Frank and Claire Underwood House of Cards Promo

Spoiler alert! This season the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” got a bit more radical. Main characters and power couple Claire and Frank Underwood are unapologetically, consensually non-monogamous. In fact, sociologist Mimi Schippers says the show portrays “one of the best television representations of an open/poly relationship I’ve seen.” In the fourth season, Claire, married to the President of the United States, becomes sexually involved with Thomas Yates, a writer. While many shows depict “extramarital affairs” as inherently negative, “House of Cards” Frank affirms that Tom can “give” Claire things he can’t.

In a blog post for NYU Press, Schippers argues that the Underwoods go “beyond” marriage, monogamy, and dominant gender norms. According to research she conducted for her upcoming book, men in polyamorous relationships tend to shift their understanding of masculinity because they must forgo jealousy and control over the women in their lives. The openly non-monogamous relationships on “House of Cards” thus challenge more than just ideas about what relationships should look like. It confronts gendered expectations for men to be competitive and possessive and grants women sexual autonomy, independent of men.

[T]he Underwoods distinguish themselves from society’s ideas of the “perfect couple” by being both child-free and consensually non-monogamous. They are something else–something beyond “perfect”, beyond marriage, and beyond traditional gender arrangements. Rather than representing bad character or immorality, Claire’s increasingly intimate relationship with Tom and Frank’s enthusiastic acceptance of it (the very definition of polyamory) punctuates and solidifies the strength of their marriage as one between equals.

Virtual reality still sees sexism. Photo by Nan Palmero, Flickr CC.
Virtual reality still sees sexism. Photo by Nan Palmero, Flickr CC.

Star Wars conventions: one place where everyone is equal (if they hate Jar-Jar Binks). Or maybe not. As it turns out, even Star Wars has become a controversial area for discussing the place of feminism and powerful women in society. Work by sociologists CJ Pascoe and Tristan Bridges sheds more light on how sexism has infiltrated nerd culture. Following their recent book release, Pascoe and Bridges were interviewed by Broadly to help explain sexism in an unlikely arena.

Pascoe explains that “nerds” are consistently emasculated in society because they don’t participate in the same types of gendered dominance displays expected of young men. That might make it seem they exist away from expected dichotomies of gender roles. Bridges adds, however, that nerdy activities have become more mainstream due to popular television and media, so now the traditional nerd versus jock relationship is more nuanced.

Bridges said,

Nerds are, as a cultural “type,” emasculated… But it’s also true that there is a lot of toxic masculine behavior in nerd cultures. Think about it: #GamerGate happened among the nerds, not the jocks.

Pascoe agreed, explaining that fandom cultures create a space for men to be dominant even if they do not follow mainstream masculine pressures. The presence of women in these spaces might constitute a threat to the men within them. Still, Pascoe concludes that feminism is still a benefit for nerd culture overall. She says hopefully,

Increasing including and visibility of women, trans folk, and LGBQ folk in fandom communities will result in less damaging gender socialization for everyone—men included—and will help to change the way in which nerds themselves are placed on the bottom rung of some masculinity hierarchy.

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 metropolica.org, flickr.com
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 metropolico.org, flickr.com

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.”

Taller men get the taller stacks. TaxCredits.net.
Taller men get the taller stacks. TaxCredits.net.

According to British researchers, tall men and thin women are most likely to make the big bucks. Meanwhile, they found evidence to suggest overweight workers, especially women, are likely to get paid less. Still, sociologist Amy Blackstone says companies probably aren’t intentionally penalizing employees based on height and weight.  

In an interview with Broadly, Blackstone points to gender biases that extend beyond the workplace. Culturally, Americans associate thinness with beauty and self-discipline in women and tallness with authority for men. “For women, being thin means taking up less space, something that is expected of women both literally and symbolically,” Blackstone says. Thus, it’s no surprise that pay reflects societal views about gender, power, and the body. Nor is it a surprise that other gender inequalities make their way into work spaces, like limitations on contraception coverage in employer provided health care and a lack of paid maternity leave. As contributing editor Diana Tourjee points out, “paying certain men and women less in relation to the way they look is obviously disturbing, but worse is the realization that this data is part of a broader system of oppression that structures the lived experiences of us all.”

Photo by The Great 8, Flickr CC.
Photo by The Great 8, Flickr CC.

Income inequality is a hot topic this election, and the Panama Papers have added fuel to the fire. Indeed, it seems that there’s no end to the data that shows the discrepancy between the 1% and the rest of us. What will it to start seeking solutions to extreme income disparities?

New research by TSP contributor Kevin Leicht of Urbana Champaign (available in an article in The Sociological Quarterly) points us in the right direction. As he explains in an interview with The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White, the way social scientists and others conceptualize inequality is too tied to trying to increase diversity at the top rather than studying the economy as a whole. Furthermore, while we’ve been very interested in inequality by race, we don’t do enough to consider gender inequalities, particularly as they exist within racial groups. The popular narrative is that hard work can jettison anyone to the top, but research like Leicht’s shows how outdated this notion is.

To read more of Leicht’s work, see his TSP papers, “Has Borrowing Replaced Earning?”, “Economic Decline and the American Dream,” and “Old Narratives and New Realities,” or check out our volume on the new sociology of debt, Owned.

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.
In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

Disney movies get a lot of flack for promoting unrealistic gender expectations, especially for young girls. But kids are getting messages about more than just gender. A recent article in New York Magazine featured a study helmed by sociologist Jessi Streib that revealed that successful G-rated movies, including many Disney films, communicate unrealistic depictions of social class.

In over half of the 32 films they studied, the main characters were upper- or the upper middle-class, clearly misrepresenting the distribution of wealth both in the U.S. and the world. In addition, many downplayed or even romanticized the hardships of lower-class status. For instance, in Aladdin, wealth and poverty are depicted as two sides of the same coin with each equally constraining individuals’ lives. Unlike in adult films where working class characters tend to be portrayed as irresponsible, in G-rated films, working-class characters are shown as warm members of a tight-knit community. In fact, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it is the lower-class characters who teach their upper-class characters about humanity, empathy, and love:

The key takeaway, from the authors’ point of view, is that these films legitimize and reinforce class structures. Middle-class and poor people are de-emphasized, as are the difficulties associated with not having enough money. Moreover, climbing the class ladder isn’t presented as particularly difficult.

 

pushout coverOver the last year, bystanders have recorded numerous instances of confrontation between police and black students, from one officer pointing his gun at an unarmed black youth during a pool party in Texas to another officer flipping over a black girl still seated in her desk in a South Carolina high school. Media reports often blame black girls for defying authority figures while excusing the behaviors of school officials and law enforcement officers. Recent reports including Kimberlé Crenshaw’s, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” contextualizes the serious effects of harsh punishment as black girls disproportionately enter the school-to-prison pipeline.

Monique Morris sheds additional light on the topic in her new book, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” Morris interviewed several young black girls in group homes, foster care, and juvenile detention centers in cities including Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. She discovered that several girls experienced various forms of physical and sexual violence. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, praised the book, calling it “A powerful indictment of the cultural beliefs, policies, and practices that criminalize and dehumanize Black girls in America,” while activist Gloria Steinhem wrote that Morris “tells us exactly how schools are crushing the spirit and talent that this country needs.”

A recent comic and sociological exploration of heterosexual norms in the U.S. today.
A recent comic and sociological exploration of heterosexual norms in the U.S. today.

In one of the most iconic scenes in sitcom television history, Friends’ character Monica bends down on one knee and proposes to her long-time boyfriend, Chandler, in a romantic, candlelit, rose-filled apartment. Over fifteen years later, scholars suggest the reality of heterosexual marriage proposals is far less progressive. A recent article in The New York Times discusses why men remain more likely to propose marriage and why this tradition will likely not change in the near future.

Even as the traditional image of marriage has changed and the number of working and college-educated women continues to rise (studies show that men and women tend to marry spouses from comparable educational backgrounds), according to Amanda Miller, “Though women have more power to move the relationship closer to marriage, they still want the man to ask. That’s considered his job.”

Bradford Wilcox concurs, noting that women may also view their partner’s proposal as reassurance that he truly wants to get married (indeed, men often view their formal proposals as demonstrations of love and commitment to their future wives). A woman who proposes may face social consequences, though: Beth Montemurro adds that such women may be viewed as more masculine (and men who are proposed to may be viewed as more feminine). To avoid stigma, male-female couples generally stick to the script: men propose marriage.

Photo by brandbook.de, cropped. Flickr CC.
Photo by brandbook.de, 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.

R/DV/RS via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/P22Ry
R/DV/RS via Flickr.

“Work-family balance” is a phrase that many of us are all too familiar with, and competition between workplace and family demands are a “given” for many people, but particularly for parents. Flexibility is key—and it’s a luxury that many workers don’t have when office culture and workplace norms prioritize “work” over “family” in self-presentation and conduct.

Research by U of MN sociologist Phyllis Moen and MIT sociologist Erin Kelly, whose work with five coauthors was published in the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review, shows how consciously changing such workplace culture is a win for families and offices, as explored in a New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller.

Miller describes how the team’s innovative experiment simulated a new type of workplace culture for those in the experimental group, while it was business as usual for the control group:

Workers in the experimental group were told they could work wherever, and whenever, they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met; the new emphasis would be on results rather than on the number of hours spent in the office. Managers were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues and were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work—an ill parent, or a child wanting her mom to watch her soccer games. Managers were given iPods that buzzed twice a day to remind them to think about the various ways they could support their employees as they managed their jobs and home lives.

In the study, both the experimental employees and their children were sleeping better than those in the control group. Employers might also be interested to know that retention rates and desire-to-stay were higher in the experimental group.

Though having management and bosses openly discuss and respect the struggles of work-family balance goes against the grain of office norms, this research shows that these boundaries aren’t doing anyone favors. Shifting toward a conceptualization of this dynamic with vocabularies like “work family fit”—which doesn’t treat work and family as competitors in a zero-sum-game—could help workers and companies alike.