology, a broader degree he thought she could still apply toward a role in social work, if she pursued that route.
“At that point, my marriage came apart,” she said. “I moved to Ann Arbor with my children, who were in kindergarten and first grade by then.” The kids would walk over to the university after school. “There was one faculty member in particular who wasn’t happy about that,” she said. “Years later, when I was president of an association, he donated money and apologized for giving me a hard time back then.”
During her doctoral program, Gutek focused on studying organizations. “We spend a lot of time within them and connecting with them in different ways,” she said. “I was interested in what they do for us and to us.” She also became an unofficial expert on gender relations. “My advisor would come to me and say, ‘Do you think women would respond differently to this?’”
She began to build a professional network with other women at the university, connections that would prove pivotal down the road. “There were a few other women in the program,” she said. “Michigan was sued early on for not hiring women; because the university had been threatened with the loss of federal funding, there were also women faculty members.”
Gutek finished her program in two and a half years. “At that time, you didn’t need a whole raft of publications to get hired,” she said. “My publication record didn’t look too bad; I had a book out with my advisor. I only applied for one job — with UCLA — and that’s unheard of today.”
She got the job at UCLA, only to face the challenge of renegotiating custody; it had not occurred to her divorce attorney to ask if she was likely to leave the state. “We had to go to court so I could explain to the judge that if I didn’t take the job as an assistant professor in Los Angeles, that I would have to go on welfare in Michigan,” she said.
At UCLA, she began to build her reputation as an expert on women and the workplace. With funding from a women’s center at Ann Arbor, she and a colleague began work to compile studies they’d been conducting separately. There wasn’t a lot of overlap. “We decided to do a book,” Gutek said. “When it came out in ’81, I was still at UCLA. It cemented my interest in the topic and my identity as someone who specialized in gender and the workplace.”
Around that time, she began looking for research funding, and a friend from Ann Arbor who had since joined the National Institute of Mental Health steered her to a funding entity within that organization around the research topic of sexual harassment.
In 1981, Gutek left UCLA for Claremont Graduate College, where she began a highly productive research period as a tenured faculty member. In the late 80s, she was contacted by the then-head of the Department of Management at the Eller College. He was seeking recommendations on junior faculty members, but Gutek found that she was interested as well. She joined the Eller College in 1989, later serving as head of the department for six years.
“It was a lot of work to have kids early on, but it turned out to not be a bad way to have a career, since by the time I was in my 40s, they were entering college,” she said.
Gutek returned to the University of Michigan in 2002 to head up the Institute of Women’s Studies. Health issues contributed to her decision to return to the UA. “It turned out that I had 30 more years before I any more heart problems,” she said.
Now in her retirement, Gutek said she is spending time with her grandchildren, cooking, and traveling. “I have a wonderful long-term relationship. He has three kids; added to my two, it’s made my life worthwhile,” she said.
“When I think back to what I thought my life would be when I was 18 . . . I went to Catholic school and there was one nun who was a real force of nature,” she continued. “She told me, ‘I just know you’re going to become a nun.’”
Gutek was crushed. “I had this vision of myself living in a city, in Detroit, which at the time, was the only city I knew,” she said. “I thought I would be driving a bright-colored convertible. I thought, ‘She’s never wrong about anything. How could she be wrong about me?’”
But as it turned out, in Gutek’s case, she was.