Source: thesociologicalcinema.com
Source: thesociologicalcinema.com

About a year ago, I wrote my first post for Sociology Lens about the tensions over sex education in the United States. Specifically, I commented on Jessica Field’s Sociology Compass article, “Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across the Political Divide,” in which she argues that, regardless of political position on sex education, most participants in debates operate from a shared assumption about the dangers of adolescent sexuality. Following Fields, I called for a truly comprehensive form of sex education that recognizes confusion, pleasure, and the risks of sexual activity.

Now, a year later as I end my time as a Sociology Lens contributor, I am happy to write that I have finally found a model of sex education that achieves the goals that I set out in that first post. A group in Iceland has created a government-sponsored awareness video that teaches teenagers about issues relevant to their sexual lives: confusion in the bedroom, body differences and issues, protection and contraceptives, emotional responses to sex, and sexual violence (Trigger warning: the video explicitly covers the topic of rape, which may be sensitive for some). In January 2013, all teenagers in Icelandic public schools screened the video.

This video offers a complete approach to sex education. Rather than approaching sex as a dangerous topic (as often is the case in the United States), it starts from the assumption that sex can and should be fun. This means that teenagers should not fret over their bodies (all bodies are different) and should have realistic expectations about sexual activity (real life sex may not look like porn sex or Hollywood sex). Sex is more enjoyable if you communicate with your partner (boy or girl) and set your boundaries. The video does recognize the risks associated with adolescent sexual behavior, including sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. However, rather than presenting sexual activity as inherently dangerous, the teenage viewers are reminded to use protection every time. In other words, instead of framing sex as scary, the video acknowledges the risks and gives teenagers concrete ways to deal with the potential problems associated with sexual activity (setting boundaries, communicating with your partner even when it is awkward or confusing, using contraceptives). This is exactly what Fields described in her Sociology Compass article and what I reiterated in my first Sociology Lens piece.

Additionally, the video does a particularly good job of dealing with sexual violence, especially issues around consent. The video reminds teenagers that silence, or the lack of consent, is not actually consent. Your partner should say “yes” to sex. Consent, or “a yes,” is always necessary. By educating students about these issues, they should not be confused about what constitutes sexual violence.

Now, the question is whether or not this type of video would ever be introduced into a U.S. sex education classroom. Most of the debates about sex education are motivated by the fear that adolescents will harm themselves through sexual behavior, a message which is inconsistent with the Icelandic video. Even the most radical supporters of a comprehensive sex education program might be reluctant to use a video that describes sex as fun. What do you think?

Suggested Readings:

Fine, Michelle and Sara McClelland. 2006. “Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing After All of These Years.” Harvard Educational Review 76(3): 297.

Tolman, Deborah. 2005. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

Source: healthamericans.org
Source: healthamericans.org

Recent California statistics  by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation expose a contradiction plaguing weight loss initiatives in the United States. More and more Californians are exercising, but obesity rates are rising across the state. Between 2001 and 2011, all of the counties in California saw an increase in rates of exercise. The increases were particularly dramatic for women; the rates of women who completed a sufficient amount of physical activity in a week rose from 50.7% in 2001 to 59.25% in 2011. Given the link between exercise and weight loss, increased activity should be related to a decrease in the number of obese people. Yet, this is not what researchers observed. Instead, the Health and Metrics Evaluation study found that obesity rates are on the rise: rates have increased in every county in California. Despite more exercise, Californians are not necessarily maintaining a healthy weight. The researchers concluded that Californians, like many people throughout the United States, are consuming more calories than they lose through activity. Diets and caloric intake are still too high, meaning individuals hold onto or even gain weight, rather than losing it through exercise.

It is not surprising that caloric intake continues to be a problem for many Californians and others throughout the United States. Healthy eating habits are mostly treated as individual issues. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides guidelines for food consumption with initiatives like the food pyramid and choose my plate; the programs suggest that individuals should eat a certain portion of vegetables, fruit, protein, dairy, grains, oils and fats. But the intervention largely stops there. Few government and medical initiatives address larger structural and cultural issues that might prevent individuals from making healthy choices about their food consumption. Just a few examples include the class disparities in access to food, the unhealthy amounts of sugar and fat offered in our publically-funded schools, and the widespread availability (and the potentially addictive quality) of fast food, especially for children.

Yet, we have seen a few movements in the last couple of years that recognize food consumption as a social and cultural issue. In 2010, ABC aired a series focusing on chef Jamie Oliver’s attempts to change eating habits in one of the unhealthiest towns in the United States. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution tackled major obstacles to healthy eating in a West Virginia town, starting primarily with the food served in schools. Oliver found that the publically-funded school lunch program served children milk with too much sugar, food with too much fat, and meals with few redemptive qualities. Oliver met resistance from the community and the school system, but ultimately the small town in West Virginia started to change. Even after he left, reports show that students are still fed healthy and nutritious lunches. This initiative, reworking school lunches, is a good example of how to produce change at a broader social and cultural level, rather than treating obesity as an individual problem to be dealt with at home.

Another movement that comes to mind is San Francisco’s ban on marketing fast food to children by offering toys. Drawing on the idea that children will find saturated fats more appealing when coupled with a toy, San Francisco required that fast food chains remove the small plastic trinkets from their kid’s meals. While the initiative might not have been the most successful (note: McDonald’s ultimately found a loophole and started charging 10 cents for the toy, rather than providing it for free with the meal), this is the type of movement that addresses not only the cultural component of food consumption, but also our ability to use our social institutions to create widespread changes.

These are the types of initiatives that are needed in order to reduce obesity rates. If we continue to think about weight issues as individual battles, we will fall short. We need larger social and cultural changes in order to ensure that individuals have access to the food and information necessary to maintain a healthy weight.

Suggested Reading:

Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge.

Burdette, Hillary L. and Robert C. Whitaker. “Neighborhood Playgrounds, Fast Food Restaurants, and Crime: Relationships to Overweight in Low-Income Preschool Children.” Preventive Medicine 38(1): 57-63.

Source: istockphoto.com
Source: istockphoto.com

Last month, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted against the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. In 1983, the FDA initially banned blood from men who have sex with men because of the not yet understood nature of HIV and AIDS and the explosion of fear over transmission. At this time, the rates of HIV and AIDS were highest in the gay male population and the testing procedures for detecting the virus in the blood were not very reliable. Now, the AMA explains that testing procedures are better and that sexual intercourse between men does not guarantee transmission of HIV. Banning blood donations from this population is not just unwarranted, but discriminatory. Instead, the AMA recommends that gay men should be evaluated on an individual basis. Following in the steps of the United Kingdom and Canada, the AMA asks that men who have abstained from sex with another man for at least a year should be able to donate blood.

At first, I read the headlines for this story and I was pretty excited about the AMA’s recommendation. But then, I got to the part about asking men to abstain from sex with men before being able to donate blood. The AMA bases this recommendation on the fact that male to male sexual contact accounted for 61% of new HIV transmissions in the United States in 2010. In other words, the majority of new HIV infections are transmitted between men who have sex with men and therefore they are a higher risk group. Yet, this is still not a fair individualized assessment because it presumes (or prescribes) the risky nature of all sex between men, as well as assumes that abstinence is the only way to prevent transmission of HIV (despite a lot of research that explains that condoms are pretty effective, too).

While a majority of HIV transmissions do occur between men who have sex with men, rates of heterosexual transmission are on the rise: according to the CDC, there were 13,402 cases of heterosexual transmission of HIV in 2011 (about 27% of new cases). Yet, heterosexual individuals are not asked to abstain from sex. In fact, heterosexual individuals are not even asked about safe sex practices. They are asked to disclose if they have had sex with a man who has sex with men, with a prostitute, with a person who uses intravenous drugs, or with a person from Africa (you can check out the questionnaire if you are interested). They do not have to answer questions about the frequency or safety of their sexual activities, even though they could be participating in riskier practices than their men who have sex with men counterparts.

Here is an alternative recommendation: a true individualized assessment for EVERYONE. Every individual should be asked if they engage in safe sex practices. Instead of targeting a group and requiring their abstinence, let’s ask that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, to mitigate the risk of HIV before they give blood. This would not only be less discriminatory, but also probably safer overall.

Suggested Readings:

Caplan, Arthur. 2010. “Blood Stains – Why an Absurd Policy Banning Gay Men as Blood Donors Has Not Been Changed.” The American Journal of Bioethics 10(2): 1-2.

Garlarneau, Charlene. 2010. “Blood Donation, Deferral, and Discrimination: FDA Donor Deferral Policy for Men Who Have Sex With Men.” The American Journal of Bioethics 10(2): 29-39.

 

Source: pewsocialtrends.org
Source: pewsocialtrends.org

It is hard to imagine that only several decades ago, many women in the United States did not work outside the home. If they did work, their income was a supplement to the household, not the primary share. In fact, in 1960, census reports found that mothers were the primary breadwinner in only 11% of households. A new Pew Research Center study shows us how much times have changed. Not only are women working and making more money than ever before in history, the Pew Center is now reporting that mothers bring in the primary income for 40% of U.S. households. This is a dramatic shift in the politics of gender, work, and family in a relatively short amount of time.

Yet, not all women benefit equally. It turns out that there are two types of breadwinning mothers: married women who out earn their husbands and single mothers who are the only source of income for the family. The married women constitute 37% of the breadwinning mothers. They are well educated, better paid, older, and disproportionately white. The single mothers constitute the majority of breadwinning mothers, or 67%.  They are less educated, poorer, younger, and usually women of color.

This report reminds us about the importance of intersectional thinking: while the general numbers provide evidence for women’s greater importance for household finances, a closer look shows us that race and class matter, too. Some women (white, married, educated) have access to better paying jobs, allowing them to out earn their husbands. Other women (women of color, single, less educated) have access to fewer resources and must do it all on their own.

While this report generates a number of avenues for sociological inquiry, I want to turn our attention to a recent Sociology Compass article, “Race and Sex Discrimination in the Employment Process.” The authors, Sheryl Skaggs and Jennifer Bridges, argue that employment discrimination is complex and multi-faceted. Discrimination based on sex and race occurs at all levels of the employment process from hiring to wages to promotions and evaluations of job performance. While organizations have some practices that shield workers from discrimination, there are too many opportunities for individual bias to play out in the employment process. Employers are likely to hold stereotypical ideas about race and gender, including the abilities and productivity of different racial groups and different genders.  Ultimately, Skaggs and Bridges call for thinking about workplace discrimination as a set of processes, rather than a static phenomenon.

Skraggs and Bridges introduce some theories that help us understand the complex nature of workplace discrimination; these theories are useful for thinking about the breadwinning mothers data. The first theory, statistical discrimination, explains that many employers will make decisions about hiring, wages, and promotions based on their perception of a worker’s commitment to the company. In the case of the single working mother, employers are likely to think that she is stretched too thin and won’t be a “good value.”  The second theory, bias, is simply a theory of racial and gender discrimination; this theory suggest that employers don’t think single women of color mothers are as capable of completing the job and so they are not given as many opportunities at all levels of the employment process.

While I have used the Sociology Compass article by Skraggs and Bridges to explore the new data on breadwinning mothers, there is still much more to be said. What do you think?

 

Suggested Readings:

Chesley, Noelle. 2011. “Stay-at-Home Fathers and Breadwinning Mothers: Gender, Couple Dynamics, and Social Change.” Gender & Society 25(5): 642-664.

 

Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. 2004. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

This week, Harvard University students are taking a stand against a controversial 2009 dissertation, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” which argues that Hispanics have lower IQs and develops contentious suggestions for U.S. immigration reform based on this assumption.  Jason Richwine, the author of the dissertation and currently a research contributor for The Heritage Foundation, ultimately recommends that U.S. immigration policy should be based on intelligence, excluding individuals with lower IQ scores and including individuals with higher scores. Though Richwine claims that he does not endorse ethnicity-based immigration reform, his use of IQs disaggregated by race and ethnicity raises questions about the intent of his work.

Over 1,200 Harvard University students have sent a petition to the University asking for an investigation into the approval of this dissertation. Though the students recognize that academic freedom is integral to any university system, they are troubled by the biological assumptions of racial superiority and inferiority that serve as the foundation for the IQ and immigration research. The students “…believe that putting forth claims of racial superiority based on inherent genetic advantage to be on par with those who have used pseudo-science throughout history to justify state-based hate.”

Harvard, on the other, seems to be standing behind the dissertation. David Ellwood, the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, publically stated that all dissertations are rigorously reviewed by competent and accomplished faculty members. Richwine wondered why students would think that they can determine the content of a dissertation, invoking his right to academic freedom.

The defense of this dissertation raises more questions than answers. First, I think it is important to think fully about the concept of “academic freedom.”  The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a set of principles which guide the U.S. university system, explains that teachers and researchers are entitled to have freedom over their classrooms and their research and should not be required to espouse any particular religious or political viewpoint. If this was the only sentiment of the 1940 statement, Richwine would have a sound case for academic freedom. But, this statement also reminds us that academic researchers speak from a position of authority and thus carry obligations when conducting research and reporting findings. In other words, with great power comes great responsibility. This means being responsible with our research questions. Why would Richwine ask a question about IQ differences across racial and ethnic groups? Haven’t we debunked research that claims superiority of the intellectual ability of some racial and ethnic groups over others? In addition to thinking about the assumptions behind our research questions, we should also contemplate how to use our research findings for social good. If there are IQ differences across racial and ethnic groups, why didn’t Richwine call for better education programs that would level out differences, rather than systematically exclude some groups from entrance into the United States?

In addition to questions about academic freedom, this case also brings to mind the responsibilities of the university’s institutional review board (IRB). All universities require that researchers, even those in the social sciences, take a course to ensure that we will not harm our research subjects. In addition to this course, our proposals are scrutinized for potential harm. Though social scientists often see the IRB as a hindrance (after hours of answering questions about medical harm and rewriting proposals in line with IRB standards, I have been known to hold this opinion, too), this dissertation reminds me of the importance of the review process and of the assessment of harm. Richwine’s findings have potential consequences, especially when race relations at the border are contentious and at times deadly. Richwine’s findings have the potential to fuel racist and ethnocentric thinking, provide justification for detentions at the border, and incite vigilantly justice against immigrants from Central and South America. While the harms are not inevitable, they are possible. Did the IRB consider these consequences when approving this research proposal?

These are the concerns and questions that come to my mind. What do you think about the students’ petition and their call for more investigation into this dissertation?

Suggested Readings –

For more on race and science:

Jackson, John P. and Nadine M. Weidman. 2005. Race, Racism, and Science: Social Impact and Interaction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

For more on the history of immigration policies:

Luibheid, Eithne. 2002. Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

 

whitematters.wordpress.com
whitematters.wordpress.co 

 

The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Mike Jeffries, is up-front about his marketing and sales strategy: appeal to “cool” and “popular” kids to make the brand distinctive and desirable. While anybody can wear other brands, only those who fit an ideal body type can have the privilege of sporting Abercrombie and Fitch tees and jeans. How does Jeffries achieve this goal? The Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements use models who are “all American” (white and skinny), the stores employ similarly small and fit workers, and the largest size available for women is a size 10. Jeffries does have all of his bases covered: no one will mistake Abercrombie and Fitch as a brand that markets to the masses.

Not surprisingly, Jeffries has been widely criticized for these tactics. In an era of increasing eating disorders among people of all ages, and bullying of children and teenagers who do not fit the norm, such a marketing strategy has potentially serious consequences. By presenting a skinny and white body type as the ideal “cool” and “popular” person, Abercrombie and Fitch perpetuates a body image that is unrealistic for many men and women. While this brand is certainly not the only one to expound these ideals of beauty, it is probably fair to say, at least, that Abercrombie and Fitch capitalizes on the problem.

Much of the criticism targets the tactics aimed at women. The female models are too skinny and, because of the exclusionary sizing techniques, a woman of average weight from the U.S. could not fit into the clothes. These critiques follow a long tradition of feminist and academic works that expose the social constructions of beauty for women and their problematic effects. In this sociology lens post, though, I want to focus on the body image standards set for men and the potential consequences.

is the ideal “cool” and “popular” man represented by Abercrombie and Fitch? A quick google image search of Abercrombie and Fitch ads show that he is white, lean, and muscular. Ironically, he wears no shirt, not even one with the Abercrombie and Fitch logo. He is popular with women, displaying his heterosexual prowess. In other words, the brand relies on racialized and sexualized images of masculinity to market their products.

While much of the body image literature historically focuses on women, scholars now recognize that men are also held to unrealistic body standards. Diagnoses of eating disorders are becoming more prevalent in the male population. Men turn to exercise dependence to achieve a muscular body type. In other words, research shows that men, too, feel bad about their bodies, in part because of media representations of the ideal man.

Companies like Abercrombie and Fitch rely on the insecurities that result from racist, sexist, and heterosexist cultural images of beauty. Ideally, companies will stop invoking these standards and let their products speak for themselves without employing exclusionary tactics. Until then, let’s avoid Abercrombie and Fitch.

Suggested Readings:

Vacarro, Christian Alexander. 2011. “Male Bodies in Manhood Acts: The Role of Body-Talk and Embodied Practices in Signifying Culturally Dominant Notions of Manhood.” Sociology Compass 5(1): 65-76.

Vokey, Megan, Bruce Tefft, and Chris Tysiaczny. 2013. “An Analysis of Hyper-Masculinity in Magazine Advertisements.” Sex Roles 68(9-10): 562-576.

 

Source: www.cie.uci.edu
Source: www.cie.uci.edu

In the most recent issue of Sociology Compass, Lisa Wade contributed an article, “The New Science of Sex Difference,” about the relationship between biology and social identities and inequalities. The debate about socialization usually boils down to two seemingly opposed positions: nature versus nurture. Historically, biologists, and other fans of the life sciences, contended that natural forces in the body, like hormones, genes, and brains, determine the development of an individual. On the other hand, sociologists refute the claim that human behavior and identity can be reduced to biological phenomena; instead, our social environment, and how we are nurtured within that environment, constrain and enable our actions, life outcomes, and sense of self.

Yet, Wade cautions against this false dichotomy. Many biologists and sociologists now recognize the importance of social structures and experiences on the actual fabric of the body. That is, the issue should not be nature versus nature, but instead both nature and nurture. Wade points to numerous scientific and sociological studies that begin to bridge the gap between two previously polarized sides: these scholars show how our hormones, our brains, and even our genes are structured, and at times restructured, by our social experiences and encounters.

Wade’s ultimate (and important) point is that this type of interdisciplinary work has the potential to undermine inequalities. Though biology historically has been mobilized to justify social inequality (craniometry, for example, was used as “evidence” of the superiority of the white, and male, brain), we might think about adopting a sociological and biological approach to level the playing field. If biology can be mobilized to create inequality, perhaps it can be used to undermine it. This brings me back to my last sociology lens post on women and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.

Two weeks ago, I posted about the barriers for women entering STEM fields. Relying on the American Association of University Women’s report about the hard transition into STEM majors for female college students, I promoted programs targeted at high school-aged young women that would get them interested in this type of career. But, Wade’s article has prompted me to think about other types of interventions that might involve both biological and social components.

For example, that same AAUW report found some differences in cognitive abilities, particularly spatial skills, between boys/men and girls/women. While it would be easy to chalk these differences up to innate ability, the AAUW researchers instead posit socialization and gendered toys as some of the reasons for the cognitive differences. Boys are encouraged to play with LEGOs and other toys that develop spatial abilities from a young age. As they age, boys are more likely to feel confident when using these spatial skills; girls, on the other hand, feel discouraged. This translates into very real differences in career choice.

Taking this finding and Wade’s article seriously, I think we need to develop interventions that target the cognitive skills (for example, see this innovative LEGO-spinoff, Goldie Blocks, that combines reading and building). In order to encourage women to enter STEM fields, we need to arm them with the cognitive skills necessary for interest and success in a STEM field. Here, we see the potential of using both sociology and biology to solve a social problem and undermine a social inequality.

Wade’s article is a reminder and a caution to sociologists: we should not discount what biology has to offer, but instead embrace the intersections of our disciplines. I will take away from Wade’s article a more critical perspective on my work, and I hope others do, too.

Suggested Reading:

Keller, Evelyn Fox and Helen E. Longino. 1996. Feminism and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Source: girlscouts.org
Source: girlscouts.org

Last fall, like any good teacher of the sociology of gender, I introduced my class to the patterns of gender bias in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My students were not shocked by the observation that few women enter these fields in college. In fact, one of my students raised her hand and explained the bias first hand. She was a computer science major, enrolled in a computer science course held in the same lecture hall in the time block before our class. She would see the composition of the classroom change as one course ended and the other began: mostly men would leave the computer science class, and then relatively equal numbers of men and women entered the sociology of gender class. My class discussed many ways to eliminate the gender bias in STEM fields, including high school level interventions to enable girls to excel in these majors. This is why I was so excited to open the New York Times this week and read an article about Girls Who Code, an organization that teaches computer code to high school girls in order to prepare them for a college major in computer science.

In order to give context to the significance of such an organization, here is a general background about gender and STEM fields. Historically, STEM fields have been dominated by men. The training for boys to enter these fields started early in their educations. Young boys were encouraged to excel in mathematics and science in grade and high school, meaning boys often outperformed girls in the classroom, as well as on standardized tests. As boys entered college, they were filtered into STEM fields in order to enter science and math-oriented careers. From a young age, boys were taught that they had a home in math and science; their education prepared them for such a career.

Fast forward to today. Educational and government professionals, feminists, and other activists have made substantial efforts to eliminate the bias in the education of girls and boys. In order to level the playing field in the subjects of math and science, a number of educational efforts targeted girls in order to get them excited about these fields and to ensure that they received a similar education to boys. On a national level, government initiatives, like the White House Girls in Stem events, promote girls’ intellectual achievement in math and science. On a more local and individual level, teachers and educators encourage girls to excel in these subjects. In many ways, these national and local efforts have paid off. Over time, the gap between girls’ and boys’ performances in math and science has narrowed. In fact, the American Association of University Women’s 2010 report suggests that girls take more math and science credits and receive higher grade point averages in these classes than boys.

Yet, despite the substantial gains in girls’ performance in math and science in grade and high school, men still dominate STEM college majors and careers. Girls and boys will perform similarly in earlier education settings, but once entering college, girls are less likely to choose a STEM field as their area of specialization. In other words, these efforts don’t eliminate the bias at higher levels of education.

This is why I am so excited about the organization, Girls Who Code. The organization, founded by Reshma Saujani, teaches high school girls how to code in order to give them an advantage when entering computer science classrooms in college. Saugani started the organization after she noted that few women were present in computer science classrooms. Girls Who Code and other organizations like it have helped many young women excel in computer science, changing the face of the field.

Has anyone heard of similar organizations aimed at intervening in this pivotal time between high school and college when the gender gap in STEM fields widens? I am excited to learn about these efforts.

Suggested Readings:

American Association of University Women. 2010. Why So Few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

McDaniel, Anne. 2012. “Women’s Advantage in Higher Education: Towards and Understanding of a Global Phenomenon.” Sociology Compass 6(7): 581-595.

Source: http://emanaliahmed91.blogspot.com
Source: http://emanaliahmed91.blogspot.com

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has created quite the buzz in the media, drawing accolades and criticism from widespread analysts, academics, feminists, business people, journalists, etc. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, contends that the norms of femininity prevent women from gaining success in the workplace. While insufficient work and family policies are obstacles for women, one major, often overlooked, barrier is the rigid boundaries of masculinity and femininity, which hinder men’s participation in family and relationships and women’s drive in the workplace. Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” to their own success, to work hard and to defy the norms that hold them back.

While some praise Sandberg’s strong business sense and work ethic, others criticize her claim that women are their own biggest obstacles to success in the workplace. As a sociologist and a feminist, I am skeptical about her assertion that women hinder their own progress. In addition to a cultural shift in ideas about women’s leadership and business skills, we need stronger work and family policies. However, I am intrigued by her claim that cultural norms about masculinity and femininity are a major part of individual work and family issues. This seems like an obvious claim, yet a hard problem to solve. How do we change cultural ideas about what men and women can and should achieve in the workplace and in the home?

Sandberg has provided an outlet to start this change with the website, leanin.org. The website encourages women to join “circles,” or close-knit, supportive groups in which women can share the trials and tribulations of the workplace and give each other tips on how to gain more success. The website includes instructions for how to set up and to facilitate a circle. The goal is to get women to engage with each other in order to build successful careers and to manage their work and family tensions; women working together can produce social and cultural change.

While the circles project may not be the only answer to women’s work and family issues, I think they are a good endeavor. The idea of circles strikes me a very feminist initiative. Feminism grew out of women working together, starting from their experiences to produce greater gender equality. The circles project continues this tradition, creating the opportunity for real women to benefit as they navigate the tough terrain of work and family.

Yet, I am concerned that the focus of this circle initiative is to make women better workers. Gender equality requires more than simply allowing women to rise to the level of men in the workplace; it also means valuing work that has traditionally been coded as “feminine” (housework, childcare, etc). While this does not seem outside of Sandberg’s vision (in her book, she stresses the need for a strong partner), the circles initiative could easily slip into this framework. Still, it will be interesting to see the effects of women engaging with one another through the leanin.org forum.

Suggested Readings:

Wharton, Amy S. 2012. “Work and Family in the 21st Century: Four Research Domains.” Sociology Compass 6(3): 219-235.

Correll, Shelley J., Stephen Benard and In Paik. 2007. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?American Journal of Sociology 112 (5): 1297-1339.

Source: CDC
Source: CDC

This week, great news emerged out of Mississippi: an infant, previously infected with HIV, has been cured of the virus. This development indicates promise for the future. We have now entered an era with the possibility of curing a once incurable disease. This is certainly a time to celebrate the progress of modern medicine and its ability to save the lives of millions of people. However, alongside this great news, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has released new data on the rates of new HIV infections among adults and adolescents in the United States. This data reminds us that we still have a long way to go to eradicate this infection; many, many men and women are diagnosed with HIV every day.

Specifically, the CDC reports that southern states, like Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, have some of the highest rates of new HIV infection among adults and adolescents in the United States. The rates of diagnoses in these states is anywhere from 20.0 to 177.9 new HIV infections for every 100,000 people in the population. While some northern states, like New York and New Jersey, have comparable numbers, the greatest concentration of these astoundingly high rates can be found in the southern half of the United States. Something is clearly going on here.

Some analysts point to the lack of complete and factual sexual education in the disproportionately affected states. None of these southern states require comprehensive and accurate HIV/AIDS education. Two states, Florida and Texas, do not require any sexual education in public schools. While the CDC did not statistically test the relationship between comprehensive sex education and rates of new HIV infection, the link between the two seems pretty obvious: if students learn how to prevent the spread of the disease through safe sex practices, their risk of infection should decrease.

Why, then, are states still resistant to comprehensive sex education in their schools? We have moved past the days when the federal government espoused an abstinence-only agenda and tied education funds to states’ adherence to the “no sex outside of heterosexual marriage” motto. Since President Obama has entered office, an equal amount of funds for comprehensive sex education that teaches about safe sex practices, including abstinence, and about sexualities other than heterosexuality is available for states wishing to educate their students. Yet, some states, like Florida and Texas, do not take advantage of this funding.

Sociologically, we know that a fear of adolescent sexuality underlies many of the concerns about sexual education in public schools. In my first Sociology Lens post back in 2012, I described some of these fears by drawing on Jessica Field’s Sociology Compass article, Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across the Political Divide. In this article, Fields insightfully points out that regardless of political position on the issue of sex education, most people are motivated by the desire to regulate an out-of-control or dangerous adolescent sexuality. Fields’ argument continues to be relevant today; the new statistics on rates of HIV infection seem to be an unfortunate consequence of these publicfears.

While I am very optimistic about the health of the Mississippi baby, I am hesitant to say that this medical progress is enough. Can the same procedure be used to cure older individuals infected with HIV? Will the procedure be widely available at a reasonable rate? In the absence of these answers, we need to remember that one of the ways to eradicate HIV is to spread knowledge about safe sex practices so that new infections decrease. In addition to new medicine, we need to continue to raise awareness about safe sex and disease prevention through publically funded education.

Suggested Readings:

Guttmacher Institute. 2013. State Policies in Brief: Sex and HIV Education.

Kirby, Douglas B, B.A. Laris, and Lori A Rolleri. 2007. “Sex and HIV Education Programs: Their Impact on Sexual Behaviors of Young People throughout the World.” Journal of Adolescent Health 40: 206-217.