Picture of woman prepping healthy meals for her family

Photo by monicore, Needpix.com CC.

Married couples are sharing household chores more than ever before, but women still do more than men. While sociologists already know a great deal about gender differences in couples’ physical and emotional work, new research shows that there’s even more to gendered differences in household labor. Women are often responsible for the lion’s share of another form of invisible household work: cognitive labor.

Allison Daminger interviewed middle- and upper-middle class, married couples living in the Boston area. All were between 35-50 years old, had at least one Bachelor’s degree, and were living with at least one child younger than 5 years old. Most of the couples were heterosexual. Daminger interviewed each partner separately to encourage respondents to share their honest perspective. 

Respondents discussed the typical chores of household labor: cooking, cleaning, shopping, mowing the lawn, etc. But many couples also talked about a sort of “project manager” category of family responsibilities, which includes anticipating the needs of family members, identifying options for meeting those needs, deciding among the options, and monitoring the results. Daminger labeled these tasks “cognitive labor,” and identified nine domains in which cognitive labor occurs: food, childcare, scheduling and logistics, cleaning and laundry, finances, social relationships, shopping, home and car maintenance, and travel and leisure. Cognitive labor in the food domain, for instance, includes responsibilities like deciding what meals to cook and ensuring a consistent supply of groceries. These responsibilities are added on to the work that must be done, for instance, soothing a tantruming toddler displeased by the dinner menu.

Daminger found that, like emotional labor, cognitive labor is often invisible and is a frequent source of conflict. Overall, the women in the study were responsible for a larger amount of the anticipation and monitoring work than their male partners. But when it came to decision-making — the part of cognitive labor most closely linked to power and influence — partners shared the work of decision-making much more equally. Daminger argues that cognitive labor is thus an overlooked, yet potentially consequential, source of gender inequality at the household level. 

To read more about emotional labor, check out these posts here and here.

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014

College teaching has undergone a revolution in recent years. Traditional styles of teaching and lecturing have been supplanted by a more interactive, student-centered approach known as “active learning.” In active learning classrooms, students practice skills, receive feedback from teachers, and then get a chance to implement teachers’ corrections as soon as they are given. While the benefits of active learning for liberal arts fields seem fairly intuitive, it is less obvious whether this approach can be successful in more technical and scientific fields where “knowledge” is seen as more concrete, universal, and fact-based. To find out whether active learning is beneficial in STEM classes, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted a metaanalysis of 225 studies comparing the outcomes of different teaching methods.

Freeman’s team found that undergraduates enrolled in STEM lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who took courses with elements of active learning. Students in active learning sections got higher exam scores (by 6%) and their vocabulary scores rose. The results held across STEM disciplines class sizes, although the greatest benefits were seen in classes with fewer than 50 students.

Carl Wieman, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, is among a group of experts who also believe that active learning is the most effective instruction style for STEM. In an interview with Anna Kuchment for Scientific American, Wieman states that active learning works because it teaches students to think like scientists in the field, moving from background reading to applied work with targeted feedback and revision. In other words, active learning is a direct application of what cognitive psychology tells us about how we learn: by practicing, with feedback from an expert about what we’re doing right and wrong and how to get better.

Wieman believes that if future elementary and high school STEM teachers are taught with active learning, they could, in turn, potentially develop a much higher level of content mastery among their students. Wieman says, “[K-12 students] really require more subject expertise from the instructor than a lecture,” and these teachers will be better able to pass expertise on to their students.

Finally, better teaching and learning is expected to help attract and retain undergraduates in STEM majors. Because STEM degrees continue to be in high demand among employers, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has now set a goal of increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded each year by 33%. Adopting empirically validated teaching practices like active learning may be the best bet for meeting this objective while improving K-12 STEM education to boot.

In Western societies, girls are starting to outperform boys at all levels of schooling. At the same time, many families are immigrating to these countries from areas of the world where boys still have the educational advantage. This means that there’s likely a difference in the educational expectations for boys and girls held by immigrant parents and those held by the receiving country. So what matters more for a kids education – the homeland or the new home country? To find out, a research team led by Fennella Fleischmann and Cornelia Kristen investigates whether second-generation immigrant girls are benefiting from the Western patterns of female success they encounter after the move.

The team draws on nationally representative data from nine receiving countries. They focus on outcomes including test scores, choice of major, college-going, and completion. To analyze this data, they use a twofold strategy, comparing gender outcomes within racial and ethnic groups. Then they compare the size of each ethnic group’s gender gaps to those of other immigrant groups and to those of the Western host country’s majority population. This tells them not only whether immigrant children have assimilated to majority trends by the second generation, but at which stage of their educational careers this happens.

The research team finds that, with very few exceptions, the female advantage in education extends to second-generation immigrant girls, regardless of their parents’ country of origin or the male advantage in that society. While those who choose to immigrate may have more progressive gender views, which may help explain these trends, the takeaway is an important one – when given the opportunity to succeed, girls will take it.

As seasonal aisles are taken over by backpacks and Elmer’s glue, there’s no denying the start of a new school year. For parents of preschoolers whose birth dates are on or near the cutoff, thinking about school means deciding how early their child should begin kindergarten. While there is lots of evidence that children who are old for their grade tend to have better long-term academic outcomes, Fabrizio Bernardi’s new study shows that this is not necessarily true for everyone. It turns out that the importance of a child’s age relative to his or her classmates’ depends on the family’s socioeconomic status.

Using data on elementary school children in France, where about 20 percent of students have to repeat a grade in primary school, Bernardi investigates who is getting held back. By looking at how likely children born in different months are to be successfully promoted every year in primary school, he determines that indeed, the older students have the upper hand. However, when Bernardi compares the patterns for children of different social classes, there are stark differences among the groups. For the children of university- educated parents, there is almost no difference between being older or younger at the start of school. For the children of less educated parents, however, relative age matters significantly.

Bernardi hypothesizes that upper class children who experience an early disadvantage are more likely to catch up because they benefit from compensatory advantages. One such advantage may be in the way upper-class parents react to their children’s setbacks. For example, upper class parents might invest more resources to help a son who fails, whereas, in contrast, lower-class parents might respond by redirecting their scarce resources to his siblings, resulting in a smaller investment in him.

Looking at the big picture, this means that compensatory advantage contributes to vast educational inequalities among children from different social classes. Understanding how it operates may be a step in a journey of a million miles, but it is a step in the right direction.

Karin V. Rhodes, Genevieve M. Kenney, Ari B. Friedman, Brendan Saloner, Charlotte C. Lawson, David Chearo, Douglas Wissoker, and Daniel Polsky, “Primary Care Access for New Patients on the Eve of Health Care Reform,” JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014

A good doctor is hard to find—and for those with Medicaid or without health insurance at all, finding a new primary care doctor is almost impossible. According to an audit study headed by physician Karin Rhodes, the difference in access to primary care is even more extreme than we might expect. New patients with Medicaid were far less likely to obtain a doctor’s appointment than their privately insured peers, and uninsured patients had it hardest of all: only 15.4% could obtain an appointment without paying more than $75 at the time of service.

One reason this disparity has gone undetected until now is that physicians overestimate how many Medicaid patients they treat by up to 40%. In order to get a true read, Rhodes uses an audit study, which is perhaps the most powerful tool social scientists can use to measure discrimination. In Rhodes’ simulated patient study, a team of 10 field staff members was selected for diversity in race and age based on the sound of their voices in a phone audition. After being trained to pose as new patients, they made 11,347 calls to doctors’ offices in 10 states to assess “business as usual”. On each attempt to make an appointment with a primary care physician, a caller was prompted to adopt the persona of a patient with one of three insurance types: private, Medicaid, or no insurance. In this way, two otherwise identical “patients” were presented in the real-world situation of making an appointment, and the only characteristic that varied was their insurance type, which was experimentally manipulated by the researcher. As a result, using the audit method allowed Rhodes’ team to test exactly how much of the difference in outcomes was due solely to insurance type.

Overall, 87.4% of privately insured callers were able to schedule an appointment, compared to 57.9% of Medicaid callers. Among uninsured patients, 78.8% were able to see the doctor, but only if they could pay a fee of $75 or more in full at the time of service. The median out-of-pocket cost for a primary care visit was $120, and fewer than one-fifth of practices allowed flexible payment arrangements.

Rhodes’ study assessed the capacity of the primary care system before the Affordable Care Act’s 2014 coverage expansion. The ACA is projected to cover 25 million formerly uninsured Americans. Because access to primary care is considered vital to improving population health outcomes, system that is already strained may make the ACA’s goals harder to achieve. This means that the system of providers accepting Medicaid needs to be strengthened before coverage increases will translate into gains in access to primary care.

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everything depends on upbringing.” Parents who agree have devised limitless strategies for optimal child-rearing. To test one strategy, sociologists Susan Dumais, Richard Kessinger, and and Bonny Ghosh investigated whether parents’ involvement at school could provide an advantage on children’s teacher evaluations. They found that it did improve the kids’ scores for language and literacy, approach to learning, and interpersonal skills—but only in all three categories if children also came from white, college-educated families.

This research builds on Annette Lareau’s finding that families’ approaches to parenting differ depending on their economic and educational resources. In contrast to working-class parents, both black and white middle-class parents, she found, tend to parent with “concerted cultivation.” These parents create a highly organized schedule of structured activities for their children, are active in their schools, and train them to interact confidently with adults. Lareau suggests that middle-class children might be able to obtain a more customized education and be viewed as more socially competent by their teachers because of the resulting ability to negotiate.

While exploring how this advantage might work, Dumais, Kessinger, and Ghosh determine that certain parenting practices are more beneficial for children in particular racial or socioeconomic groups. For instance, parental volunteering only benefits all three of the teacher evaluations for white children from college-educated families. On the flip side, white children of high-school educated families receive poorer evaluations if their parents attend conferences, as do African American children of college-educated families when their parents request a specific teacher. The authors interpret these findings as sound rationale for Tolstoy’s lament: “I often think how unfairly life’s good fortune is sometimes distributed. ” Undeniably, each family’s unique racial and educational background still triggers barriers in the educational system.