84 Years (And Counting) of Defying Sexist Stereotypes

This past Christmas, I sat down with my 84-year-old grandma (whom we affectionately call “Busia,” which means “grandmother” in Polish) to learn more about her extraordinary life, a life that deserves sharing.

Here is her story.

Busia was born to Polish immigrants in a small New Jersey town in 1935. She was the youngest of four daughters. Her three sisters took what was considered the more “traditional” path at the time—they worked secretarial jobs, and all married within two years of graduating high school. Yet Busia embarked upon a very different course. Upon receiving a full-ride scholarship to Rider University, she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in accounting and moved, at twenty-two years old, to New York City, where she worked for a prestigious accounting firm. After three years there, Busia moved back to New Jersey to earn her master’s degree in accounting and met her husband-to-be on the very first day of class—my grandfather was her professor! They eventually had three boys, and when the youngest was just five years old, Busia started working on her doctorate in accounting. For four years, four days per week, she drove forty-five minutes to Temple University in Philadelphia. After completing her Ph.D. program, Busia became a Professor of Accounting at Rider University in 1967. She was the only woman in the Accounting Department, and one of just two women in the Business School. After working at Rider for almost thirty years, she retired in 1995, leaving behind an impressive legacy which culminated in her winning the Lifetime Achievement in Accounting Award in 2016.  

Busia receiving her Lifetime Achievement in Accounting Award in 2016, with the Associate Dean of the College of Business at Rider University (left) and the president of Rider University (right).   

Those are the facts. But how did Busia do it? I sat down with this incredible woman to discuss the enormous amount of strength, determination, and motivation that drove her towards success, as well as the multitude of challenges she faced throughout her professional career, quite simply because she was a woman. 

Busia’s once-chocolatey hair is now streaked with strands of silver. Her already-small frame is shrunken. Her elegant hands are a web of veins and spots, and her face is lined with a combination of age and wisdom. Yet her wit, charm, and biting humor remain unchanged. This was evident in her immediate response to my question of whether it was difficult to be in such a male-dominated profession. “I didn’t care what they did,” she remarked, “as long as they let me teach!” But then the sparkle in her eyes dimmed as if a lifetime of gender discrimination was finally beginning to take its toll after eighty-four years of iron composure.  

In a 2017 factsheet by the nonprofit progressive policy research institute the Center for American Progress, titled “The Women’s Leadership Gap,” authors Judith Warner and Danielle Corley discuss a striking statistic: in higher education, only 31% of full professors (the highest rank for university teachers) are female. According to “The Pyramid Problem,” a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a rigid hierarchy within academia, and it is often inflected by gender. Women tend to be isolated at the bottom of the academic ranks, holding more part-time and adjunct positions, which translate into significantly lower pay and less job security. And that’s in the twenty-first century. In the 1960s, when Busia entered her first academic position, the academic ladder was even less inviting to women. For all her successes, it took Busia over twenty years to achieve full professor status. Meanwhile, my grandfather advanced quickly through the ranks of Rider University, moving from Department Chair to Assistant Dean, and finally becoming Dean of the Business School in 1980. The most surprising part? His highest level of education was an M.A. in accounting, compared to Busia’s doctorate.  

But the hardest part of Busia’s journey? Balancing her career with her role as both a wife and mother. In 1989, sociologists Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung coined a phrase for this common issue: “the second shift.” They documented the struggles of working women in a book by that name. While my grandfather encouraged Busia to pursue her education and a job at Rider University, she recounts that there was always the unspoken expectation that it was also her responsibility to ensure the house was clean, their three boys were taken care of, and a warm meal was on the table every night. But Busia remained undaunted in the face of such an enormous workload. Her eyes sparkled with sentimentality as she recalled how she taught her three boys to make simple dinners when they were as young as 10 years old.  

I will leave you with something Busia told me at the end of our conversation—something I will never forget: “I don’t consider myself special, or my career particularly impressive,” she said. “I just wanted something no one could ever take away from me—an education. There will always be people who doubt your abilities, especially as a woman. But if you are willing to dedicate enough time, diligence, and effort, you can achieve anything.”