A study in the Journal of Labor Economics of Quebec’s recent non-transferable parental leave for fathers demonstrates just how effective this generous benefit is in getting fathers more involved at home. With new benefits, fathers increased their participation in parental leave by 250 percent. In households where men were given the opportunity to use this benefit, fathers’ daily time in household work was 23 percent higher, long after the leave period ended. Background and details of economist Ankita Patnaik’s innovative study are provided in this blog post.

The United States lags woefully behind many nations in family-friendly work policies, especially those that allow fathers to take time off to be with their children. Worldwide, more than 95 countries ensure that fathers have access to paid parental leave after a child is born. In the United States, by comparison, fathers have no such guarantee of paid leave. Some fathers are eligible for 6 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but the lack of financial compensation makes using this option unaffordable for many families.

Getting fathers involved in childcare early on has been shown to improve children’s cognitive outcomes, strengthen the father-child bond, and increase fathers’ life satisfaction. It is also is a critical next step in promoting gender equity in the workplace as well as at home. Unfortunately, even in nations where fathers have the right to paid leave, take-up rates are often low, because fathers worry about the impact on their finances or their career. Canada offers an ideal case study on how the take-up rates and impact of paternity leave can be improved by carefully designed public policy.

Throughout Canada, every mother is entitled to a year of unpaid job-protected leave after a birth, and every father to 37 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave. Eligible parents can then convert this leave into paid leave through benefit programs run by the government in the form of social insurance. From 2001 to 2005, eligible parents in all Canadian provinces could claim parental leave benefits from the government through the Employment Insurance (EI) Program. Mothers had access to “maternity leave” reserved specifically for them, and gender-neutral parental leave that was technically shared with fathers. Fathers had access to benefits through this “shared” parental leave – but they could transfer the leave to their wives, and leave-takers were compensated with just a little over half their wages up to a strict cap, so household incomes were hit hard when fathers took leave. As a result, fewer than 20 percent of fathers in Canada participated in paid parental leave under the EI program.

In 2006, however, Quebec left the EI system and established the Regime Quebecois D’assurance Parentale or the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP). The new scheme made more men and women eligible for parental leave benefits, increased the replacement rate from 55 percent to 70 percent of income, raised the cap on maximum benefits from $412 to $767 per week, and established a 5-week “daddy quota” of paid leave for fathers. Quebec is now the only province in Canada in which fathers enjoy an individual and non-transferable right to parental leave. This reform provided me with a unique opportunity to study how a daddy quota affects paternal leave-taking, as well as whether such leave-taking has long-term effects on the way fathers and mothers divide paid employment and household work.

Was QPIP successful in increasing fathers’ leave-taking?

To investigate the effects of QPIP on parents’ leave behavior, I analyzed data on benefit claims from the 2002-2010 rounds of the Employment Insurance Coverage Survey (EICS). Using a regression discontinuity approach, I identified the local mean impact of the new program. This method essentially isolates the difference between births that only differed in the exact timing of birth: i.e. comparing a birth that happened on December, 31st 2005 (under the old EI program) to an otherwise-identical birth that happened on January 1st, 2006 (under the new QPIP program).

The introduction of QPIP had a dramatic impact on fathers’ behavior, increasing the participation rate of eligible fathers from 21.3 by 53 percentage points – a jump of 250 percent. In addition, the duration of paid leave taken by fathers increased by 150 percent. Before the reform, the average Quebecois father took only 2 weeks of leave. Today he takes the full 5 weeks allocated to him by the quota. By contrast, in the Canadian provinces that have held on to the EI program, fathers’ leave participation remains abysmally low: Less than 1 in 5 fathers take any paid parental leave. I did not find any immediate effect of QPIP on mothers’ leave behavior – but over the years Quebecois mothers’ leave participation did rise by about 16 percent.

Does this mean `daddy-only’ quotas really work?

Fathers changed their leave behavior much more substantially in response to the QPIP reform than did mothers, both in absolute magnitude and relative to their respective baselines. This strongly suggests that a “daddy-only” label is effective, because the other reform features of QPIP cannot explain this disproportionately larger response from fathers. First, the vast majority of fathers were already eligible for leave under the criteria of the old program (600 hours of employment in the last year), so QPIP’s lowering of the eligibility criteria predominantly affected low-income women. Second, increased income replacement did make it easier for fathers to take leave, but mothers also experienced the same increase in benefits. Economists would expect mothers to respond more strongly to increased benefits for two reasons – (i) women’s labor supply is known to be more sensitive to wages than is men’s, and (ii) mothers tend to earn lower incomes. Since the benefits are capped, this means QPIP effectively offers lower-earners a bigger relative subsidy for taking leave.

Prior to the QPIP reform, very few families in Quebec used all the leave to which they were entitled. In fact, more than 60 percent of families left a full month or more of leave unused, even when the fathers could have used some of it. Thus, it appears that there is something about the “daddy-only” label that especially encouraged participation from fathers. This could be because the label reduced stigma against fathers taking leave, making it appear to be a normal expectation. It could also be that giving fathers an individual entitlement emboldened them to request leave from their employer or made them feel guilty about not using this generous allowance to bond with their baby. This is important for future policy design, as it suggests that labeling may play an important role in influencing program participation.

Are there lasting effects of paternity leave?

To understand the long-term effects of paternity leave on household dynamics, I also investigated whether the increase in fathers’ leave-taking under QPIP had an impact on the household division of labor 1 to 3 years after the parental leave period ended. I used time-diary data from the 2005 and 2010 rounds of the General Social Survey, which provides incredibly precise and accurate measures of the minutes spent per day by mothers and fathers in various kinds of paid and unpaid work.

My treatment group comprised parents surveyed in 2010 in Quebec who had a child since QPIP was introduced. My control groups comprised parents in other Canadian provinces, parents surveyed in 2005, before the reform, and parents who may have been surveyed in 2010 in Quebec but whose children were a little too old to have been born under QPIP. The identification strategy was to isolate the difference between being exposed to the QPIP program (with a more than 80 percent probability the father took leave) versus being exposed to the EI program (with a less than 20 percent probability the father took leave).

I found strong evidence that by altering the initial experience of parental leave, QPIP had a large and persistent impact on gender dynamics within households even years after the leave period ended, encouraging movement toward a dual-earner, dual-caregiver model wherein fathers and mothers contributed more equally to home and market production. In the long term, mothers who experienced a birth under QPIP spent more time in paid work, spent more time physically at the workplace and were more likely to be full-time employed, compared to their counterparts who experienced a birth under the EI program instead. In the long term, the men who became parents after the introduction of the QPIP spent 23 percent more time in non-market household work, compared to their counterparts who had become parents under the EI program. Fathers exposed to QPIP spent approximately a half-hour more time present in the home per day, while mothers spent a half hour less in the home per day. Women who gave birth under the QPIP program actually increased their time in non-market household work by 9 per cent, but they reorganized that time, spending less time on housework and more time devoted to childcare. Overall, the introduction of the QPIP program was associated with a clear pattern of reduced sex specialization among households, without a reduction in total time spent in childcare.

Why should we care?

Studies by the Families and Work Institute reveal that American men now report higher levels of work-family conflict than do women. And when Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute, surveyed children of dual-earner parents about their views, she found that they were more likely to think they didn’t get enough time with their father than with their mother.

Getting more fathers access to family leave would be good for the men, good for their children — and, my research suggests, good for gender equity at work as well as at home. Maybe it’s time for an affirmative action program for dads when it comes to parental leave. The experience of Quebec suggests that it can work.

Originally posted 4/2/2015. 

Anikita Patknaik is a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research and can be contacted at ankitapatnaik01@gmail.com. This research was funded by Cornell University.

You’re selfish. You’ll die alone. You’re not a real woman. As a woman who has opted out of parenthood, I’ve heard it all. In my new book released today, CHILDFREE BY CHOICE, I set the record straight, analyzing data from my interviews with 70 childfree women and men, others’ work, and my own experience. I investigate the history and current growing movement of adults choosing not to have kids, considering what this cultural shift means for our society, economy, environment, perceived gender roles, and legacies.

Today in the United States, one in six women will end her childbearing years without ever having given birth. Half of millennials don’t yet have children and it remains to be seen how many ever will. What at first glance appears to be the very personal question of whether to have kids has become a matter of public concern and political debate. We’ve seen the letters to advice columnists lamenting the pressure to give parents grandchildren, heard the cries of “You’ll regret it!” from well-meaning friends and relatives, and seen the name-calling (“Selfish!” “Stupid!” “Shallow!”) from observers online.

Despite the negative buzz surrounding them, 94 percent of childfree adults in my own study said they gave careful thought to their choice not to become parents. As Sarah, a childfree partnered psychiatrist in her 30s told me, “I actually think that most people who have children don’t even think about it, they just have them…most people just go for it and don’t give it much thought. Go for what’s next. ‘I got married, now I have to have kids.’ … I think there’s more thinking to decide to not have children.”

Further, while the stereotype tells us that all childfree people hate children, over a quarter of participants in my study chose careers – such as teaching, social work, and pediatrics – that involve work with children. As Susan, a childfree camp director in her 50s shared, “I had a lot of experience at being with children at various stages. And I enjoyed it, I loved it, but I said to myself, ‘There are way too many kids out there that don’t have someone to look after them and don’t have someone to be an advocate for them.’ And I felt that I could be that person.”

Other research shows that 80 percent of non-mothers play an active role in children’s lives. And when compared to parents, childfree people report higher marital satisfaction, lower rates of depression, and similar rates of civic engagement. In short, childfree people are happy, engaged singles and couples who have carved out meaningful lives for themselves. Understanding and supporting their choice means better outcomes for families, children, parents, and nonparents alike.

I explore these and other in my new book released today from Dutton.

Amy Blackstone is a professor in Sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.  She is author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence (Dutton, 2019). Amy and her husband Lance blog at we’re {not} having a baby!.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran on 3/6/2018. Punishing Disease was just awarded the 2019 American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Sexualities Section Distinguished Book Award.

Trevor Hoppe is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and recently published the book Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of SicknessThe book traces the rise and application of criminal laws used to prosecute people living with HIV in the United States, typically for failing to disclose their status to a sexual partner.  I recently interviewed him about his book.

AK: Besides HIV and related behavior that you focus on, have other sexual behaviors and diseases been criminalized in recent United States history, and are these laws disproportionately enforced among certain populations?

TH: The book traces the rise of HIV-specific criminal laws in the 1980s and 1990s, linking that shift towards criminalization to the broader war on crime and particularly the war on drugs. AIDS unfortunately coincided with a massive expansion of the carceral state through Ronald Reagan’s presidency and it was seized upon by evangelical conservatives as a harbinger of moral decline. That made for a unique and deeply punitive response to this epidemic that has no parallel in history or in the years that have followed. During World War II, many states did pass venereal disease statutes, mostly to target prostitutes who were viewed mistakenly as responsible for the spread of syphilis. However, those laws featured misdemeanor penalties and there’s no evidence I could find that that they were widely used.

Recently, states have been moving to expand their felony HIV-specific criminal laws to include other diseases, particularly Hepatitis C. To date, only a handful of states have done so and it’s not clear that they will be widely utilized by prosecutors, as that disease is spread primarily through the sharing of needles, and drug users are not especially likely to call the police to report a needle-sharing partner. By comparison, the sexual transmission aspect of HIV more readily lends itself to a criminal justice response, since the HIV-negative partner can more readily claim victimhood in a criminal courtroom.

AK: You found that lawyers and judges often had very little medical understanding of HIV and how it is transmitted, leading to legal arguments that were inaccurate, but compelling. Did these inaccuracies allow for anyone to appeal their convictions?

TH: As is the case in the criminal justice system more broadly, most defendants charged under these statutes plead guilty. Once you plead guilty, it’s difficult if not impossible to turn back and show cause for an appeal. Defendants take pleas to avoid the much harsher penalties that come with taking your case to trial. My analysis finds, for example, that male defendants at trial received an average prison sentence of 153 months versus an average of 77 months for male defendants who plead out. Further, there is no evidence that any defendant charged under a felony HIV-specific criminal law in the United States has ever been acquitted at trial. The only cases that do not result in conviction are the rare few that are dismissed, usually because the accuser does not show up to testify. In this context, appeals are few and far between and those that have proceeded are almost universally unsuccessful.

That said, there are many cases I encountered that would appear to a casual onlooker to be ripe for appeal—such as the case of a Michigan stripper convicted for giving a lap dance (the prosecutor claimed the prohibited sexual penetration involved the client’s nose). But in her case and countless others, defendants chose to plea.

AK: If someone does not know their HIV status at the time they expose somebody else, can they be prosecuted under these laws, and if not, do these laws then encourage avoiding HIV testing so that individuals can avoid legal issues? What would be a better policy that could more effectively encourage testing and disclosure of HIV to sexual partners?

TH: No. HIV-specific laws require that a person be aware of their HIV-status. Advocates often criticize these laws on the basis that they discourage HIV testing. I don’t think there’s good social science evidence to support that claim. Most people who are not currently living with HIV do not know that these laws exist. There are far stronger arguments for demanding legal reform. For example, these laws are extremely broad and can be used to prosecute harmless behaviors, such as spitting, biting, or in at least once case, even a lap dance. The crime is failing to disclose before any sexual contact, whether or not that contact posed a risk of transmission. To this point, less than 10 percent of cases involve an allegation that defendant transmitted the disease to their partner. This is a dangerous precedent. Should partners suffering from noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, be required to disclose? No. We can obviously recognize that policy intervention as ludicrous. The only reason we can’t say the same for HIV laws is that our vision is clouded with stigma and, too often, obfuscated by ignorance. It is terrible policy to send people to prison for years or even decades for nothing more than causing a sexual partner to experience irrational and, in most cases, unwarranted psychological duress. The best science we have today says that people living with HIV who are on treatment and have a suppressed viral load cannotcannot—transmit the disease. It’s time for most Americans to wake up and rethink everything they know about HIV. The disease has changed. The laws, unfortunately, have not.

Trevor Hoppe is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, published by University of California Press, and co-editor of The War on Sex, published by Duke University Press. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg

American actress Gwyneth Paltrow has been in the spotlight recently because of an online quarrel with her adolescent daughter, Apple, after the celebrity posted a photo of the two on Instagram without her child’s consent. In April 2019, pop star Pink announced she won’t post pictures of her children on social media anymore, after receiving criticism for an Instagram photo of her two-year-old son looking tired. Some praised the singer’s choice, stressing the perils of leaving children’s digital bread crumbs behind. While these examples concern cases of famous people putting the offspring in the spotlight, they also implement the debate surrounding children’s privacy in the social media age.

In the past few years, the term “sharenting” has gained popularity in the media press and among academics, indicating the act of parents posting pictures, videos, and stories about the offspring on social media. The expression is so widespread that has been added to dictionary.

Several pieces have been published on media outlets discussing the topic and taking a moral stance, suggesting what a “good enough parent” should or should not be doing. One of the main concerns associated with this practice is children’s privacy and their possible lack of agency in the process if they are too young to give their consent. Some wondered whether parents are clueless about data breach risks, with media outlets inviting them to “think twice” before posting.

But what about research? Instead of framing the discussion in terms of what parents are doing right or wrong, let’s take a look at what data say about this trend.

Some numbers. Sharenting seems to be a common trend in the global North, with 85% of mothers in the United States, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan reporting to have shared pictures of their children under two on social media. Both mothers and fathers have been found to upload photos of the offspring on a monthly basis, in the United States, the UK, and Italy.

But what’s new about sharenting?  The family photo has actually long historical roots, and taking pictures of children is nothing new. What is new is that by posting online we are now crossing conventional time and space boundaries of communication, and our social media pages can get more views than a photo hung on the domestic walls where traditionally family snaps have been shown.

And what is parents’ stance? While parents are sometimes portrayed as naïve and narcissistic, empirical data tell a different story. Many parents do, in fact, think twice before posting, and try to control their children’s social media presence by setting rules with family and friends on whether and what to share about them online. We have been investigating the topic as well, and our preliminary findings (coming soon!) support that if sharenting starts well before the child is born with ultrasound postings, so do the dilemmas parents experience about not only their photo-sharing behavior but also of other people surrounding the child who share about him/her (such as relatives, teachers, etc.).

What about… the children? Few children have been interviewed so far. However, data support they have mixed feelings about it. A study with children aged 10-17 found that some of them are frustrated with the idea that their parents can share details of their lives online, stressing some discrepancies between parents’ own use of technology and rules set in the household. Other data from adolescents (12-14) suggest that most of the time they are okay with the practice as long as it doesn’t compromise the online image they are trying to construct for themselves.

Ultimately, what is at stake here? Of course, there are new privacy concerns, mostly because even when children give their consent their privacy expectations may change over time. Also, many children are too young to consent themselves, leaving adults the responsibility of the choice. As early childhood is a critical site for children’s datafication, and sharenting tend to decrease as a child grows into adolescence, it’s important to focus on the life stage where parents (and adults in general) are more likely to act as guardians of their children’s privacy.

Matters of privacy and agency are intertwined, as the focus is not only on limiting but also on being in control of one’s digital footprints. Children’s social media presence has been normalized, with adults even external to the nuclear family posting about kids. As our data suggest, this creates new opportunities for privacy predicaments as not only children, but also their parents may lose control of the process.

Framing all parents as inattentive and clueless about their children’s datafication means embracing a new moral panic, while telling a different story compared to what data support. However, in an era where social media sharing is part of our daily lives, being an active agent of one’s digital footprints becomes pivotal. As children grow, their ability to govern their data online, and even changing their mind about what was once shared, should be safeguarded. Some have argued that as parents in the United States have a right to share about their children online, Europe’s right to be forgotten can represent an interesting framework to embrace. We contend that, as a society, all adults involved with children to different degrees –and not only parents– can engage in a more extensive reflection on how we think of children as autonomous citizens who step into online arenas in their own terms.

Authors’ information: You can contact the authors to know more about their ongoing project on children’s social media presence at d.cino1@campus.unimib.it and ellen-wartella@northwestern.edu

Davide Cino is a PhD Student at the University of Milan-Bicocca, Department of Human Sciences for Education, and a member of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. He studies children’s social media presence and privacy boundaries employing different methodologies and through an interdisciplinary lens.

Ellen Wartella is the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication, Professor of Psychology, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University. She also directs the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. She serves on the board of the Council on Contemporary Families.

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.

Questions.

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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

Koji Chavez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, kochavez@indiana.edu. 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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

Alison T. Wynn, Stanford University, atp5@stanford.edu. Shelley J. Correll, Stanford University, scorrell@stanford.edu. 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.