Photo of traffic jam, by ianholton,Flickr CC

We know that underrepresentation in media contributes to ideas that women are less competent and less likely to be experts. But can overrepresentation also perpetuate gender stereotypes? And do gender stereotypes spread differently through social media than traditional media? In a recent study, Muyang Li and Zhifan Luo analyzed social media and newspaper reports of traffic accidents in China to examine whether media overrepresentation drives the idea that women are worse drivers than men. 

The study collected 97,120 posts from Weibo, China’s largest social media site, and 11,290 newspaper articles from January 2010 to November 2018. Using computer-assisted text analysis, the authors identified articles’ topics and gender mentions. 

Graph showing the gender ratio of registered drivers, traffic accident, and media coverage.
Gender ratio of registered drivers, traffic accident, and media coverage (Li and Luo 2020).

Although women are underrepresented in actual traffic accidents — they are 30% of registered drivers in China and the drivers in only 10% of traffic accidents — both newspaper and social media posts were more likely to identify a driver as female. Seventy-nine percent of newspaper articles that mentioned a driver’s gender identified female drivers, while 94% of Weibo posts did the same. 

Gender stereotypes were overall less explicit in newspaper articles. Although newspapers were more likely to include the gender of the driver if they were female, the newspapers rarely blamed specific accidents on inherent bad driving. Weibo posts, on the other hand, often included direct discussions of the stereotype that women are worse drivers. Weibo posts mentioning female drivers were also more likely to be reposted than those mentioning male drivers, and police department Weibo accounts were the most likely to mention female drivers. 

The researchers dug deeper on a selection of Weibo posts that discussed sexism. Through a qualitative analysis they found that these Weibo posts included a mix of sexist and feminist arguments. Some of these posts argued that women were worse drivers or reiterated gender stereotypes about female drivers, but a substantial number used Weibo to call out sexism and argue that women are no worse at driving than men. In some ways, social media is still a toxic cesspool, but it’s also a place where people can talk back.

Picture of a color-coded credit score scale
Photo by CafeCredit.com, Flickr CC

It seems that algorithms are shaping more and more of our world. However, algorithms — rule or process-based calculations most often done by computers — have been an important part of society for centuries. In her new research, Barbara Kiviat explores how policymakers respond to one not-so-new use of algorithms and the predictions they can produce: how insurance companies use credit scores to set prices.  

Kiviat examines thousands of pages of documents and 28 hours of testimony from state, congressional, and professional debates and investigations around insurance companies’ use of credit scores. Credit scores are the output of algorithms that rely on huge amounts of consumer financial information. Insurance companies use these scores to set prices based on predictions of how often a customer will make insurance claims, so customers with lower credit scores have higher prices. In the insurance industry there is widespread agreement that this practice is justified because of “actuarial fairness.” In other words, the data is fair to use to set prices because credit scores do actually predict how often someone will use their insurance.

However, policymakers do not agree with the insurance industry’s argument of credit scores as “actuarially fair.” Instead, policymakers draw on ideas of “moral deservingness.” They try to understand whether or not people were responsible for bad or good behaviors that corresponded to their current credit score and insurance cost. Policymakers objected to the use of credit scores when they did not reflect policymakers’ understandings of what counted as good or bad behavior. For instance, policymakers sought to include sections for “extraordinary life circumstances” in insurance regulation that would not penalize consumers for poor credit scores resulting from, for example, the death of a spouse or child.

This research shows that policymakers do not object to predictive practices because they are mysterious or confusing. Rather, they object when algorithmic results disagree with existing assumptions of what is good or bad behavior. Kiviat’s findings are important to consider as algorithms and the predictions they create are used in more of our social and economic life, such as for identifying students at “high-risk” of poor academic outcomes, informing policing by “predicting” crime, or showing job ads to some individuals and not others.

Resistance to algorithms based on fairness can only go so far. Who will be protected from the use of algorithms if we think they are unfair only for “good” people?

Photo of three women: one young woman is sitting at a desk, an older woman with white hair is bent over the desk writing, and the other woman is standing watching them.
Photo by COD Newsroom, Flickr CC

Rural youth trail their non-rural counterparts in college enrollment, further exacerbating spatial inequality in the United States. These rural students often are children of parents who did not attend college and know little about the college application process. A recent study, though, reframes these parents as college assets who support college because of their lack of education and financial struggles, not in spite of them. Said one struggling mother of her son’s college hopes: “I think he saw what a lack of education does for you.”

Mara Casey Tieken interviewed nine rural, first-generation students accepted into a New England private liberal arts college, which accepts less than 20 percent of its applicants. Tieken also interviewed their parents. Both interviews took place during the summer before the children’s first year of college. Tieken’s writing is clear and is a good example of how a small sample can tell an important story. 

Tieken found that rural parents supported a liberal arts education as a path toward a promising career. They accepted that they had a limited role in the application and decision-making process, in part because a liberal arts curriculum was a new concept to many of them. This limited role made their children more reliant on institution officials, such as counselors. The parents also valued factors that helped diminish concerns of their children leaving home, including financial aid, location, and school culture. In addition to reframing the narrative on rural students, this research recognizes that colleges need to ensure adequate administrative and cultural support for their first-generation, rural students.

@realDonaldTrump: “The Mexican legal system is corrupt, as is much of Mexico. Pay me the money that is owed me now—and stop sending criminals over our border” (February 24, 2015, Twitter)

We know that social media has huge impacts on politics, but did you know that it can also drive international economic trends and investment practices? This is one of the major findings in new research by Allyson Benton and Andrew Philips. The authors demonstrate how social media allows investors to gather both policy information and policy resolve of future governments; this is particularly salient in times when there are political newcomers and their policy positions are unknown. More specifically, the authors show how social media affects currency volatility.

The authors analyzed over 400 of President Trump’s Mexico-related policy tweets from January 1, 2015 to February 2, 2018, comparing the tweets with the volatility of the U.S. Dollar – Mexican Peso exchange rate. Using qualitative software, they analyze the relationship of these tweets to the volatility of the exchange rate. They find that Trump’s Mexico-related tweets, especially those of stronger sentiment, negatively impacted the exchange rate before and after his Mexico-related policy views were known.

Social media is one way potential future leaders can divulge future policy directions, and information gleaned from social media affects both investors and financial markets. This is important because the USD-MXN exchange rate has the ability to harm companies’ profits and valuations during foreign transactions.  Social media usage by highly visible public actors thus has social, cultural, and economic implications.

As presidential elections approach, citizens and investors alike try to anticipate the future policy directions of their government. This new research shows that social media allows not just voters, but also financial investors to gather information on future politicians’ policy inclinations and dedication to their policy goals which can impact international commerce and markets.

Photo shows a protester holding a sign that reads, "welcome asylum seekers and refugees," over top of a red heart.
Photo by John Englart, Flickr CC

Refugees seek to start a new life in an unfamiliar place because of persecution, war, or violence. On arrival, they face challenges as they learn to live in a new society. New research shows how social ties affect refugees’ quality of life as they navigate these challenges. Specifically, it highlights the importance of what sociologists call strong and weak ties, and how the types of relationships matter greatly.

R. Neil Greene used quantitative and qualitative data from the Refugee Well-Being Project, a 5-year community-based study of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Great Lakes region of Africa who had recently resettled in the United States. Refugees answered questions about their mental and emotional well-being, as well as their support networks. 

Strong family ties were associated with a higher quality of life for refugees. These ties were especially important for emotional support and comfort. In addition to strong family ties, refugees reported relying on weaker ties for their more practical needs, like finding work and navigating new systems. 

Refugees who settled in the United States long ago played an especially important role as “cultural brokers” because they were able to provide both emotional or psychological support, as well as help new refugees with more practical tasks, like how to find a job or get a driver’s license. In other words, settled refugees represented the best of both strong and weak ties.

For more data on refugee resettlement in the United States, check out the Migration Policy Institute or read the Pew Research Center’s “Key Facts about Refugees Coming to the U.S.

Photo shows college basketball players sitting on a bench while a coach crouches next to them. The players are wearing white jerseys with blue letter that says Toreros.
Photo by SD Dirk, Flickr CC

Over 50% of men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball players are black, but over 75% of coaches at that level are white. In new research, Ryan Seebruck and Scott Savage examine who is likely to fill vacant coaching positions as a way to better understand the continued racial inequities in D1 basketball. 

The authors looked up biographical information for every NCAA Division I basketball assistant coach who had the opportunity to get an internal head coaching hire from 2008-2013 (over 700 assistant coaches at 239 schools that had head coach openings). They then tested what variables affect the likelihood of a coach receiving an internal promotion, including whether their race matched the race of the outgoing head coach. 

White assistant coaches under white head coaches are the most likely to benefit from an internal hire, so basic social reproduction is part of the story. But there is an important organizational dimension here, as well. It involves the racial composition of the coaching staff as a whole. Schools were more likely to promote an assistant coach to the head spot if the racial composition of the staff matched the race of the previous head coach. In other words, if the outgoing coach was white, the likelihood of promoting one of the assistant coaches was highest when all of the assistant coaches were white. As the number of Black assistants increased, schools were more likely to pass over all of the assistant coaches and hire an outside coach. For Black head coaches the situation was symmetrical — the likelihood of internal promotion increased as the number of black assistant coaches increased. 

AC = assistant coach (Seebruck and Savage 2019)

This research adds to our understanding of how racial matching and organizational structure can maintain inequality, and how and when change can occur. Individual black coaches may be hired to assist with recruiting and player development in the college ranks, but their path to the top job at predominantly white institutions will be difficult. As protests and legislation across the country bring more attention to racial inequities in college athletics, this research suggests that coaching may be the next area of contention.

Arlington Courthouse displays a U.S. Flag after 9/11. Photo by Pedro Vera, Flickr CC.

National crises can have long lasting impacts beyond the day or year they occur. For example, in the wake of September 11th, American nationalism increased. However, the unity Americans displayed was an exclusive form of nationalism that pitted many U.S. citizens against non-citizens. A recent study found that following the 9/11 national crisis, non-citizens in the United States faced a greater likelihood of imprisonment than citizens. In fact, by 2010 nearly 48 percent of the federal docket was comprised of cases against non-U.S. citizens. 

Michael Light, Ellen Dinsmore and Michael Massoglia examined a database of federal criminal felony offenses that includes case type, defendant characteristics, court location, and judge-specific data. They find non-U.S. citizens living in New York and Washington D.C were eight percent more likely to be imprisoned than U.S. citizens after 9/11. The increased likelihood of incarceration for non-citizens in New York and D.C. was evident for a full four years after September 11, 2001.

The authors suggest that the reason for this disparity in criminal punishment is not due to changes in federal policies, but instead due to judges being less sympathetic to defendants without American citizenship during times of national emergencies. In other words, the federal criminal justice system is not unbiased: Legal actors like judges can be affected by national fear during times of crisis.

This research raises important questions about the functioning of democratic institutions in the wake of national emergencies. The findings show legal patterns of inequality that target non-U.S. citizens — raising the question of whether the American penal system has become a component of immigration enforcement.

Photo of two steaks on a grill with an open flame.
Photo by Gabriel Saldana, Flickr CC

Originally published April 17, 2019.

Men are less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian. And in the United States, where men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease — changing eating habits may be important for their health. To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted a study examining how gender identity influences eating habits.

Nakagawa and Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s likelihood of eating meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. For the men who received “average female” results, the authors expected them to feel like their masculinity was in question.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows that masculinity does matter for how men maintain their health. Importantly, it is not masculinity itself that is the problem here, but the high standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Photo by Pablo Varela, CC

Originally posted November 5, 2019.

The term ‘gaslighting’ earned its name by way of the 1944 film, Gaslight. In the film, an antagonist secretly brightens and dims his home’s lights, making his wife doubt her sanity and sense of reality. Despite the cinematic origins of its label, this form of abuse is experienced by many women. Though psychologists have extensively investigated the subject, little attention has been paid to the role that underlying social characteristics may play. In new research, Paige Sweet fills this void by revealing how social characteristics affect individual experiences of gaslighting within domestic abuse.

Through a series of life course interviews, Sweet finds that abusers mobilize gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and victims’ institutional settings in order to manipulate their victims’ sense of reality. Women of different racial and social backgrounds experience gaslighting in different forms; whereas an abuser might prey upon a black woman’s fear of becoming a stereotypical “baby mama,” another might threaten an undocumented Hispanic woman with deportation. Despite differences, abusers in Sweet’s study utilized “crazy-making” tactics for all women — drawing on stereotypes that men are rational, while women are irrational.

Sweet’s argument that “micro tactics of abuse are situated in macro conditions of inequality”  helps us to understand why gaslighting can be so effective at stripping down one’s sense of reality; by drawing attention to existing power structures and inequalities, abusers are able to gain a greater sense of legitimacy and tailor their tactics to a victim’s personal social experiences. It is crucial that we understand the forces that underlie gaslighting in order to more effectively recognize symptoms of abuse, and subsequently support the victims who experience it. 

Photo of a bronze cast of an intrauterine device (IUD). Photo by Sarah Mirk, Flickr CC

Originally posted February 5, 2019.

Throughout history, concerns about women’s sexual behavior and reproduction have often been tied to mental health. For example, in the Victorian era, doctors believed that women’s bodies were incapable of physical exertion and mental activity, and they diagnosed many women — typically white women– with “hysteria.” Hysteria was a catch-all term often used to police women’s sexuality and bodies, and was characterized as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1980. While diagnosing women with hysteria may seem like an outdated practice today, mental health professionals still exercise control over women’s sexuality and reproductive choices. A recent study finds that clinicians today use both coercive and non-coercive techniques in facilitating reproductive decisions for their clients — especially female clients — diagnosed with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and major depression.

Using interview data with 98 patients at two state hospitals and three community mental health centers, Brea Perry, Emma Frieh, and Eric Wright examine clients’ interactions with service providers and family members regarding their sexual behavior and contraceptive use. The authors find that mental health professionals use strategies ranging from full client participation (what the authors call “enabling”) to no input by the client (what the authors called “coercion”).  

Providers used coercive techniques more frequently with women than with men. In the most extreme cases, this took the form of unwanted and traumatic sterilization procedures. More frequently, providers and female clients’ family members did not include women in key decisions, provided misinformation, or did not gain consent for the birth control medications prescribed. For male clients, providers used education through classes or group therapy more frequently. While these sessions often framed sex as risky for male clients, this technique allowed men much more reproductive freedom than many women experienced. The researchers also found that providers used “enabling” strategies (those that included full client participation), like  providing condoms or sex starter kits, for both genders at similar rates.

These findings demonstrate that women’s mental health remains inextricably linked to concerns about women’s bodies and their sexual behavior. Gender norms and expectations, especially those regarding sexual behavior and reproduction, have enduring impacts on our understanding of mental illnesses, as well as the medical decisions made for or by people diagnosed with a mental illness. To avoid these patriarchal patterns in the the future, Perry and colleagues suggest providers focus more on sex positivity rather than risk avoidance for their clients.