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.”

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.

Photo by Abhisek Sarda via Flickr.
Photo by Abhisek Sarda via Flickr.

For years, legislators and employers have framed guaranteed parental leave as a “women’s issue.” Women serve as the primary advocates for policies that allow more flexibility between work and family life, while fighting stereotypes that paint them as less committed to their jobs than men. In a recent article for Fast Company, sociologist Michael Kimmel discusses how the U.S. lags behind every other industrialized country in policies that guarantee parental leave and how he believes this contradicts “family first” ideals. “Supporting families is the very definition of family values,” writes Kimmel. “How can we possibly lecture others about loving and supporting families when we value our own so little?”

One key to the gradual change that’s come to cities including New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago may be a shift in male perspectives of household work. Recent surveys suggest many men want to be more involved in household duties. Despite that willingness, however, women still bear much of the burden. Consequently, fathers are often praised for more public acts of parenting, like taking children to soccer practice, while mothers are more likely to take care of unsung housework, struggling to also meet the demands of their careers. Further, researchers note that demanding careers cause increased risks of physical and mental illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and stress for everyone, not just fathers or mothers.

As legislators craft a new wave of parental leave policies, many question how employers can provide a working environment to support parents and families. In a recent study, Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly studied the Star Initiative program that allowed for increased flexibility for 700 employees at a Fortune 500 company. The aim was to provide employees with more flexibility in attending meetings, working from home, and communicating via instant messenger. After one year, those involved in the initiative reported greater job satisfaction and lower rates of poor mental health. According to Kelly, “One important implication of this research is that workplaces can change to bring some relief to stressed out workers. It’s not up to an individual to figure out how to balance everything. Challenges come up with work, but organizations can change to bring some relief.”

Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.
Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.

In a recent excerpt from her book The Tumbleweed Society: Work and Caring in an Age of Insecurity featured in Salon, sociologist Allison Pugh discusses how the insecure economy has made employees feel wary of their employers but also like they must rush to their defense. Employees often bend over backward to identify with their bosses and meet their needs, but employers are much less likely to reciprocate. What do employers and employees owe each other?

The move away from the old social contract, in which employees traded loyalty and effort for job security, has resulted in real and perceived job insecurity among may adults for whom full-time work is a central piece of identity. Pugh says the result of the opposing trends of increased job insecurity and increased cultural importance of full-time employment is lots of anxiety for employees and a “one-way honor system.” Employees still feel obligated to uphold their end of the social contract by demonstrating loyalty and hard work, they don’t expect the same commitment from their employers. Even those with the lowest-skill and lowest-paying jobs empathize with the employers’ needs for good workers and expect little beyond dignity, respect, and a paycheck.

Part of the reason for the one-way honor system is the perception that intense work commitment is an integral part of being an honorable, moral person:

Survey researchers report, for example, that about the same percentage of women as men—70 percent of full-time working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers)—say they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the “lottery question” (and used by researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic). A strong work ethic was part of good character, part of being fully human, no matter your gender, people maintained.

In other words, it’s not the job itself that’s the source of dignity, it’s the work ethic. So as jobs get more precarious, many people work longer and harder instead of slacking off, partially because they fear those who don’t work hard enough or produce enough will be the first ones to lose those coveted jobs.

Katie Cannon, Flickr CC
Katie Cannon, Flickr CC

After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research isn’t surprised by this gendered bias, telling The Guardian, “I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done.”

As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.

In years following the 2008 recession, many Americans are still scrambling to find enough work hours to make ends meet. One emerging trend is “clopening,” when an employee works the closing shift, then opens the same business a few hours later. Piled on top of commuting, trying to get some sleep, and attending to family duties, the few remaining precious hours between shifts are overbooked. That can have negative consequences on health. Sociologist Gerhard Bosch tells the New York Times about the European Union’s required 11-hour rest period between shifts: ““If a retail shop closes at midnight, the night-shift employees are not allowed to start before 11 o’clock the next morning.”

Even though some unions in the United States have negotiated similar required “between shifts” time, there is not yet a national labor law. However, several states have taken steps toward Right to Work laws some hope will alleviate the long, inconsistent hours many employees face.

Some business owners claim that some employees prefer “clopening” to working 9 to 5, pointing, for example, to students with busy daytime class schedules. However, one student worker told the Times that working on the clopening schedule meant quitting his pursuit of a master’s degree—he’d lost focus and developed chronic exhaustion.

Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.
Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.

Those who have fallen on hard times or don’t have many resources can turn to public programs for essentials like food and housing assistance, but what about transportation? As people living in poverty are forced to the suburbs by rising costs and gentrification, they are now further away from the places and services they need to reach, like work and clinics. Enter Alexandra Murphy, a University of Michigan sociologist recently quoted in the Pacific Standard: “Transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service… even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

King’s County in Seattle is offering a new subsidized bus program that is garnering national attention. As described in the Pacific Standard, “[the program] will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3.” Programs like this, however, come with liability risks. What happens if a government-subsidized vehicle gets into an accident? The stickiness of these situations can be a deterrent for those hoping to start public transportation programs; as Murphy explains, “it’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into.” With time, it is hoped that King’s County may offer a way forward for other communities facing a mismatch between where the housing is plentiful and where the jobs are on offer.

The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.
The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.

Who doesn’t love a four (or five!) day weekend? An extra day or two away from the desk means more time for leisure activities and to disengage from work. But Scott Schieman, sociology professor at University of Toronto, warns that consistently short work weeks may not help work-life balance in the long run. In an interview on CBC’s Daybreak South, Schieman said,

I think what we have to really look at are the nature or the demands of the job—and how those demands can either be compressed in particular time periods, or whether they actually need to be spread out, and that’s when you get to some of the cons.

When the same amount of work needs to be done in three days instead of five, it means longer hours. It’s like cramming for a college exam, when it’s physically tiring and harder to process information. Even if three days of intense work seems like a good trade for four days at home, it’s still unlikely that “days off” mean not working, Schieman points out: “What if there’s a deadline, what if there’s an ongoing project? Can you really break from that fully?” Additionally, people with families may find the long hours associated with shorter work weeks incompatible with obligations like carpool, and non-stop work is unlikely to happen in a house with a demanding toddler. Savoring the occasional holiday might provide a better balance, aligning with kids’ school days and taken-for-granted “business hours,” while adding in a “bonus” day of leisure intermittently.

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.
Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.