Why I didn’t Feel Guilty When I Went To Work Part 4


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Being popular was never a goal while being the smartest always was.

Perhaps it was my atypical and always competitive schooling or perhaps it was my height which at 5 foot 9 meant I towered over the boys, or maybe it was the fact that when I was 15, I was dating much older men…for whatever reasons, I never sought popularity.

When I was a kid and teenager the popular boys and girls conformed to the rigid norms of the time. Girls were 5 feet two and very perky and the ideal boy was respectful and polite.  Physically and mentally, I didn’t fit in.

But none of my friends were interested in social popularity either. I think the special class throughout grade school and the Bronx High School of Science were so challenging and so enriching that that kind of competition never developed for us.

But being free from that kind of competition gave us the opportunity to amplify our talent and become whatever was important to us. In Bronx Science many of our teachers were men who had a Ph.D. and had been university professors before they fled Europe and Nazi Germany.  They constantly challenged us to see, perceive and think differently than what seemed obvious and was widely assumed to be correct.

As far back as I can remember I was an independent thinker. Bronx Science increased those skills and rewarded them with recognition.  For my friends and me, that was much more important and interesting than being popular.

In my circle of friends, I was normal.

During the 5 years of grad school at Michigan, the closest friends John and I had were three other couples.  We were the only ones with a house and kids, so every Saturday night the 8 of us got together at our house.  In effect, we were family.

The interesting thing was that in my circle I was normal: my values and priorities were the same as everyone else’s.  How was that possible?  All 8 of us, 4 women and 4 men, were doctoral students.  Some were pursuing an MD and the others a Ph.D.  We shared the same long hours, challenging tasks, and occasional triumphs.  We also shared the same values and priorities; we supported each other in ways our own families couldn’t.

All 8 of us flourished, and that includes the 4 women, all of whom were pioneers. The feminists had it wrong: it was in a glass box – not just a ceiling.  In addition to being our like-minded closest friends we were all together living in the vanguard of a broadening social movement of gender parity.

We were not “normal” by society’s criteria – but increasingly, we weren’t odd balls either.  As a lone person you’re very vulnerable to ostracism; but as members of an increasingly large and successful group, you can be a successful leader.

That was cool.

As a professor in a great university I had lots of autonomy and flexibility as to content, time and place.

In most respects the University of Michigan was as different from the corporations where I lectured and consulted as it’s possible to imagine.

  • The corporations paid a lot of attention to employees.
  • The university barely acknowledged we were there.
  • The bosses in corporations were very visible and could fire or promote you.
  • After you got tenure, the department head and the executive committee were basically powerless unless you committed a felony or a breach of ethics.
  • The corporations told people what to do.
  • The university asked us what we would teach and what was the focus of our research.
  • The corporations (tried to) judge people’s performance and potential.
  • The university never did except when hiring or making the big tenure decision. As Michigan was in the top ten universities in the country, it was assumed you were a leader in your field and nothing less was acceptable.

In general, the university did not police people, especially the faculty.  The big vetting came with the tenure decision or the decision to hire someone.  There were only a few core values:  academic excellence; academic freedom; honesty.  Because these few values were so central in every decision, they were automatically followed by the faculty and other employees.  As a result, the basic assumption was anyone who was hired was honest and responsible.

These conditions are the reverse of places where you check in and out by the clock, where “work” and “loyalty” are largely determined by how much face time you put in.  Except for keeping your official office hours and meeting your classes, The University of Michigan did not care where or how long you worked.  Long before this became a social issue, I had lots of autonomy and flexibility as to content, time and place.

Before I resigned, I had three offices:  my dean’s office, my professor’s office, and my home office.  I worked at home a lot and wasn’t generally available on campus for casual chit-chats.  In fact, twice a week I didn’t get in to my dean’s office until 11:30 because I was in my home office where there was no phone jack, I couldn’t be interrupted, and that’s where I did my important thinking and writing.

 That was good thinking, Judy.

On the home front,

  • For two decades my husband was my best friend. John was a great father and a competent cook who happily ignored housework. I supervised the house and told John what needed to be fixed. There were three checking accounts: hers, his and theirs. The division of labor seemed natural.
  • I was really good at some aspects of domesticity: cooking, entertaining, gardening…and I liked and took pride in doing them. I think I did a good job as a mother though it took my kids years to see that. John was a let sleeping dogs lie kind of a person and I was more of a disciplinarian who could get angry. The combination worked well but John was better liked.
  • My first housekeeper worked for me for ten years and the second for twelve. The kids were fine. My housekeepers were untutored and untrained, a stable part of the kids lives, and most of all, they loved the kids. When I left the house I knew the kids were in good hands.
  • The norms and criteria for excellent child rearing were different than they are today.   Everyone knew work always came first and we didn’t apologize for it.   We did not do our children’s homework because school was their job and we rarely helped them with it. It was okay to say, “Go outside and play” and “You can go to your friend’s house, but you have to figure out how you’ll get there and back.”  A primary goal was for the kids to become independent people who could take care of themselves and make good decisions.

I didn’t look for approval from my kids’ teachers, the PTA, my neighbors or my parents. In our lives, almost all the women we knew worked, if only part-time. A working wife and mother was not typical in the town but it was not unusual in the university.

As I look back I think one of the most important things I learned pretty early was that I couldn’t be “the good girl” who pleases everyone. It was obvious that priorities had to be established within each sphere of my life because it was simply not possible to give a lot of time and full attention to everything that came up. Metaphorically speaking, taped on my refrigerator door there was the following typed message: NO is a very good and useful word.

I never forgot that.

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