Even the show cringed at its title, making new jokes every week. Image via Slacktory.
Even the show cringed at its title, making new jokes every week. Image via Slacktory.

Television and movie relationships between a middle-aged woman and younger man, like those on TBS’s Cougar Town often appear glamorous and dramatic, but are they accurate depictions? Milaine Alarie and Jason Carmichael tell Pacific Standard that the stereotype of wealthy “cougars” who “have been able to surgically turn back time with their looks… or literally buy young men’s attention” is more a myth popularized by shows like Sex and the City than reality. First, they find in a survey of Americans that “roughly 13 percent of sexually active women between ages 35 and 44 had slept with a man who was at least five years younger,” meaning that sexual relationships between middle-aged women and younger men are not rare. The bigger surprise is that women sporting diamonds and Chanel are less likely to be in that 13 percent than low-income women are. Additionally, rather than a steamy fling, these relationships tend to be long-term, with most lasting at least two years. “[A] sizable share of ‘cougars’ are married to their younger partners.”

Media portrayals of a woman’s midlife crisis or frantic clamor to cling to youth do not represent most women’s experiences, highlighting a cultural problem: a stereotype like the “cougar” “encourages aging women to doubt themselves.” Alarie and Carmichael hope that dispelling the cougar myth will “motivate us to reflect on our society’s tendency to (re)produce sexist and ageist conceptions of women’s sexuality, and women’s value more broadly.”

Katie Cannon, Flickr CC
Katie Cannon, Flickr CC

After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research isn’t surprised by this gendered bias, telling The Guardian, “I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done.”

As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”

Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.
Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.


Between the high costs of adoption and surrogacy, same-sex parents face many more obstacles than most heterosexual couples when it comes to adding a child to the family photo. Among those couples who go the distance, lesbians have been much more likely than gay men to parent, but the number of male couples seeking adoption is on the rise. “They have to go out of their way to become fathers,” Nancy Mezey, a sociology professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey told New York Times about the dedicated men making the long and complicated journey to parenthood.

Such two-father families fill specific niches and tend to foster inclusivity in more than one way. “They’re adopting children that other people don’t want to adopt. They’re teaching their children tolerance and expanding definitions of gender roles,” according to Mezey. “They are helping to redefine what it means to be a real man.”

One interesting twist is the division of household labor same-sex parent homes. Among heterosexual couples, cultural norms have long encouraged women to raise children while men bring home the bacon. This means stay-at-home gay dads also quietly “challenge dominant beliefs that dads are primarily breadwinners and can’t be the primary nurturers,” Mezey told the Times.

Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.
Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.


Men and women who are lawyers, consultants, or hold other prestigious jobs find themselves answering late night emails and weekend phone calls. Even when they’re “off the clock,” trying to relax with their families, highly paid professionals often attend to work.

Still, men and women tend to cope with demands for their time differently, and it boils down to men working as much as possible, while women try to negotiate their careers to accommodate rearing their children. Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy from the University of California, San Diego told the New York Times that these differences come from broader, gendered cultural expectations: “It’s not really about business; it’s about fundamental identity and masculinity,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “Men are required by the culture to be these superheroes, to fulfill this devotion and single-minded commitment to work.” For women, carpool, soccer games, and dance recitals are seen as more acceptable reasons for leaving work, “because they have an external definition of morality or leading the good life, which is being devoted to their children.”

However, being a “good mom” isn’t a “free pass,” and it certainly isn’t a route to career advancement. Coworkers often interpret only working 9-to-5 to mean that a woman is not fully invested in her career. And when the moms put their careers “before their kids”—say, taking calls during a T-ball game or staying at the office until 9pm—they’re likely to lose the respect of their colleagues, judged for bucking others’ ideas of what a nurturing mom really looks like. In careers and elsewhere, cultural tropes, from boardroom bosses to soccer moms, have real consequences.

Image via Camilla Eriksson.
Image via Camilla Eriksson.


Swedish nursery school teachers and LGBT groups have banded together over the addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the official Swedish language. It all started five years ago. These two groups were among the first to use the gender-neutral hen as an alternative to the female pronoun hon and the male han. Now the common, conversational use of hen has led the Swedish Academy to include it in the newest edition of the country’s official.

In the Washington Post, linguist Sofia Malmgård explains that there are two ways to use the new pronoun:

First, if the gender is unknown or not relevant (as in: “If anyone needs to smoke, ‘hen’ may do so outside”). Second, it can be used as a pronoun for inter-gender people (as in: “Kim is neither boy or girl, ‘hen’ is inter-gender”).

In other words, the pronoun provides a way to talk about someone and disregard hen’s gender when it doesn’t matter or doesn’t conform to the traditional masculine/feminine binary.

In Sweden, ranked fourth on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender equality report, gender-neutral education is in vogue. Nurseries, kindergartens, and preschools have been at the forefront of the movement to help children grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. At Egalia, a preschool in Stockholm, traditionally gendered toys and games are placed side-by-side to encourage children to choose by preference rather than convention; students are not referred to as male or female; and gender-neutral books line the shelves.

LGBT groups have also embraced the new pronoun as a way to raise awareness. Experts are cautiously optimistic that officially recognizing the word will encourage more people to use it., Lann Hornscheidt, a professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies, believes hen really will help fight sexism and gender biases. As he told the Post,

The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last 10 years.

Purple Sherbet Photography via Creative Commons
Purple Sherbet Photography via Creative Commons


Sociologists are quite familiar with the combination of marginalized identities that can lead to oppression, inequalities, and “double disadvantages.” But can negative stereotypes actually have positive consequences?

Financial Juneteenth recently highlighted a study showing that gay black men may have better odds of landing a job and higher salaries than their straight, black, male colleagues. Led by sociologist David Pedulla, the study sent resumes and a job description to 231 white employers nationwide, asking them to suggest starting salaries for the position. Resumes included typically raced names (“Brad Miller” for white applicants and “Darnell Jackson”) and listed participation in “Gay Student Advisory Council” to imply the applicant’s sexuality. Pedulla found that gay Black men were more likely to receive the same starting salaries as straight white men, whereas gay white men and straight black men were offered lowered salaries.

Pedulla’s findings have sparked a conversation among scholars and journalists about the complexity of stereotypes surrounding black masculinities and sexualities. Organizational behavior researcher and Huffington Post contributor Jon Fitzgerald Gates also weighed in on the findings, arguing that the effeminate stereotypes of homosexuality may be counteracting the traditional stereotypes of a dangerous and threatening black heterosexual masculinity.

Read Pedulla’s entire study, published in Social Psychology Quarterly, here: The Positive Consequences of Negative Stereotypes: Race, Sexual Orientation, and the Job Application Process.

Image by Photophilde via Flickr CC
Image by Photophilde via Flickr CC

A new study finds that men and women increasingly desire egalitarian relationships, yet household labor often remains gendered and imbalanced. So what’s the holdup? Study co-author, sociologist Sarah Thébaud, explains to USA Today that workplace policies surrounding paid leave, flexible scheduling, and child care are making it harder for couples to balance household work:

“There is a lot of research showing that, in today’s economy, it is tremendously challenging for couples to strike an egalitarian division between work and family responsibilities. … Women who ‘opt out’ of full-time careers often report doing so not because it was their ideal preference, but because the inflexibility of their work hours or the high costs of childcare left them with few options. This limited set of options ends up reinforcing gender inequality, despite the fact that people are increasingly endorsing more gender-egalitarian attitudes and beliefs.”

Co-author David Pedulla adds that women, especially, need supportive workplace policies:

“[If] supportive policies are in place, women are much more likely to prefer egalitarian relationships and much less likely to prefer neo-traditional relationships.”

The study is based on a 2012 survey of a representative group of 18 to 32-year-old unmarried, childless men and women in the United States.

Photo via Flickr CC, Slavesalicious. Click for original.
Photo via Flickr CC, Slavesalicious. Click for original.

Early in 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed twelve bills aimed at combating sex trafficking. These bills compliment laws signed last year to protect victims of trafficking, particularly children. Thus far, however, legislation has overlooked the causes of trafficking, namely, male perpetrators who engage in sexual violence and abuse and whose patronage makes the crimes profitable.

In a recent Huffington Post article, sociologist Gail Dines offers insight into the “demand side” of sex crimes, citing pornography as an influence:

The biggest sex educator of young men today is pornography, which is increasingly violent and dehumanizing, and it changes the way men view women.

Dines argues that porn teaches men to behave in sexually violent and abusive ways:

We know that trafficking is increasing—which means demand is increasing. This means that men are increasingly willing to have sex with women who are being controlled and abused by pimps and traffickers. There are only two conclusions here: That men are naturally willing to do this to women—biology—or that they are being socialized by the culture to lose all empathy for women. I refuse to accept that men are born rapists, porn users, or johns.

Dine’s controversial topic of study—and its results—casts important questions on a growing, if often “unseen” crime.

Photo from Persephone's Birth by eyeliam on flickr.com
Photo by eyeliam via Flickr CC.

Pregnancy can be stressful. Friends and family may have good intentions, giving informal support to expecting mothers, but their helpful hints sometimes come across as critical. A doula, however, provides emotional support before, during, and after birth, and helps women make informed health decisions.

Sociologist Lisa Hall talked to Missouri State News about her research on doula services and how these workers’ contribute women’s well-being. Hall reflected on one interview:

The client’s words were, “if it had not been for my doula, I think I might have just left my baby with my husband and moved away.” She had no confidence that she could be a good mom—especially in the midst of criticism—and the doula empowered her.

Many doula clients receive WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) services and lack access to adequate healthcare due poverty or homelessness. Furthermore, lack of education and connections (part of what social scientists call “social capital”) prevents many low-income and young women from asking questions or expressing health concerns. And, for all women, a doula can serve as a liaison to health service providers. Hall elaborates, “It’s a major view shift for some of these [expectant mothers] who haven’t been taken seriously or hadn’t been treated like an adult …”.

Taking a client’s physical and emotional needs seriously is just one aspect of doula services. The Doula Foundation teaches effective parenting, helps with healthcare access, and encourages breastfeeding, all of which benefit mothers and their children by providing a tool kit of positive health practices. Other groups, like the Isis Rising Prison Doula Project, bring doula services into spaces where birth may have even further complications.

This co-edited volume considers "Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers."
This co-edited volume considers “Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers.”

One of the most forceful themes in the 2015 State of the Union Address was the need to help working families. President Obama and other progressives argue that implementing policies like guaranteed paid sick leave and child care tax credits will boost the national economy by making it easier for mothers to work. Opponents believe the policies will hurt businesses, damaging job growth and economic recovery.

Sociologists have long studied how the roles of parent and worker intersect, and some of their data and findings are being put to use in this political debate. The New York Times’s Upshot blog highlighted several studies of paid leave policies, including CUNY sociologist Ruth Milkman’s work. Milkman’s analysis supports paid leave and credits for child care—she argues that “For workers who use these programs, they are extremely beneficial, and the business lobby’s predictions about how these programs are really a big burden on employers are not accurate.” Milkman, along with economist Eileen Applebaum, surveyed California firms about whether their costs had increased as a consequence of that state’s paid leave law. 87% of companies said that their bottom line had not suffered, and 9% found that their costs had actually decreased, thanks to lower worker turnover or health benefits payments.

Yet even in California, New Jersey, and Washington, the three states that have, thus far, enacted paid leave laws, many workers don’t know about the policies. State-level political campaigns may change policy, but a broader national discussion must help change workplace cultures to make good on the policies’ promise.