Ban the Box via PBS

As noted by Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, experimental evidence indicates that the presence of a criminal record reduces one’s application callback likelihood by 50% for whites and 64% for African Americans. To potentially mitigate this employment discrimination, 23 states have adopted “ban the box” policies—the removal of the criminal history question on first-round job applications. However, a pesky question remains in the minds of many employers: do felons make good employees?

National Public Radio’s Planet Money Podcast, hosted by Keith Romer, asked Pager how felons fare if they gain employment. To get at the answer, Pager has been studying felon enlistment in the military (5,000 enlistees between 2002-2009 had felony records). She finds that those with felony records are no more likely to get kicked out before the end of their term than their clean-record counterparts. In fact, those with felony records are not only promoted faster, they are also promoted to higher ranks. Pager contends that “employers are probably missing a lot of talent when they exclude people with criminal records” (notably, with few exceptions, the military is not currently accepting felons). Because it is often so hard for ex-cons to get a job, they seem to work particularly hard to keep that job. Overall, Pager’s evidence appears to show that steps to “ban the box” will bring qualified applicants rather than unwanted mischief to employers.

Photo via Scripps National Spelling Bee, Flickr CC
Integrated kids become integrated adults. Photo via Scripps National Spelling Bee, Flickr CC.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Beverly Daniel Tatum released her groundbreaking book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations about Race. In it, she examines how and why black youth often segregate themselves in middle and high school, arguing that engagement in meaningful conversations about race can help deconstruct such racial barriers. While many may have lost hope in the Civil Rights-era dream of school integration, today, new sociological research demonstrates the importance of integration and the positive long-term effects it provides for working adults. A recent article in The Atlantic reveals that students who attend racially diverse high schools are more likely to work in diverse employment settings.

Adam Gamoran, Sarah Barfels, and Ana Cristina Collares tracked over 10,000 black and white high school students during the 1980s and 1990s, then recorded the racial make-up of their current work environment. White and black students who attended predominantly white schools were more likely to work in predominantly white work settings. Regardless of the various methods behind the integration (including busing and neighborhood development), the students from racially diverse high schools were more likely to work today with a diverse group of coworkers. The authors suggest that “Interactions with a diverse student body may mean that individuals are more likely to live in communities that are more diverse, or [are] more willing and comfortable in racially diverse settings later in life.” While they are reluctant to conclude that attending a diverse high school or working with diverse coworkers will eradicate the economic and social disparities of life in the U.S., it is safe to say that both provide a strong step in the right direction.

Equal Pay Day is marked around the world as the day on which women have officially made as much as their male peers did in the previous year. This year's was April 12, 2016 in the U.S. Photo by,
Equal Pay Day is marked around the world. It shows how far into the next year women must work to make as much as their male peers did in the previous calendar year. This year’s was April 12, 2016 in the U.S. Photo by,

Recently, I reviewed research showing that women in leadership roles may contribute to decreasing gender segregation at lower positions in the same firm. I also noted that gender segregation is a large contributor to the wage gap between men and women. Unfortunately, while a small number of women moving into top positions may help those below, when large numbers of women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the results are not so rosy. Why? Women’s work simply isn’t valued as highly as men’s.

The Washington Post recently featured a study by sociologists Paula England and Asaf Levanon demonstrating this trend. When occupations employing mostly men shifted to employing most women, these jobs started to pay employees considerably less, even when the researchers took employees’ education, work experience, skills, race, and geography into account. For instance, wages for a ticket agent dropped 43 percentage points after the position shifted from mainly male to female. Stereotypically “female” jobs that involve caregiving pay less, regardless of whether men or women hold those jobs:

[T]here was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” Ms. England said. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”

Photo by, cropped. Flickr CC.
Photo by, cropped. Flickr CC.

In many fields—especially those that require more degrees or a longer resume—diversity remains a lofty goal. Claire Jean Miller writes in the New York Times that some unconventional thinking may help make that goal a reality, suggesting the practice of “blind hiring,” wherein those who review employment criteria are unable to see prospects’ race, gender, or similar factors.

Miller looks to research from sociologists Maya A. Beasley (University of Connecticut) and Lauren Rivera (Northwestern University). One of the more common reasons cited for companies’ lack of diversity is that there are not enough minorities and women in the “pipeline” who have sufficient skills or qualifications. Beasley’s research shows, however, a greater amount of people with those qualifications are minorities or women. Rather than overt discrimination in the hiring process, Rivera sees companies stressing “fit” and, in this way, contemporary employment is more like finding a romantic partner. A match between leisure activities and hobbies is a strong predictor of who gets hired where; because those factors are inherently raced and gendered, organizations that are disproportionately white and/or male are likely to stay that way.

“Blind hiring” means shifting early hiring processes to consider skill first. For example, after facing litigation for its historically disproportionately white male ensemble, the Boston Symphony orchestra moved to blind auditions, putting aspiring orchestra members behind a screen while they played. The new procedure led to a demonstrably more diverse orchestra. In tech, blind hiring might mean critiquing applicants’ code or software before examining their resume. Though this idea clearly can’t be applied to all fields with equal ease, blind hiring might let us see workplace diversity.

"Proto-Professor," by Liz Lawley, Flickr CC.
“Proto-Professor,” by Liz Lawley, Flickr CC.

Parenting is hard, whether you’re an academic or not. But when you’re a professor, there is one surefire way to help stay in the field, get tenure, and even score a pay bump. Be a man.

The message is clear: women with children in academia are at a disadvantage compared to both men with children and women without them. A recent article in Jezebel compiled findings from several studies to demonstrate this. According to sociologist Michelle Budig, high-income men get the biggest pay bump from having children in any job category, and low-income women lose the most.

A US News article, likewise reports that male professors with young children are more than three times as likely as women with young children to get tenure-track positions. Notably, women without children come in a close second: they are just under three times as likely as women with children to get tenure.

Along the same lines, women who have a baby as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow are more than twice as likely as men who have children during this time to leave academic research. When it comes to having children in academia, women pay a harsh “baby penalty.”

ER photo via MilitaryHealth, Flickr CC.
ER photo via MilitaryHealth, Flickr CC.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield explains how sexual innuendo can create hostile work environments for black men. As part of her research for her book about gender and race in men’s work, Wingfield interviewed Emergency Room doctors about their workplace experiences. Several recounted that sexual jokes and innuendo are commonplace between doctors and nurses. But these everyday jokes and comments, Winfield argues, create difficult situations for black male doctors.

Most of the black male doctors I interviewed for my research were the only black men in their work environments. They felt sensitive to that fact, and said they moderated their behavior when innuendo entered the conversation.

Black male doctors in these situations, Winfield explains, must navigate upholding a professional working identity while avoiding any link to the long history of black men stereotyped as dangerously hypersexual.

Responding to these interactions tactfully can be essential for black men to navigate their work environment, and the black male doctors I spoke to described feelings of deep discomfort and awkwardness. While some black male ER doctors do experience unique discomfort on the job, what these men encounter is similar to the plight of some black professionals more generally.

For many, the “American Dream” seems beyond possibility. Zhang Yu, Flickr CC.

Work by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam and Princeton’s Doug Massey was featured in a recent article in The Atlantic, which discusses the need for policy changes to fight poverty and begin a new “civil-rights movement” for the poor. As the article describes, through policies in housing, employment, and education, the poor are at an inherent disadvantage in America, one that is often outside their control.

Putnam, in his work Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, states that poor children are often less prepared than their middle-class counterparts to develop skills and succeed. Communities and families within poor contexts are less likely to have the same resources and starting platform with which to help their kids participate in “The American Dream.” The article presents arguments to suggest potential change within housing, educational, and employment contexts. Doug Massey’s research, for example, is cited in support of housing policies that enable the poor to live in better-resourced communities. The article makes multiple suggestions for ways to empower the poor and increase their life chances, and research shows that such policies can effect positive change.

Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.

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


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

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

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

Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps' promise?
Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps’ promise?

That’s likely true for a lot of reasons, but one is just coming to light: For many African-Americans, working for the government has provided a gateway to the middle class. “Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” sociologist Jennifer Laird tells The New York Times. The civil service, delivering mail, teaching, operating public transportation, and processing criminal justice have historically provided steady income and opportunities to climb the economic ladder—often without an expensive college degree.

The recession’s recovery has not brought back employment at the local, state, and federal levels, though, and it’s causing struggle in black communities in particular. Population growth has also meant higher competition for ever scarcer public sector jobs. African-Americans once benefitted most from government employment, so cutbacks and layoffs hit them the hardest. Laird describes black government workers’ situation as a “double-disadvantage”:

They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.