For many years, family researchers and working mothers have talked about “the second shift” – the extra work that employed women put in at home after their paid work day ends. And for just as long, feminist assessments of marriage have been shaped by earlier findings that when people married, the women began doing more household work, while the men started doing less.

Some research still seems to support this. Women continue to do a disproportionate amount of housework in families, despite an increase in men’s housework since the 1960s. Furthermore, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the increase in men’s housework slowed or even declined, as did several others measures of progress toward gender equity. And on average, notes Liana Sayer, director of the Maryland Time Use Laboratory, women get 30 minutes less leisure time per day than men. That gap increases to an hour when researchers adjust for employment, education, family status, and age.

This CCF Online Symposium on Housework, Gender and Parenthood shows, however, that the division of labor in the home is more complicated than sometimes assumed, and that neither the institution of marriage itself nor “slacker husbands” are to blame for most contemporary sources of gender inequity. Liana Sayer writes that single childless women already do more laundry and cleaning than single childless men, a discrepancy that can’t be blamed on marriage. Comparing cohabiting couples with married couples who cohabited before marriage, University of North Carolina/Greensboro researcher Arielle Kuperberg argues that it is not marriage per se, but motherhood that increases women’s housework. On average, women were doing more housework than their male partners before as well as after marriage; it is the arrival of children that increases the gap between them.

Nevertheless, Kuperberg notes, that gap narrowed considerably between the 1980s and 2002. Taking an even longer perspective, Sayer finds that as of 2012 married mothers were doing almost three and a half times as much cooking, cleaning, and laundry as married fathers. But back in 1965 they did 22 times as much!

Three researchers from the Ohio State University take us behind the averages to investigate what happened to 182 couples who were explicitly committed to sharing household chores and child care and who were expecting their first child. Prior to the birth of the child, these couples reported an equal division of paid and unpaid work, a perception confirmed by time diaries, which researchers have found to be more accurate than survey answers.

Nine months after the birth, the couples told researchers they had each added about 30 hours to their total weekly workload. But this time the diaries contradicted their reports of equality: The women were actually doing much more childcare and housework than their husbands, even though they were notworking fewer hours for pay, and the men were doing much less housework than they and their wives believed, even though they had not added more paid work hours.

Oxford University’s Oriel Sullivan and her co-authors step back to synthesize a larger set of cross-national data. They find that the long-term trend has been toward a significant increase in men’s unpaid household work. The leveling off or decrease in men’s housework found in some countries in recent years is largely accounted for by increases in the time men spend in child care and shopping.It is not marriage per se, but motherhood that increases women’s housework. On average, women get 30 minutes less leisure time per day than men.Liana Sayer explores similar changes in the United States in more detail. She refutes the common belief that fathers have only taken on the fun part of childcare, leaving mothers stuck with most of the physical care work. In fact, married fathers doubled their developmental care of children (the “fun” – or at least more rewarding — stuff) between 1965 but tripled their daily physical care. Married mothers still do more physical care than their husbands, but the biggest increase in their time with kids has also been in developmental activities. Sayer argues that these changes, which are concentrated among the college-educated, have more to do with maintaining class advantages than perpetuating gender inequality.It is not marriage per se, but motherhood that increases women’s housework. On average, women get 30 minutes less leisure time per day than men.

Both Sullivan and Sayer report that when we take into account that husbands tend to work more paid hours than wives, we find that — aside from families with very young infants, such as those described in the OSU study — the total work hours of couples (combining paid and unpaid labor) are basically even. And Sayer notes that some of women’s greater involvement in childcare, laundry, and cleaning tasks may result from their own choice rather than direct pressure from their husband.

Despite such findings, these researchers conclude that gender equity has not been achieved and advise parents and policy-makers to work for further change. This is partly because many of the “choices” women make are imposed by social pressures and practical necessities. For example, many women would prefer to work more paid hours, but report being shut out or pushed out from their jobs once they become mothers. There is also far more intense social pressure on women than on men to prove they are “good” mothers who can keep a clean house.

Perhaps even more important, working equal but different total hours, even by choice, leads to unequal outcomes in security and well-being for women and men, especially over the long run. When a woman quits work, reduces hours, or takes a less-challenging job, she sacrifices earnings, raises, promotions, unemployment insurance, and pension accumulations, thereby undermining her future economic security. She is also less to likely to have the kind of work continuity that has been found to protect a woman’s mental and physical health better than part-time work, staying home, or experiencing frequent bouts of unemployment.

Furthermore, this kind of division of labor severely hampers a woman’s ability to rise to positions of economic or political leadership. Of the top 40 CEOs in America, only four are mothers, while 35 are fathers and one is a non-parent. Just five of the top 40 top government leaders are moms, while 33 are dads and two are non-parents.

There are risks to the marital relationship as well. Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan have shown that couples who slide into a more traditional relationship after the birth of a child tend to experience declines in marital quality. This is why the OSU researchers advise parents of new-borns to take off their rose-colored glasses and confront the inequity in their workloads before it becomes baked into their relationship.

Sullivan and Sayer suggest that government policies such as subsidizing child care and limiting the work week can make a critical difference in facilitating more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work, which seems to be a growing desire among modern couples – and also a growing source of marital satisfaction. As another recent CCF research briefing shows, paternity leave can also be an important part of the solution, producing long-term changes in men’s housework and childcare. Meanwhile, these four CCF symposium papers offer a treasure trove of about how modern couples are negotiating – and slowly changing – the way they organize their family lives.

Originally posted 5/21/2015

Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. 

Sociologist Jill Yavorsky conducted a field audit on gender discrimination in hiring and shares this early exclusive summary and commentary with CCF. Her brief report, Hiring-related Discrimination: Sexist Beliefs and Expectations Hurt both Women’s and Men’s Career Options, shows that men as well as women experience gender discrimination when they apply for jobs. This brief includes findings from her forthcoming journal article in Social Forces. Historian Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s research director, reflects on where Yavorsky’s research points us for creating change in her 3Q interview on Equality is an agenda for all working people, not just feminists.

Yes, it’s 2019–a generation into the new millennium. Yet a new study involving 3,000 job applications confirms a serious lag when it comes to gender equality: When workers apply for jobs associated with the other sex, employers still discriminate against them. In her briefing, presented to the Council on Contemporary Families, UNC-Charlotte sociologist Jill Yavorsky reports that employers discriminate most heavily against women when they apply for a working-class job mostly held by men. Men face the heaviest gender discrimination when they apply for middle-class jobs predominantly staffed by women. Women do not face discrimination when they apply for an entry-level job in a middle-class occupation traditionally staffed by men, but they still lag badly behind in elite, high-paying jobs.

Yavorsky, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Organizational Studies at UNC-Charlotte, reflecting on her findings, notes that gender stereotyping “limits men’s career choices as well as women’s,” but that once hired, men still tend to move ahead of women in all job categories including in jobs predominately filled by women.

The CCF brief, Hiring-related Discrimination: Sexist Beliefs and Expectations Hurt both Women’s and Men’s Career Options, builds on Yavorsky’s Social Forces study in which she sent 3,000 job applications, matched on experience and only differing by gender, and then measured who got call-backs for interviews. Applications were sent to (statistically) female-dominated middle-class jobs (human resources and administrative support) and working-class jobs (housekeeping and customer service). Resumes were also sent to male-dominated middle-class jobs (financial analysis and sales) and working class jobs (manufacturing and janitorial). Four big take-aways are a guide to the study:

  • Overall, men were called back for male-dominated jobs like manufacturing and janitorial work 44 percent more often than women. When those jobs emphasized “masculine” attributes like physical strength or mechanical aptitude, men were called back twice as often as women.
  • Meanwhile, women were called back for female-dominated jobs 52 percent more often than men in middle-class occupations and 21 percent more often than men in working-class occupations. Notably, discrimination was starker when ads for female-dominated jobs emphasized “feminine” requirements such as friendliness or good communication skills.
  • One area had no discrimination: When women applied to male-dominated middle-class jobs, they were called back for interviews at the same rate as men. Yavorsky explains that this is “likely because these jobs stress attributes such as general cognitive ability that have become less exclusively associated with men. This seems to be one area in which sexist prejudices have been greatly reduced, to the benefit of women seeking entry into jobs that require educational credentials such as a bachelor’s degree.”
  • But Yavorsky points out that although her study detects no discrimination during early hiring practices for entry-level male-dominated middle-class jobs, women still face substantial discrimination in elite male-dominated jobs. She also points out that these results could vary for women of color and/or mothers, given other study findings that show employers commonly discriminate on the basis of these statuses.

In an accompanying interview, CCF Research Director Stephanie Coontz agrees that while women applying to men’s middle-class jobs experience fewer barriers in getting in the door, they appear to face significant barriers once they are at work. Coontz explains, “This seems to be especially true in the elite professions. As I point out elsewhere, the greatest wage discrimination by gender used to be in working-class and lower middle-class jobs. But as wages and job security in many traditional blue-collar jobs have fallen, we now see the opposite. Many women have established a firm foothold in mid-level middle-class jobs, and their wages have risen significantly. In the most elite professions, however, men’s wages have risen exponentially more, so that the biggest gender wage gaps are now at the top of the occupational ladder rather than at the bottom or middle.”

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

The Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf) keynote essay was prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Barbara J. Risman, University of Illinois-Chicago. Risman is co-editor, with Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough, of the recently released Handbook of The Sociology of Gender (Springer 2018), which includes forty chapters examining new research on gender diversity and change on issues ranging from the gendering of childhood to the impact of gender on work and parenting to changes in sex for the over-sixty population. This essay summarizes some of that research, along with Risman’s findings in Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford, 2018). Risman’s takeaway: Gender matters, now more than ever, because it structures every aspect of life. And we benefit from knowing how it matters.


You cannot pick up a newspaper today without seeing debates about whether masculinity is in crisis, whether women are “opting out” of work or choosing work over motherhood, and who can use which bathrooms. Why are so many young people today dissatisfied with familiar and traditional genders? Are they rejecting the stereotypes that demand boys to be tough and girls to take care of everyone’s feelings? Are they rejecting the very categories of male and female, and the conventional demand that you can be only one or the other? Or are the debates just “fake news” at a time when most people perfectly happy with traditional gender categories?

Answers: The undisputed changes.

Some things are pretty clear cut. First, women are never going back to the home. The outward movement of women into the work force since the early 1970s has leveled off for now, but mothers are far more likely to work for pay than in the past; they return to work earlier after having a child; and they work for longer periods of their lives. In my in-depth interviews with 116 Midwestern Millennials for Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure, almost no one, not even the most devoutly religious respondents, told me that mothers belong at home with their children.

Second, feminism is no longer just a women’s movement. The General Social Survey has been asking questions about people’s support for gender equality since the mid-1970s. As of the latest survey, in 2016, support has reached an all-time high, and the gap between men’s and women’s opinions has sunk to an all-time low, with most of the change due to men’s “catching up” with women in their support for equality. Many men I interviewed were every bit as egalitarian as the most feminist women I talked to, and several were far morefeminist than most women. A substantial portion of female and male feminist “innovators” entirely reject gender expectations and stereotypes.

Third, nearly all young adults today consider themselves libertarian about gender. They refuse to judge people who are different from themselves in terms of gender identity or expectations. Several male respondents told me that although they would never wear nail polish, they think other men should be free to do so without harassment. Even those very religious respondents who believed that men should have more authority than women in families also believed that women and men should be equal at work.

Disputed—or at least unfamiliar—changes from the view of older generations.

While support for gender and sexual equality is now more prevalent, views of gender and sexuality have become more complicated. Millennials are increasingly supportive of transgendered individuals. Some Millennials reject any gender binary at all. These “genderqueer” respondents do not want to switch their sex category—neither biologically nor legally. They reject the belief that they must be gendered at all, even in how they adorn and inhabit their body. Some genderqueer Millennials are content to identify as a sex category (e.g. as female) but reject the gender category woman. Others just skip categories altogether. When Washington State recently allowed people to check an X option instead of male or female on their official forms, they noted that this option could be used by people who identified as ”intersex, amender, amalgagender, androgynous, bigender, demigender, female-to-male, genderfluid, genderqueer, male-to-female, neutrois, nonbinary, pangender, third sex, transgender, transsexual, Two Spirit, and unspecified.” These categories encompass very different people, with distinct identities, behaviors, and values. When it comes to gender and sexual identity, we have gone far beyond a mere 50 shades of gray.

What research tells us about how the new diversity matters.

To understand this new diversity, we need to talk about exactly what the word “gender” means. In the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (co-edited with Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough), 65 scholars analyze specific ways that people are doing – and undoing – gender, and report on how it matters. Unless otherwise noted, the research evidence I cite here is from the Handbook.

Let’s start with new vocabulary, and how it matters. Sex is the presumably biological category you were labeled at birth, male or female. I say presumably because the biological categories are not always clear. Some children are born with internal female organs, but an extended clitoris that appears to be a micro-phallus. Even intersexpeople, who have both male and female body parts, are usually, if mistakenly, labeled male or female at birth. The very definition of biological facts is shaped by an assumption that there are two and only two possible sex categories. But even when children meet the biological definition of male or female, sometimes that sex category doesn’t fit with their identity, and they reject it. Transgender people reject the sex category they were raised in, and identify as male or female despite their childhood label and rearing. As mentioned above, genderqueer people reject their categorization as women or men: Rather than identify as the other category, they reject categories, and identify as between the binary. At this moment in time, the language for describing gender is as fluid as gender itself has become.

Biology does not determine all.

All this shows that gender is based on a lot more than sex organs or biology. Those who are skeptical about gender equality movements often argue that men and women evolved biologically to exhibit different kinds of behaviors that are driven by their genetic heritage. Yet genes don’t work that way. To wit: the new field of epigenetics shows how genes are triggered by environmental factors and lead to different outcomes in different contexts. In their chapter for the Handbook, Davis and Blake show that while bodies play a role in people’s sense of self, most of the differences social scientists can measure between women and men are not choreographed by genes or hormones. Hormones exist in the body, but adult experiences shape hormones as well as vice versa. For example, winning a competition can raise testosterone levels, while taking care of a baby lowers it. This is true for men and women. Biology simply doesn’t explain how different gender identities are created or how the workplace is organized and jobs are distributed according to gender. Taking care of preschoolers in a nursery requires more energy, upper-body strength, and ability to respond rapidly to emergencies than parking cars at a hotel, yet the former jobs are typically held by women and the latter by men. Guess who gets paid more?

How we train boys and girls into gender.

As symposium and Handbook contributors Gansen and Martin show in “Not Just Kid Stuff: Becoming Gendered,” boys and girls are systematically raised to become different kinds of people. This task involves parents, peers, media, and often even daycare center staff. Raising girls who love dolls and boys who love vehicles can be as obvious as steering girls to the kitchen and boys to the trains, but the socialization that creates feminine girls and masculine boys is often nowadays far less obvious. Girls are shamed for being “unladylike” while boys are shamed for being “unmanly.” Female-bodied children are taught to “throw like a girl” while male-bodied children are corrected when they do so.

Kane’s Handbook article, updated in the symposium’s “Parenting and the Gender Trap,” illustrates how when partners become parents they reproduce such gender socialization and pass it on to the next generation. Despite mothers and fathers both working for pay outside the home, mothers often continue to manage the household and provide more nurturing for children. And so the circle continues: By just watching their own parents, many children learn that it is women who take care of other people. Kenly Brown’s research on alternative schools (e.g. schools for children who cannot attend conventional ones) in “Gender, Race, and Girls in California’s Alternative Schools suggests that such gender socialization and expectations interact in complex ways with racial stereotypes, however, contributing “to the isolation of marginalized students, particularly low-income Black girls, who are the most vulnerable to violence and neglect in their interpersonal lives.”

Doing gender 24/7.

Gender is not just about how people are raised. In everyday, routine activities, gender organizes people’s lives even more directly. People use their gender training to display and claim they are male or female, and they watch for cues to assess the gender of others. We don’t really judge someone’s sex by inspecting naked bodies. Instead, we assess other people’s gender identity by their dress and behavior. Everyday interaction looks natural, but it is highly choreographed. People are nearly all evaluated by how well they “do gender.” People expect you to “act your age” — and your gender. Parents and romantic partners are expected to do and be different things according to whether they are male or female. We assume mothers, wives, and girlfriends will provide emotional comfort, and that fathers, husbands, and boyfriends will be physically assertive, whether as protectors or aggressors. And if real people don’t conform to gender stereotypes, their public images are often reworked to do so. For example, sociologist Philip Cohen found that images of Princess Diana showed her six inches shorter than Prince Charles, despite the fact that they were actually the same height.

The ideal worker and your unconscious.

Fisk and Ridgeway’s Handbook essay notes that people instantly and unconsciously sex categorize each other, and in doing so, they invoke deep cultural beliefs without even knowing it. Men are seen as more effective as leaders, accorded higher status than women, and given more influence in group settings. But gender matters beyond these stereotypes because we have quite literally built schools, workplaces, and the economy around traditional genders. Gender matters not just as identity or ideology, but as a core component of how our social world is organized. Just as every society has an economic and political structure, so too every society has a gender structure.

Some people may operate in social contexts where they are evaluated more positively if they reject doing gender traditionally, but the expectations remain in both conservative and progressive settings. And whatever people believe, all must adapt to organizations and institutions that are based on the belief that “ideal” workers are entirely and uniquely committed to the business at hand, which rewards the typically male life course and the historically masculine privilege of having a domestic wife. Women who return to their paid labor a few weeks, or months, after adopting or birthing a child are commonly asked how they can bear to leave their infant, while fathers often stigmatized if they do not increase their efforts to earn a larger paycheck.

When one thinks about gender structures encountered every day, the world of work is an obvious place to start. Everyone needs to earn a living, or lives with someone who does, and so workplaces are significant in everyone’s life. The most obvious way gender structures work is by assuming that the “ideal worker” does not experience pregnancy and has no moral or practical responsibilities for taking care of anyone but himself (and perhaps has a wife to do even that).  Any organization that assumes workers are available from nine to five (or often, nowadays, 24/7) over a lifetime, has baked gender expectations – and gender discrimination — into its very DNA.

This is a caregiving penalty, and it translates into a motherhood penalty. Even so, this is not the only way workplaces disadvantage women. Wynn and Correll’s “Combating Gender Bias in Modern Workplaces” shows how stereotypes limit women’s success in the corporate sector. Women and men hold stereotypes that men are more competent and women more nurturing. When it comes to hiring and promotion, those biases hurt women’s chances by increasing the scrutiny women face. On the one hand, highly competent women are seen as less likeable. On the other, if they are mothers, employers often believe they will not be committed to their work. Chavez, in “Gender, Tech Jobs, and Hidden Biases that Make a Difference,” notes that even in industries where women and men are equally likely to be hired, women are often hired for different reasons than men. Women are hired for their “people” skills, for example, rather than their technical ones — and this may decrease their chance of promotion.

These biases not only decrease women’s workplace opportunities; they increase men’s. In effect, unconscious bias and workplace family policies are affirmative action policies for men — especially white men with wives. Chavez reports how gender stereotypes do not operate entirely the same for Blacks, Whites, Latinx, and Asians. White men with wives are the primary beneficiaries of this organizational affirmative action for men while men of color often are not.

Public policy.

Workplaces are not unique in having been built from the ground up with gender expectations embedded in their very design. Even apparently gender-neutral governmental regulations often incorporate gendered assumptions into their foundation. In her research on immigrant families, Banerjee (“Housewife Visas and Highly Skilled Immigrant Families in the U.S.”) shows that the visas for skilled workers were designed long ago for men with housewives. Skilled workers’ spouses were admitted to the United States on “dependent visas,” because they were expected to be stay-at-home wives who neither needed nor deserved work permits. While that policy was jettisoned by the Obama Administration, it has recently been re-enacted. The result, Banerjee shows, is that wives of male high-tech workers — and husbands of female nurses – are forced to be economically dependent partners, and this negatively affects their families. In the future, it may disadvantage America, as new talent will choose other more family-friendly destinations. While gender inequality affects the experience of migration for the professional workers Banerjee studies, the high rate of migration globally has gendered consequences for workers at every level. As Choi, Hwang, and Parreñas report in “Separating Migrant Families, as Practiced around the Globe,” men and women migrate internationally for paid work at almost the same rate, but family separation leads to new inequalities: Women still solely face the expectations to hold the family together while they also provide financial support while men are considered good fathers for their remittances. Women even face shaming for leaving the caretaking work for their own children to other women left back home. 

Seemingly family-friendly work policies remain gendered. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, women receive 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, while men get two days. The law still assumes–and ensures–that mothers take more responsibility for children than fathers. In that country, the right to work part-time has created a society where women are assumed to be on a mommy track, and the glass ceiling is really a glass floor that keeps women on a lower level because they never get—or are expected to have—intensive work experience.

Reflections and resolution.

Overall, much work is left to do before we have a society where gender is not embedded in much of the law and most of the social institutions, along with the cultural beliefs that legitimate them. In fact, given the accumulating research highlighted in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, I believe that as long as we operate under a gender structure that assumes a male-female binary, none of us will be free from the historical constraints of institutionalized sexism, with its assumption that there are only two categories, and that those are opposites, conferring unequal capacities and justifying unequal treatment. For human beings to develop fully as effective rational actors and warm nurturing human beings, we need a world where the sex category assigned to babies won’t dictate how they are raised or what we expect from them as children, teens, or adults.

This is why sociologists spend so much time studying gender. As Judith Lorber has written, the paradox of gender is that we must make it very visible before we can begin to dismantle it. My utopian goal is to eliminate the gender structure entirely. While not all feminists agree–not even all the authors in the new Handbook–I believe that full equality demands we create a world beyond gender.

In the meantime, however, the research recounted here reveals progress and points to ways in which can continue the march toward gender equality. Most Americans now believe that men and women should have equal rights and responsibilities both in public and private spheres. My own recent research with Ray Sin and William Scarborough suggests that the belief that women belong in the home and men in the public sphere is now nearly extinct. That indeed is a major feminist accomplishment.

There is other good news as well. Velotta and Schwartz (“The Push and Pull of Sex, Gender, and Aging”) show us that women and men have more romantic and sexual options throughout the course of their lives than in the past, despite obstacles posed by the continued problems of ageism and sexism. In the world of work, the articles by Wynn and Correll and Fisk and Ridgeway profile practices that reduce the impact of gender bias in hiring and promotion, which in turn breaks down sexist stereotypes. Recent data suggest that every generation of men is doing more child care than before, a process that accelerates when governments adopt “use it or lose it” paternity leave. And as men in highly visible roles take parental leaves and share caretaking, this further erodes cultural stereotypes about masculinity. Our Handbook discusses in more depth the challenges and opportunities facing the movement for gender equality.

A briefing paper prepared by Koji Chavez, Indiana University, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

In 2014, leading high technology companies in Silicon Valley began releasing the gender breakdowns of their technical and leadership positions. First Google, then LinkedIn, and then Yahoo, and so on. The numbers revealed what we all expected: Women are vastly underrepresented in many of these organizations’ technical and leadership roles. But focusing on the gender composition of employees or among new hires is just the first step in understanding how gender “works” at work and how to address it. Here I want to highlight a few nuanced ways in which gender plays out in the hiring process.

What do we already know about gender and hiring?

First, we need to appreciate how few women enter the software engineering profession in the first place. In school, stereotypes that women are not as good as men in math and science discourage women from following a technical career path. Women, for instance, underestimate their own technical ability compared to men and have less confidence that they could be successful engineers, both of which lead women away from the software engineering profession. In 2015, only 12.9 percent of engineers were women.

These “supply side” problems, however, do not mean that employers and organizations who hire men and women are off the hook. Research shows that employers and recruiters sort men and women into gendered roles and penalize women, especially mothers, at least in the initial screening stages. Higher socioeconomic status and education do not seem to advantage women seeking entry into elite fields as much as they do men.

Gender also influences hiring in even more subtle ways, as I have learned in my study of software engineering hiring at a midsized high technology firm. At this firm, I find no gender difference in the probability of receiving a job offer once applicants pass the recruiter phone screen. Pretty good, right? But if we look more closely at the process by which men and women get through the initial screening, and the reasons they are hired after they do, we find that gender still skews the hiring process in important ways.

Outsourcing bias.

For one thing, gender bias does not always originate within the bounds of an organization. It may originate in other organizations on which the firm relies. To wit: a common practice is for firms to contract contingency recruitment firms to supplement their applicant pool. This inter-firm reliance can introduce what I call “outsourced bias”: A firm itself may not be gendered biased per se, but by relying on another biased firm, gender bias seeps into the hiring process, often unbeknownst (or at least conveniently unbeknownst) to the firm. When bias originates in another organization on which a firm relies, employers may contribute to gender inequality in hiring without knowing that they are doing it, and without taking responsibility for addressing it.

Even when a firm does attract female candidates and hires them at the same rate as men, another even more subtle bias often creeps in. My research suggests that decision makers tend to hire male engineers more for their perceived technical skills and female engineers more for their perceived “people” skills. In other words, gender stereotypes inform the very reasons men and women are hired for the same position. The main point is this: Gender influences not only who gets hired but what they get hired for – with potential long-term consequences for people’s careers. If men and women are hired for the same job, but men are seen as good at the technical aspects of that job and women good at the social aspects, no wonder we see women getting funneled into more “people” focused positions and men into more technical (typically higher paying) ones once in the organization.

In sociology, we think of gender as a fundamental structure of inequality, meaning that it frames how we think about others and ourselves, how we structure our institutions and lives, and how we interact with one another. Gender permeates the social world. It is no surprise that in a fundamentally social process like hiring we find gender exerting its influence in subtle and surprising ways. So, if we are serious about attacking women’s underrepresentation in tech, it is important for academics and employers alike to understand the nuanced ways that gender influences who gets hire and why.


Koji Chavez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, Professor Chavez is author with Adia Harvey Wingfield of “Racializing Gendered Interactions” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.


A briefing paper prepared by Alison T. Wynn and Shelley J. Correll, Stanford University, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Research consistently shows that unconscious or implicit gender biases systematically hinder women’s advancement in the workplace. Such biases operate outside of conscious awareness, which makes them particularly difficult to detect and combat. Even people who are not explicitly sexist or racist are susceptible to subtle, unconscious biases, such as weighing a man’s opinion as more credible than a woman’s, which can unconsciously affect our judgments and, ultimately, the rewards men and women earn in settings like workplaces.

In recent years, organizations have become interested in reducing these biases by training their employees. For example, in the wake of an incident where employees called the police on two Black customers for actions that were ignored when engaged in by white customers, Starbucks recently closed its 8,000 U.S. stores to provide unconscious bias trainings to its 175,000 employees.

While unconscious bias trainings are an important first step, research finds that organizations must do more if they want to produce sustainable change. Unconscious bias trainings, while helpful, can wear off over time, or can even risk exacerbating bias by painting it as something normal and unavoidable. Specifically, organizations must alter the conditions that are known to enable and exacerbate bias.

The Small Wins Model.

At the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, researchers are collaborating with companies to engage in such change efforts. Using a “small wins model” of organizational change, we first educate employees about unconscious bias and then work with them to develop and assess new processes and tools to get beyond bias.

For example, at one large technology company, we collaborated with managers to improve gender equality. When we began our work, the company had a less-than-stellar reputation for gender equality and no consistent performance management process in place. Through a targeted intervention, we worked with managers to reduce the ambiguity in their performance assessment processes, since ambiguity is known to exacerbate bias. Research has found that when the criteria for evaluation are not clearly defined or spelled out, they leave room for unconscious biases to have a particularly robust impact on people’s judgments. In our intervention, managers developed new clear, measurable criteria to assess employees; ensured that the same criteria were being applied to all employees; and allotted equal amounts of time for discussing each employee during their calibration meetings. Prior to these changes, women were more likely than men to receive criticisms about their personality, and they were more likely to have their performance ratings downgraded in calibration meetings. After the intervention, these differences were no longer significant.

These small wins inspired other changes at the company, including reworking their job ads to be more appealing to women and other groups. Today, half the entry-level engineers hired are women, and the company has since been named one of the top workplaces for women in tech.


Alison T. Wynn, Stanford University, Shelley J. Correll, Stanford University, They are authors of “Combating Gender Bias in Modern Workplaces” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Rhea V. Almeida, Ph.D, is a family therapist, trainer and educator. She is the author of numerous journal articles and three books: Expansions of Feminist Theory Through DiversityTransformations in Gender and Race: Family and Developmental Perspectives and co-author of Transformative Family Therapy: Just Families in a Just Society.  She is the founder of the Institute for Family Services. Her 4th book  is due to come out April, 2019. I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her new book Liberation Based Healing Practices.


JC: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background and the contexts you work in currently?

RVA: My background is in marriage and family, social work and anthropology. I currently work and teach at the Institute for Family Services which is a free standing institute in Somerset, New Jersey that I founded in 1986. I am also the co-founder of the Liberation Based Healing Conference currently in its 14th year, co-hosted by universities across the country. This year we will be hosted by Edgar Mevers College, in NYC.

JC: Can you define “liberation based healing” and tell us how it differs from more traditional forms of diagnosis and psychotherapy?

RVA: Liberation based healing (LBH) seeks to highlight the challenges and opportunities that individuals face from either privilege or oppression. We strive to eschew diagnostic codes or therapeutic narratives and instead help the client see the powerful way that poverty, racism, or other forces impact well-being, mental health, or a vulnerability to mental illness. Our goal is to increase the dialogue and connection of people in groups so that they can learn from others’ experiences, see the commonality of their experiences, and thus feel less isolated, shamed or pathologized. Our approach differs from traditional group therapy in the sense that we believe that participants benefit from sharing the diversity of their lives and challenges, rather than the pursuit of some common shared goal such as the alleviation of depression, anxiety, etc.

JC:  Is there a reason that your book is particularly relevant right now?

RVA: There couldn’t be a more relevant time for this book. We are in a time where basic values of decency are shattered on a daily basis; people are afraid of each other, resentful, and numb to the daily attacks they witness towards different groups. Social media not withstanding, they feel pulled to focus on themselves at the exclusion of others. It is a time when people are spending less and less time in communal spaces such as neighborhood gatherings, religious gatherings, or other social groups. Many are trapped in an endless cycle of work and family responsibilities. This book offers a small way to make a difference for many struggling individuals and communities.

JC: In the book you make the case for “redefining and expanding the therapeutic context” and you encourage community leaders to become more involved. Can you expand on that?

RVA: Psychotherapeutic practices historically focus on the mental health of the individual. In family therapy the focus extends to the wider system. However, I observe an increasing focus on individual problems even in family therapy. This sort of problematized specialization splits the family into a focus on the individual that doesn’t reveal the wider context of problems. Popular models today like “Emotionally focused Therapy” focus primarily on emotional processes devoid of context or a power analysis. Seeing families and couples who are increasingly isolated in their daily lives, except perhaps in the workplace begs the question “How are today’s individuals and families finding a sense of connection?”

I believe that increasing the connections within and outside of the family is essential to the mental health of our society. From that perspective, bringing together multiple families or couples into the same treatment environment can provide a way to build community while at the same time illustrating the common trials affecting so many families today. However, I believe that inviting educators and community leaders into the room to provide help, aid, and leadership is an additional component of healing. Redrawing the walls of therapy as we know it into healing circles offers therapists the freedom to shift complex problems into something more manageable and comprehensible.

JC: What problematic assumptions do you believe exist in contemporary family therapy theory and how do you recommend that those be addressed?

RVA: There is a common misconception that one should only address gender, race, sexuality or sexual orientation if the client raises it. I believe that this doesn’t offer an opportunity for a therapeutic dialogue to take place, and for the individual to gain the kind of insight and understanding that true community provides. Our approach moves these aspects of identity more into the foreground of discussion.

Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.  He is the author of numerous articles, chapters and books. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, The BBC,  NYU Psychiatry Radio as well as Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, America Online Coaches, and PBS. He is the co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.

Image by Mike Gattorna from Pixabay

This post originally appeared on the blog of Humanities Washington, a nonprofit based in Washington State.

What can a show about cleaning your house tell us about the state of society? A lot.

This winter, millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries watched the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo, a Japanese organizing expert, guides people in home makeover projects that require families to declutter and remove objects that do not, in her words, “spark joy.” As Kondo’s website states, the method is not just about doing the work of tidying up—it is about mindfulness and introspection. In other words, tidying up is not just a home project; it is a project of the self.

Kondo is on to something: the objects in our home each tell a personal story, one with a unique set of characters, plot twists, and emotional undertones. They might be saved love letters or childhood baseball gloves. They might be threadbare linens from a grandparent who immigrated with only one suitcase. They might be antique silverware that has been saved for a son or daughter, but involve a fear that the child may not want them. These objects feed into our sense of self, which can in turn tell us important things about society as a whole.

As a sociologist, I gather these stories and notice larger patterns, collecting and curating what are called home object stories in order to tell the story of our larger society. People are more united than they might think in their seemingly lonely quests for figuring out what to do with home possessions, and “Tidying Up” provides a surprisingly detailed window into our shared concerns about clutter.

So what do the possessions of ten American families say about contemporary families and society?

First, we are witnessing a large shift in what is considered a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to consumption and self-control. In the middle of the 20th century, material goods were seen as a crucial part of fulfilling the American Dream for those families who could afford it, from TV trays to new cars parked in the driveways of new suburbs. But later decades brought recessions, recognition of environmental degradation, and a fear that we were all buying too much stuff and ending up miserable anyway. Now, to deal with all our stuff, we are encouraged to boost our self-control (or perhaps the illusion of it). If, by changing how we manage our personal struggles, we can become healthier, it’s no accident that the improvement of self includes managing our home objects. The recurring theme is that our individual happiness is intimately tied to our acquisition and management of possessions. In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Throughout “Tidying Up,” viewers are guided through households with voiceovers and confessional moments that highlight the very thin line between what happens to objects and what happens to people. People thank their T-shirts before tossing them in the donation pile; they thank their family members for their willingness to work on their own stuff. People confess that they want to change their stuff because they want to change themselves. Not unusual were references to “taking control of one’s things” as an integral part of the project of “taking control of one’s life.” If a pair of shoes “sparks joy,” keep them and maybe joy will be sparked in your intimate family relationships, too.

In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Second, the social group you identify with impacts the likelihood you’ll participate in the decluttering movement. Our home spaces and stuff, and televised renditions of decluttering practices, are not just about dividing those whose personalities lead them to minimalism and those whose personalities lead them to hoarding. Projects surrounding home stuff are also about group differences and inequalities. For example, there are real and troubling racial and socioeconomic inequalities between those who can afford to own a home in a desirable neighborhood (and maybe a storage unit to house extra stuff) and those who cannot. Within homes, we still see a division of household labor such that women disproportionately bear the burden of household tidiness and management of the entire tidying project. We know that what objects matter in a family depend on that family’s geographic location, racial-ethnic identity, immigrant status, and social class.

In the show, Kondo assists a family that moves to Los Angeles and downsizes into a small apartment. The mother in the family experiences the emotional toll of being held responsible for the organization and tidying of all family members’ objects. By the end of the episode, not only have family members taken a larger role in their own tidying, but the narrative explicitly notes the likelihood of this burden falling too much on women, who perform a “second shift” of unpaid domestic labor even if they still work outside the home. In my research on love letters and photo albums, I found that women were more likely than men to feel responsible for organizing, storing, and saving kinship mementos. And they were more likely than men to curate these items in decorated boxes and in places where they would be kept safe. In other words, the project of “tidying up” is still a gendered project, whether it’s about laundry or love letters.

Finally, family life is changing in the U.S., both in terms of what families look like and in terms of what families do. The definition of “family” is increasingly diverse: gay marriage is legal, couples are having children later, aging populations are staying healthier longer, and the proportion of American families headed by a married couple has declined to less than 50%. In other words, it is safe to say there is no longer a “typical” American family. As all of these shifts happen, the role of home objects necessarily shifts, too.

While the show was criticized for showing relatively affluent families from a similar geographic area, and for espousing ideals of minimalism that are more likely to be held by those who can afford to get rid of stuff, “Tidying Up” does portray a more diverse set of family forms than televised families from even a decade ago did. One cohabiting couple, for example, seeks the help of Kondo to tidy up in order to show one partner’s parents that they have more concretely moved into an “adult” stage. The pair aligns the “adultification” of their home décor and organization with their goal of displaying their relationship as more permanent and committed. This matters in particular for this couple because, as gay men, they feel the need to demonstrate relationship seriousness in the absence of marriage, and in a social context where the legitimacy of gay relationships may still be questioned. Having a tidy linen closet, then, not only contains a blending of the partners’ mismatched towel collection as a symbol of their commitment to each other, it also signifies to parents that they are no longer children.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person who’s had a hard time figuring out what to do with your stuff, and that if you were only able to get rid of more things you’d feel so much happier, you are not alone. We have come to culturally define home curation as an individual project. But the project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs amidst a set of cultural shifts that include: changing family diversity (who counts as “family” when we decide who gets Grandma’s table?), geographic mobility (how do we transport Grandma’s table across five states?), family roles (who is in charge of the labor of figuring out what to do with the table?), changing ideals about the role of consumption in our lives (Grandma’s table does not fit with my minimalist aesthetic), and even a reinforcement of the value that we are supposed to tackle this stuff on our own (I need to figure out what to do with Grandma’s table on my own).

Our individual stories matter, but we are richer for understanding how these personal stories are part of a larger story. So, the next time you winnow a shoe collection or sift through a deceased relative’s power tools, remember that shoes and tools bear the stories of their individual possessors, but they also bear the stories of the social world in which they were bought, worn, used, stored, lost, held dear, and thrown away. It is that social world, in fact, that shapes how we come to view shoes and tools as desirable, cherishable, or disposable in the first place.

Michelle Janning is a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She is currently presenting her free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “What Your Home Says About the World,” around the state. Find an event here.

One of the most robust findings in industrialized societies is that children no longer confer an advantage in life satisfaction or happiness to their parents relative to those who do not have children. While the extent of the gap varies by country, life stage, and other characteristics of parents, there does not seem to be a time or place where parenthood positively affects well-being after industrialization strips children of their direct economic value to parents (and creates long periods of dependency and educational spending instead).

In a 2016 study, authors Chris Herbst and John Ifcher show a different trend, however.  Using U.S. data over the past 30 years and comparing parents actively parenting children under 18 in their household to those without children in their household, they show this happiness gap slowly closing and disappearing completely after 1997. They discussed these findings in a 2017 blog post for the Institute for Family Studies, believing that the gap has closed because non-parents have become increasingly vulnerable to loneliness, social distrust, and economic insecurity.

Looking carefully at their analysis, however, it seems like a different story could also be told. First, Herbst and Ifcher exclude two important categories of parents whose prevalence and distress have presumably grown over time: non-custodial parents and parents of children over 17. These groups are instead considered “non-parents” in the Herbst and Ifcher trend analysis. Non-custodial parents as a percentage of all biological parents have increased since 1986, and research shows this group of parents to be particularly distressed (see Simon and Caputo), since separation or divorce decrease daily contact with their children and increase expenses for non-custodial parents. While single parents are more distressed than married parents, non-custodial parents are more distressed than both groups.

Parents of children over 18 have also both grown as a proportion of all parents since 1986 and seen both their financial and care obligations for their adult children increase over this period. Indeed, developmental scientists now speak about “emerging adulthood” to describe this post-18 to late twenties period of time in which young people are still partially dependent upon their parents for support and guidance. Paying for college has become a major burden for many parents of emerging adults, while the proportion still living with their parents or moving in and out of their parents’ household has grown to post-war highs. The number of young adults with developmental disorders (autism spectrum or ADHD diagnoses) has also increased over time. As the ACA has acknowledged this dependency by allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, so too must data analysts wanting to understand contemporary parenting and its financial and social stressors. While most analyses find that so-called “empty-nest” parents are happier than parents actively parenting younger children, fewer and fewer parents of children over 18 actually have an empty nest!

When these two groups are combined with respondents who have never had children, they easily swamp the truly child-free in analyses of parental happiness. After all, about 80% of people in the U.S. still eventually have children, and those children will eventually turn 18. So comparing parents of children 17 and younger to everyone else really confounds parenthood with life stage and marital status. Rather than seeing the parental happiness gap converging and disappearing post 1997, what may really be going on is a shift in the responsibilities of parenting both spilling out across non-married households and extending into young adulthood, pulling down the happiness of those mistakenly categorized as “child-free.”

Second, the Herbst and Ifcher analysis does not explicitly consider the fall in fertility and increasing selectivity of parenting. While still high in comparative perspective, teen and unplanned pregnancies have been declining in the U.S. since 1997, and overall fertility rates have declined in all racial and ethnic groups. Some of that decline has been involuntary —  some adults may feel “freer” to not become parents because they cannot find suitable partners, have inadequate or unstable incomes, or jobs that demand too many hours to consider adding children to their lives. These are not exogenous forces affecting fertility– they are in themselves endogenous to social forces that have made the stressors of parenting increase over time to the point that many young adults sadly forego parenthood.

Herbst and Ifcher’s trend analysis is consistent with this explanation. First, they do not find that parental happiness is actually increasing over time. Rather parental happiness has been constant over time while those they characterize as non-parents have become less happy over time.  If parenthood is becoming more selective yet happiness is not increasing, this in itself demonstrates that contemporary parenting of minor children has become increasingly stressful over time. And if “non-parents” increasingly consist of non-custodial parents financially supporting minor children, older parents still supporting adult children, and involuntarily childless people unable to find the partners or jobs that would accommodate their desires for parenthood, it’s not surprising that non-parents’ unhappiness has grown over time.

However, none of their findings comport with the belief that children protect parents against loneliness, social isolation, or financial distress. If anything, the trend over time suggests that the forces that reduce happiness among parents of minor children now extend beyond that group to non-custodial parents, “empty-nest” parents, and involuntarily child-free adults.  Herbst concludes, correctly, that his results are probably affected by these factors: “…we cannot discount the possibility that compositional shifts among parents and non-parents have driven the change in parental happiness.”

What seems clear across studies is that contemporary industrialized societies are struggling to avoid below replacement fertility, and understand how to integrate production and reproduction in a way that respects the sacrifices that parents are routinely expected to undertake to raise healthy educated citizens. When the costs of children are privatized but the benefits are socialized, we see a parental happiness penalty that persists across a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, as well as increasing selectivity in who becomes parents. The challenge is to create public support systems that encourage responsible parenthood among those who want to become parents without coercing those who do not. Ending the extraordinary financial and opportunity costs of parenthood is certainly a good place to start.

Jennifer Glass is Centennial Commission Professor in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent projects explore whether governmental work-family policies improve parents’ and children’s health and well-being, whether women’s jobs really have better work-family amenities than men’s, why women’s retention in STEM occupations remains so low, and how the economic costs of motherhood have changed over time.

Image by succo from Pixabay

Familial conflict is a profoundly intimate and emotional experience. Historically, courts have taken a hands-off approach when dealing with familial conflict, but recent years have seen an increased use of the judicial system to resolve domestic issues.

Ample research notes damaging effects of traditional court models. In fact, the adversarial proceedings associated with traditional court settings can escalate family conflict through revictimization and threats or use of violence. A separate line of research long-ago established that family conflict negatively influences psychological and relational well-being of the adults and children involved in the conflict.

The collective conclusions of these studies prompted scholars and practitioners to advocate for alternative processes that deal with familial conflict in ways that minimize harm and maximize healing. One such alternative has been the development of specialty family courts.

The goals and mission of family courts reflect notions of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ). TJ is a framework that encourages integration of judicial and treatment services. Proponents of this perspective argue that agents of law have therapeutic potential. Judges, attorneys, and other legal personnel are encouraged to work collaboratively with psychologists, social workers, and other social scientists to focus on fundamental causes of conflict and possible resolutions. TJ encounters are commonly said to share 3 primary components:

(1) Respectful interaction between legal actors and litigants,

(2) Allowing Parties to Express and Explain Their Standpoint, and

(3) Transparent Judicial Decision Making.

Research examining whether and how TJ is practiced in family court settings is scarce. This is important from an evaluative point of view, especially since there is reason to suspect disjuncture between intended and actual practice. Indeed, some of my prior research in other forms of specialty courts suggest that courts fall short of idealized principles and stated missions. In a study recently published by Criminal Justice Policy Review, I report on observations of over 100 hearings, including 8 trials presided over by 5 judges to investigate the presence of therapeutic jurisprudence in a family court setting.

I found that therapeutically just interactions were not uncommon in the court. Court personnel regularly treated the parties with dignity and respect. For example, judges directly communicated with the litigants even when the parties have legal representation. In addition, judges commonly used the litigants’ first and last name rather than the impersonal “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In fact, judges relied heavily on “natural” language and gesturing throughout court proceedings, forgoing legal jargon and the formalities often used in traditional court settings.

My observations further indicate that judges encouraged parties to express and explain their standpoint. One judge, who presided over the majority of the cases, always asked litigants if they wanted to speak even if they had hired attorneys to represent their interests. This same judge consistently reiterated the presented evidence in the case before providing her ruling, citing that she did so to keep “a clean record.” As a part of the judge’s reiteration, she commented on the case content and the litigants’ emotional responses to the content.

Despite the common use of TJ, I also observed some anti-therapeutic encounters. These interactions often included one litigant revealing distressing information about the “opposing” litigant and their relationship. For example, in some rare case parties were prompted – usually by their own counsel – to recount instances of rape, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment. Even when the litigant demonstrated extreme discomfort giving such testimony (i.e., keeping the gaze low and unblinking, answering questions with silence, answering questions by shaking their head side-to-side or stating “I don’t want to say”), attorneys would persistently probe the litigant for details.

In other cases, litigants were confrontationally questioned at length about matters seemingly unrelated to the case facts. For instance, one litigant, who was a non-native English speaker, was questioned at length about his citizenship, work status, and legal certification to drive a motor vehicle. Although these issues were not raised as part of the case complaint, the litigant was questioned about them for over 3 hours. Like traditional court, family court takes place in a public forum, so it was not uncommon for persons unrelated to the case at hand to be present at trials and hearings. As such, these interactions seemed antitherapeutic in that attorneys were seemingly relentless in their queries and/or were antagonistic in their questioning about highly personal and potentially traumatic events in a space that was open to public scrutiny.

Although I am unable to generalize these findings to other courts and jurisdictions, the study highlights the potential to confront conflict with therapeutic means. Although our traditional legal system traditionally encourages adversarial, fact-finding processes as normative, alternative practices are conceivable. Still, the antitherapeutic encounters remind us that practicing therapeutic jurisprudence can be challenging in a broader legal context that is largely built on principles that divide rather than reconcile and seek to find fault rather than heal.

Compelling critiques of the “justice” system are numerous, and a growing body of literature indicates that problem-solving courts do not eradicate inequities. Perhaps it is time for specialty courts to distance their practices from traditional court models. Or better yet, perhaps therapeutic encounters should become more engrained in our routine, everyday life. What if we were to encourage respectful interaction, empowerment to express one’s standpoint, and honest discussions about our decision making across all of our social encounters? Naysayers may dismiss the prospect as utopian or, at least, unrealistic, but being willing to imagine such possibilities could arguably spark a commitment to therapeutic living that we would all benefit from – in and out of the courtroom.

Cindy Brooks Dollar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on inequalities, nonconformity, and social control.  

Originally published in The New York Times

Since 2011, I’ve interviewed 135 middle-class employed mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy and the United States to understand their work-family conflict. I spoke to mothers specifically because in wealthy nations, mothers have historically been the focus of work-family policies and they’re still responsible for most housework and child care. They report greater work-family conflict and they use work-family policies more often than men. I had a personal interest: I’d watched my own mother struggle to navigate her work and family obligations — a decade-long juggling act that involved occasionally toting my sister and me to boardroom meetings to nap in sleeping bags when babysitters fell ill or schools closed. Years later, it seemed as though the conflict hadn’t eased for many of my peers.

In the United States, almost every woman I interviewed had reached the same conclusion: It was her — or her and her partner’s — responsibility to figure out child care, cobble together a leave of absence (often unpaid), get on a preschool waiting list, find a babysitter, seek advice from friends and acquaintances, and engineer any number of other highly improvised coping techniques. In the lawyer’s case, this meant, among other things, joining a less-prestigious firm that demanded fewer hours and finding the right hands-free breast pump to multitask in her cubicle. The common thread in every conversation was that the parents had to solve their problem themselves, no matter how piecemeal the solutions.

That all makes perfect, if outrageous, sense: The United States has the least generous benefits, the lowest public commitment to caregiving, one of the highest wage gaps between employed men and women, and among the highest maternal and child poverty rates of any Western industrialized nation.

In my interviews I discovered that American working mothers generally blame themselves for how hard their lives are. They take personal responsibility for problems that European mothers recognize as having external causes. The lesson here isn’t for overwhelmed American parents to look longingly across the Atlantic; it’s to emulate the Swedes, Germans and Italians by harboring the reasonable expectation that the state will help.

All the American mothers I interviewed said they felt enormous guilt and tension between their work and family commitments. So did the Italians. But Italian women tended to blame the government for their problems: “Social benefits? Zero. Less than zero. Nobody helps me,” laughed one woman I met, a single mother working at a hospital in Rome. “Does the government help me? No,” she said, “but they should think about helping you a little bit.”

In Sweden, working mothers I spoke with wanted full gender equality and expected to seamlessly combine paid work and child rearing. Mothers there also anticipated that the government would support them in these endeavors — and that’s exactly what the Swedish state, its work-family policy, and the country’s cultural ideals about work and motherhood do. When Swedish mothers feel stressed, they tend to blame the country’s lofty expectations of what parenting should be. German mothers ascribed their work-family juggling act, with its emphasis on traditional home life, to outdated cultural ideals.

American women who worked for companies that provided flexible schedules and paid maternity leave described themselves as “being very lucky” or “feeling privileged.” This privatized approach taken by the United States government and employers exacerbates inequalities among workers. Some elite employers elect to offer helpful work-family policies, meaning only certain workers — typically highly educated, salaried employees — receive these supports. The employees most in need of support, however — vulnerable hourly-wage workers — are the ones least likely to enjoy any work-family benefits. The highest-income earners in the United States are 3.5 times as likely to have access to paid family leave as those at the bottom of the pay scale.

After three months of interviews with mothers in Sweden, I was heartened to discover that the country in many ways lives up to its image as the place where women come closest to having successful careers and fulfilling family lives. But consider the national policy focus responsible for that lifestyle: Sweden prizes gender equality, universal child care and a “dual earner-carer” model that features women and men sharing breadwinning and child-rearing roles.

Women in Stockholm seemed confused or laughed out loud when I used the term “working mother.” “I don’t think that expression exists in Swedish,” an urban planner and mother of two told me. “It’s not like there’s a ‘nonworking mother,’” she said. “I mean, what else would she do?”

We can’t simply import social policies and hope they’ll have the same effect in a different context. For instance, American parents tend to marvel at Germany’s comparatively luxurious-sounding three-year parental leave, which was available to new parents for decades. So, I was taken aback when many working mothers in Germany told me they despised the policy because of the cultural stigma it heaped on their shoulders to not return to work until they absolutely had to. A teacher who went back to work before the end of the allowable parental leave described people telling her: “You cannot do this. You are selfish, you’re a career whore.”

“Balance” is a term that came up relentlessly in my conversations with women in the United States. But framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is merely an individualized way to justify a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. It fails to recognize how institutions contribute to this anxiety.

The stress that American parents feel is an urgent political issue, so the solution must be political as well. We have a social responsibility to solve work-family conflict. Let’s start with paid parental leave and high-quality, affordable child care as national priorities.

Women — again, on this side of the Atlantic — routinely assume it’s their duty to stitch together time off after childbirth. Those fortunate to qualify for parental-leave benefits — even two months at full pay, or six weeks at partial pay — feel real gratitude for such slim provisions. And in a country where most women (too often the poor and racial-ethnic minorities) receive no paid leave at all, that gratitude makes sense. But being able to work and raise the next generation of taxpayers and employees should never be deemed a matter of mere “luck.”

Everyone should feel entitled to more.



Dr. Collins, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis,  is the author of “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.”