This week the Council on Contemporary Families released a brief by Sarah Damaske: in it she reports that work lowers people’s stress levels (as measured by the stress hormone cortisol) while at home it is higher. She called for consideration of new work/life balance policies, such as ROWE–results-only work environment. In connection with that I present to you a profile of a Gender & Society study on that topic. I first posted this column in 2010.

Here’s how it works: if you call it a “diversity initiative” or a “work family intervention” or stuff like that there’s the chance that you will see resistance to the project of, well, promoting diversity, or creating a family-friendly work place. On campuses, all the earnest and the marginalized check it out and everyone else goes, “what? Oh, I don’t think I got that email.”

You already know this intuitively, but a study in the current issue of Gender & Society (abstract only) tells the story of a workplace initiative that starts with the notion that framing matters.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota hung out at Best Buy corporate headquarters while Best Buy instituted a program that is not called “let’s try to reduce the sexism in our every day practices at work” — instead it is called “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) : On the ROWE website they explain their project like this:

“Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results – increasing the organization’s performance while cultivating the right environment for people to manage all the demands in their lives…including work.”

The program was created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler , and it has gotten positive recognition in BusinessWeek (twice!) and you can also hear about it on a recent NPR segment. It basically involves a flexible workplace.

The UM researchers (including Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen at the Flexible Work and Well Being Center) explain in their article how the focus on results reduced resistance. “ROWE was not presented as a work-family initiative or a gender equity initiative; rather it was strategically framed as a smart business move… [the founders] felt that a gender or work-family framing would lead to the initiative’s marginalization.”

You see, ROWE is about achieving excellence. This isn’t (merely) Foucauldian. This is what any diversity project of any sort is all about, right? ROWE–which has has been adopted by other companies, too–reports a 35 percent reduction in waste and a 90 percent reduction in voluntary worker turnover.

But here’s the other part of the story: The program didn’t reduce resistance completely–especially among men managers. But it created a different kind of conversation because the analysis wasn’t explicitly about gender or diversity or accommodating people with exceptional needs. It was about an alternative approach to  work that relied less on conventions of time use and more on outcomes. The resistance heard by the researchers was to the ways that the program was challenging what’s called the ideal worker norm.

What is the ideal worker norm? Well, you know what it is, it is the way you were brought up to work. You’re there or feel you should be there as much as possible (long hours). You are busy all the time, doing doing doing (look busy!). You are ready to drop everything when someone says there’s a panic (excel at “fire drills”). Thing is, this way of working is (1) not necessary for success and (2) damaging to people’s ability to balance work and other aspects of their lives. Joan Williams writes about the ideal worker norm wonderfully in Unbending Gender (2001). She shows us just how gendered this approach is, as it builds on an outdated model of family life.

By saying (as ROWE does), oh this norm of how we work (excessive hours, fire drills, et c) is a “choice” it says we can make other choices. This means that we can de-naturalize the sneaky connection of men as superior workers (especially men who can hide or evade their other personal responsibilities). And we start to allow men as well as women to make contributions and be achievers in all the domains of their lives.

Heather Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, discusses French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book on global economic inequality and spells out its relevance for feminists.

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to read the advance copy of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the 21st Century. We’ve all heard a lot about the book since then—I’ve counted 700 pages of reviews (including my own). We’ve heard about how Piketty argues that unless the rate of return (aka “r”)  on capital is brought down, below or at least closer to the rate of growth (aka “g”), inequality will continue to rise. Economists have been debating his ideas ever since. But, one thing haunting me throughout the book was a question about what his findings meant for women and, so, inspired by Piketty, I picked up my Jane Austen anthology.

When I started rereading Pride and Prejudice, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I very quickly found myself immersed in the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, her sister Jane, and their quest for happiness. Any Austen reader knows that the heroine’s happiness depends on her finding an appropriate mate, and that appropriate is defined as a man with a sufficient stock of capital to provide her with a lifetime of income. For Austen’s heroines, there is always a tension between this economic reality and what her heart wants. She knows that a good income is not the only factor in her future happiness, but she also knows that there’s no happiness without it.

That is certainly the case for Elizabeth Bennet. When I was a young woman reading for the first time about how Miss Bennet comes around to loving Mr. Darcy, I was—as Austen intended—struck by how constraining her life was, and yet how eloquently Austen described her situation. Miss Bennet was smart, capable, and someone who I could imagine as my friend. But, the world she lived in was terrifying. She is constrained by the reality that her life will be defined by her choice of spouse. Feminists laud Jane Austen for elevating the interior lives of women and the economics of marriage markets in the 18th century and for making clear these enormous constraints on women’s choices.

Thomas Piketty points the reader to the novels of Austen and Henri Balzac in order to illustrate how in a period of high wealth inequality young people make choices about their lives based on marrying well, not pursuing professional goals. He uses the example of Rastignac, who has to decide whether or not to pursue the hand of an heiress or pursue a career as a lawyer in order to demonstrate the economic inefficiency of an economy where success depends on inheritance not on developing one’s own skills and productivity. This is what Piketty means when he says that the “past devours the future.”

Source: Thomas Piketty
Source: Thomas Piketty

Piketty’s prognosis for the economy is frightening. Using an enormous amount of data from around the world, Piketty has brought to the fore the empirical fact that income inequality calcifies into wealth inequality. We already have income inequality at the same level as it was at the dawn of the 20th century. Relative to a century ago, more of today’s high incomes are derived from wages than from capital. Piketty argues that, over time, however, the share of income from capital will rise as today’s high earners save a portion of their income and pass it on to the next generation, creating greater wealth inequality in the process. Women should take heed of this.

The 20th century saw enormous forward momentum towards equality for women and racial and ethnic minorities, as well as for children, the disabled, and other groups suffering discrimination. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin or their sex. The breaking down of barriers to education and participation in working life has benefited women (and their families) enormously. Mothers are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of U.S. families. This greater employment and economic participation has also benefitted the economy. For example, Stanford economist Peter Klenow and his colleagues found that up to a fifth of the total growth in the U.S. economy between 1960 and 2008 was due to the opening up of professions to women and minorities. In my own work with Eileen Appelbaum and John Schmitt, we found that women’s added hours of work since 1979 have added 11 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product.

This was possible because we lived in an economy where an individual can succeed and earn a living through developing skills and participating in the labor market. However, if economic success is again increasingly defined by inheritances, as it was in Austen’s day, those who had been excluded will continue to be so. Since wealth is typically associated with a family, not an individual, a family’s economic situation will be elevated over individual achievements. This will hardly be good for gender equality, or equality along any other axis.

As the Piketty mania took hold—it actually hit number one on in the first few weeks after its release–there was only one other woman, besides myself, that I knew of, Kathleen Geier, who published a review of the book. While scores of men debated r, g, and the substitution of labor for capital, women were strangely absent from the debate. I would like to encourage more women, and especially more feminists, to pick up Piketty’s tome and give it a read. It’s a good book and what you learn may be quite important for your and your children’s economic future.

photo credit:

Last week, the Council on Contemporary Families released the 6th annual Unconventional Wisdom with a focus on families and technology. Check out all the cool stuff here—27 briefs of underreported research findings on the topic.  A final word on diversity, technology, and changing lives comes from economists at the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), whose work warns us against overstating the impact of technology and reminds us of the importance of the ongoing gender revolution. John Schmitt, a senior economist, contributed the following to the volume.

From the 1970s until today, we have experienced a technological and digital revolution that has changed the way we live and work, with profound implications for the economy and social policy. But the gender revolution in the same period has been equally if not more significant in its economic repercussions.

In a recent study, economists Eileen Appelbaum (CEPR),Heather Boushey (Washington Center for Equitable Growth) and I used the Current Population Survey to document the steep rise in paid work by women and mothers since the late 1970s. Since 1979, the typical woman has increased her number of hours of paid work per year by 739 (to 1,664 in 2012). Over the same period, the annual hours of paid work by the typical mother increased by 960 (to 1,560 in 2012). By 2012, the majority of women (67.8%) — and an even higher percentage of mothers (72.0%) — between the ages of 16 and 64 were working, most working full time throughout the year.

These extra hours of paid work have made all the difference to families—and to the economy more generally. Middle-class households would have substantially lower earnings today if women’s employment patterns had remained unchanged. According to our calculations, gross domestic product (GDP) would have been roughly 11 percent lower in 2012 if women had not increased their working hours as they did. In today’s dollars, this translates to more than $1.7 trillion less in output—roughly equivalent to combined U.S. spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in 2012.

To put this revolution of women’s work in context, consider that the 11 percent increase in women’s contribution to the GDP is almost twice the 6 percent contribution to GDP of the information, communications and technology-producing industries combined in 2012.

Guest poster Janelle Jones, Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, gives Girlwpen an update on her most recent CEPR report. Janelle researches and writes on a variety of U.S. labor market topics, such as unemployment, job quality, and unions. (Bio here.) Last summer she wrote Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers? The project continues with this new study that asks what is the union advantage for black workers? At the end, Janelle puts the new study in context with her earlier one.

So far this year, we’ve had some pretty mixed union news. The workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted not to join the UAW but just this week the NLRB ruled in favor of Northwestern University football players’ ability to unionize. Even in the midst of inconsistent union success, John Schmitt and I find that unions still have a significant positive impact on black workers’ wages and benefits.

We’ve all heard that unions are dying. While that may be an exaggeration, even for black workers, the racial group with the highest levels of unionization, the share in a union has been falling continuously since the early 1980s. In 1983, more than one in four black workers (27.1 percent) was in a union, compared to only 13.6 percent in 2013. Over this entire period, black men have had higher unionization rates than black women, although that gap is closing.

In the face of this unionization decline for black workers, are unions still having an impact?  Well, yes. Even after controlling for systematic difference between the unionized and non-unionized workforce, unionization has a significant positive impact. For the years 2008-2013, the union wage premium is 15.6 percent for all black workers, 18.1 percent for black men and 13.1 percent for black women. That is, black workers in a union earn 15 percent more per hour than their non-unionized counterparts. Now, that’s a raise!

Next, we examine the union advantage for black workers by education and find the largest gains in wages and benefits for the less educated. Unionization raised the hourly wage for black workers with less than a four-year college degree by nearly 20 percent (19.3 percent for those with less than a high school degree, 19.4 percent for those with only a high school degree, and 17.7 percent for those with some college but short a four-year degree). The union wage premium for these workers is almost double the (still noticeable) 10.3 percent premium for black workers with a four-year degree.

Finally, we turn to the effect of unionization for black workers in traditionally low-wage occupations, including security guards, janitors, and food prep workers. While black workers accounted for just over 11 percent of total employment in our analysis period (2008-2013), they made up over 18 percent of all workers in the 15 low-wage occupations we analyzed. Similar to workers with less formal education, the union wage premium is nearly 20 percent larger for black workers in these occupations, compared to the 15.6 percent premium for black workers overall.

In the report, we also look at the effect of unionization on health insurance coverage and retirement plans for black workers. For each of the breakdowns listed above, gender, education level, and low-wage occupations, black workers in unions were much more likely to have these on-the-job benefits. For example, for black women, unionization increased the likelihood of employer (or union) provided health insurance by nearly one-third (31.1 percent) and a retirement plan by more than one-third (41.0 percent).

The promise of unions looks like an important consideration for black women. Black women—who face double-discrimination based on race and on gender–find themselves by most measures at the bottom of the pay and benefit scale. The most commonly offered solution is to increase educational attainment. But we’ve done that. Black women have already doubled graduation rates since1979, and the share of black women with less than a high school degree has fallen by more than 20 percent. Yet labor market difficulties persist. Our research shows that one thing that can complement increases in education in a concrete way would be increasing unionization, which offers black women higher pay and substantially better benefits to help overcome, at least in part, the double-discrimination.

FMLA21: did we get more than a foot in the door in two decades?

Over 20 years ago Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law two weeks after his inauguration in 1993. Remember the optimism? Under the FMLA a qualified employee can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or for pregnancy, newborn, newly adopted, or for care of a new foster child. In a good-news bad-news sense, one of the notable features of the FMLA was that it was gender-neutral: men and women equally had no funding for their job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks per year. Otherwise, this policy for helping families has been the weakest compared to other rich countries. At the time, the FMLA was the “foot in the door” for improving the situation of working families. A hint for how FMLA is doing today was offered by Girlwpen’s Susan Bailey earlier this week.

So…how’s that foot in the door now? Several recent studies offer new tools for analysis. In “Expanding Federal Family and Medical Leave Coverage,” economists Helene Jorgenson and Eileen Appelbaum investigated who benefits from FMLA using the 2012 FMLA Employee Survey conducted by the Department of Labor. About one in five qualified employees has used FMLA leave within the past 18 months, according to a new Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report. The authors found an extensive amount of unmet need for family and medical leave.

Several key limitations of the FMLA mean that, in practice, the law doesn’t apply to a large share of the workforce. The FMLA does not cover workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees. As a result, 44.1 percent of workers in the private sector (49.3 million workers) are excluded from protected leave for caring for their sick or vulnerable relations. The FMLA also excludes employees who have been at their current job for less than a year or have worked fewer than 1250 hours in the past year.

Not everyone with needy kin works in mid-to-large size firms nor has regular employment. So, those limits on access to FMLA do not affect everyone equally. Young workers and Hispanic workers had lower rates of eligibility than other groups. Education level was the strongest predictor of eligibility. People with less than a high school degree were 13.6 percentage points less likely than those with “some college” to have access to unpaid leave for family and medical concerns. Meanwhile, those with a college degree were 10.7 percentage points more likely than those with some college to have access to FMLA leave.

From CEPR’s “Expanding Federal Family and Medical Leave Coverage” (Feb 5, 2014) by Helene Jorgenson and Eileen Appelbaum.


Have there been improvements in the past two decades? Another recent study from CEPR and the Center for American Progress, “Job Protection isn’t Enough: Why America Needs Paid Parental Leave,” by Heather Boushey, Jane Farrell, and John Schmitt, points to no. Analysis of data from the Current Population Survey over the past 20 years revealed two key things: First, women take leave way more than men despite the gender neutrality of the policy. Men have increased from a very low rate, but the ratio in the last five years studied is about nine to one. In addition, over the past two decades there has been essentially no change in women’s rates of leave-taking.

Also, per Boushey and colleagues, guess who is most likely to benefit from leave? Women with college degrees and those in full-time jobs. Commenting on their statistical analysis, the authors state, “Better-educated, full-time, union women are more likely than their otherwise identical counterparts to take parental leave” (p. 12). Not everyone can be in a job that qualifies them for FMLA leave; however once qualified, not everyone has the financial security to use that leave.

These authors—like Jorgenson and Appelbaum—applaud the FMLA and the opportunities it has provided to qualified workers—but their data show that the 1993 Act did not generate a cascade of family-progressive policies for men, women, and families. But one can hope. Jorgenson and Appelbaum demonstrate that a policy that reduced the firm size from 50 to 30 and reduced the hours worked in the past year from 1250 to 750, an additional 8.3 million private sector workers would be eligible for family leave under FMLA.

There are some pretty great examples of places in the United States where better family leave policies have been put in place and have worked well. California passed a paid family leave act in 2002, and after twelve years, the program has been highly successful. Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman reported in 2011 about the social, family, and economic benefits of the program. Washington State passed similar legislation in 2007 but it has been help up since then. New Jersey did so in 2008, and Rhode Island’s law was implemented in January 2014. Another review of the California paid leave program demonstrates the growth in uptake since its initiation, but reports that uptake continues to be low because while the leave is paid one’s job is not protected.

We just celebrated 50 years of the Civil Rights Act. Last year we celebrated 50 years since the Equal Pay Act. Retrospectives on such landmark legislation includes successes as well as persisting shortfalls. We are at 21 and counting with FMLA. These studies remind us that with FMLA we need to do more to have more success than shortfalls.

There is a lot to learn from hooking up—including when you talk to people who don’t do it in any kind of stereotypical way. Some of the clichés that seem to get replayed are that “everyone” at college is doing it (70 percent of college seniors have some experience of hookups). And by “doing it” the perception is doing “it” – even though 40 percent of students who hook up reported doing so in their most recent hook up. Another stereotype is that the hookup scene is typically centered around (straight) men’s desires, even if girls-kissing-girls is part of the action sometimes. Two new hooking up studies take on these views of hooking up.

Is it everyone? What about commuters? University of Illinois-Chicago sociologists Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman reported this week on their study (“‘It Goes Hand in Hand with the Parties’: Race, Class, and Residence in College Student Negotiations of Hooking Up,” forthcoming in Sociological Perspectives). They analyzed 87 in-depth interviews with commuter and residential undergraduates at UIC: turns out commuter students do not typically participate in the hook up culture—but they still believe it is a key feature of authentic college experience.

But is hooking up the “real” college experience? According to Allison and Risman: “Students from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds told us the ‘real’ college experience involves parties and hooking up, but white middle-class students believed they actually live the ‘real’ college experience.” One student (a Middle-Eastern woman) in the study explained about hooking up: “It goes hand in hand with the parties.”

Commuters and minority students talked wistfully about missing what they believe is the “real” college experience–often based on what they see in movies or television of campus life. The researchers explained, “They feel they are getting a second rate experience. It’s not that the commuting students don’t tell us they sometimes have casual sex—they do. But they do not participate in the hooking up culture that most students see as part of college life.”

And girls kissing girls? Is it always about the guys? A study in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society, reports that for some women the super-straight environment of college hookups is also a setting “to explore and later verify bisexual, lesbian, or queer sexual identities.” Turns out public kissing and threesomes play an important role. Not all of that sex play is about performing for men’s pleasure, and surveys show significant sexual fluidity.

In the Gender & Society study, “Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet?” Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor (University of California-Santa Barbara), Shiri Regev-Messalem (Bar Ilan University, Israel), Alison Fogarty (Stanford University), and Paula England (New York University) used the Online College and Social Life Survey (OCSLS) of over 24,000 college students from 21 four-year colleges and universities that was designed to study how college students approach hooking up, dating, and relationships. To this large data set, the researchers added 55 in-depth interviews with women students at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, who had had some romantic or sexual experience with other women, to learn more about same-sex activity occurring in hookup settings that are mainly understood to be heterosexual.

Study co-author Paula England—who developed the OCSLS study—explained, “‘Hooking up’ was defined in our survey as ‘whatever definition of a hookup you and your friends use,’ but we know from talking to students that what they usually mean by a hookup is some sexual activity—ranging from kissing to intercourse—outside of a committed relationship.”

Hooking up, women with women, and a puzzle. The investigators reported that of the 14,128 women surveyed in the OCSLS, 94 percent identify as heterosexual. Though identifying as “straight,” these women’s behavior did not always line up with that—instead, women had more sexual fluidity. For example, forty percent of women who called themselves lesbians had had oral sex or intercourse with men; two percent of women who identify as straight report having had oral sex with a woman; compared to straight women, more women who indicated they were not sure about their sexual identities had same-sex sexual experience: 15 percent have given and 18 percent have received oral sex from a woman.

To examine sexual fluidity suggested by these women’s reports, the investigators conducted in-depth interviews. They interviewed women who identified as queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or some other non-heterosexual identity in order to learn more about how encounters in the hookup scene played a role in developing their current sexual identities. They learned that, since women making out with other women and threesomes between two women and a man are acceptable as a turn-on for men, this allowed women to expand and explore their sexual identities.

As study coauthor Verta Taylor points out, “Some students are embracing fluid identities and calling themselves ‘queer,’ ‘pansexual,’ ‘fluid,’ ‘bi-curious’ or simply refusing any kind of label. The old label bisexual no longer fits because even that term implies that there are only two options: lesbian/gay or straight.”

Women kissing women. In tune with the Katy Perry song, “I Kissed a Girl”, the interviews revealed that for some women, public kissing—typically seen as for the enjoyment of men onlookers—is a key opportunity for exploring same-sex attractions.

Often alcohol played a role in women’s opportunities to explore same-sex attraction, just as it plays a significant role in hookups in general. While some women who make out with other women in public had a previous same-sex attraction, others told interviewers about experimenting when they had had no previous sexual attraction to women. In sum, the authors note that “Kissing can result from or lead to emotional connections with women. It doesn’t always—but sometimes it leads to more exploration.” The interviews confirmed that public same-sex kissing in the hook up scene is one pathway into same-sex desire and behavior.

Threesomes. About 20 percent of women interviewed for this study reported participating in threesomes. “Threesomes allow same-sex pleasure without the stigma of non-heterosexual identity,” the authors explained. In some cases, women said that threesomes were a way to reduce their anxiety about approaching women on their own. One woman noted, “It’s not clear how you would initiate a relationship with a woman…I’m really inexperienced chasing women, rather more experienced at chasing men.” In other cases, women explained that threesomes were instigated by male partners, but that it led to women following up—solo—with the other woman in the encounter. The authors explain, “Although threesomes may begin with men’s desires, they introduce women to new sexual pleasures or allow them to act on same-sex or bisexual desires.”

Coauthor and historian Leila Rupp explains that this may not be so new: She points to intimate sexual relationships between co-wives in polygynous households in China and the Middle East, romantic friends in heterosexual marriages in the Euro-American world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and “girlfriends” in avant-garde cultural environments such as Greenwich Village and Weimar Berlin in the 1920s. “Bisexual behavior between women has flourished in a variety of societies where women’s same-sex desires and sexual behavior did not pose a threat to the gender order,” explains Rupp. Whether in these historical settings or in the setting of collegiate hookup culture, women’s same-sex sexuality can flourish in tight conjunction with heterosexuality. What is new in the 21st century setting, however, are the ways in which women can go on to have the opportunity to affirm new identities.

Note: This is based in part on releases I wrote for CCF and Gender & Society. See  “Not everyone is hooking up at college—Here’s why” (CCF) and “Can I watch? Sometimes women kissing women isn’t about you” (G&S) for more links and suggested references.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.” Over the next decade, Johnson and his successor, President Richard Nixon, initiated a series of government programs and policies for raising Americans’ living standards. Yet this month also marks over a quarter century since President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 announcement that the war on poverty was over, and that poverty had won. The next decade produced a retrenchment in federal anti-poverty programs culminating in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which shifted government priorities toward promoting married couple families as a solution to poverty. To mark the anniversaries of these very different approaches to the government’s role in poverty reduction, the Council on Contemporary Families circulated two briefing reports that put poverty reduction, poverty rates, and policy responses to poverty in perspective.

Reviewing anti-poverty efforts over the last 50 years in Was the war on poverty a failure? Or are anti-poverty efforts swimming simply against a stronger tide?, University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen examines the many early victories for the War on Poverty. Poverty fell significantly in the first decade of the program, with the most dramatic and long-lasting victory being the reduction of poverty among the elderly. Poverty rates of the elderly were more than halved in the first 15 years and have remained near record lows since then. By contrast, after falling throughout the 1960s and 1970s, poverty rates for children began to rise again in the 1980s, and are now near the high levels of the early 1960s when the War on Poverty began.

Cohen argues that these setbacks are the result of manufacturing sector and unionization declines that have been driving down wages for less-educated workers and increasing income inequality since the mid 1970s. These trends were reinforced by social policies that slashed funding to cities, cut back on investments in infrastructure, suppressed growth in the minimum wage, and reduced some important sources of assistance for low-income families. The outcome? Today the United States’ rate of child poverty (even after adjusting for frequently unmeasured government benefits) is 18 percent — much higher than any comparably rich country.

Many politicians blame the resurgence of poverty on the spread of unwed motherhood and conclude that promoting marriage among low-income individuals would do more to reduce poverty than government investments. But a companion piece to Cohen’s report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty?” by Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams, suggests that the reality is more complicated. Williams summarizes new research indicating that efforts to get impoverished single mothers to marry are unlikely to make much of a dent in poverty rates and may even have some harmful outcomes for mothers and children alike.

Stephanie Coontz, historian and CCF co-chair, heralds these reports as a useful corrective to two myths about poverty. “The first myth is that government can’t do anything about poverty. Cohen shows us where government programs have been uniquely effective in reducing poverty, even over the past three decades of poverty-producing economic trends, and where government could do much more, as many other governments are in fact doing.”

“The second myth,” Coontz contends, “is that getting more women married would solve poverty. But non-marriage is often an outcome of poverty as well as a contributor to it. And Williams shows that in some cases, marriage is actually risky for a woman who is already a single mother. Williams suggests alternative strategies that in combination with Cohen’s proposals may be more helpful in reducing poverty.”

Cohen’s report identifies specific government policies that could immediately decrease child poverty. Using analysis from the March 2013 Current Population Survey, Cohen shows how reducing payroll taxes on poor families would ease poverty by 1.6 percent. Reducing work-related expenses such as child care and transportation would decrease poverty by 2.6 percent. And eliminating out of pocket medical costs for poor families would cut poverty by 3.1 percent. The remainder of poverty reduction, according to Cohen, involves improving minimum wage and shifting jobs policies. He points us to the success of Great Britain, which has managed to almost halve child poverty over the past 13 years.

Williams identifies a government policy that does not work: marriage promotion. Williams’  briefing report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty?“, examines the conventional wisdom on single mothers and marriage promotion (get ’em married to solve poverty!), and demonstrates that promoting marriage has been an ineffective way of reducing poverty among single mothers and their children. She suggests that a more effective approach would be to focus on decreasing unintended or mistimed births through public education, increasing sexual and reproductive health resources, and providing early and comprehensive sexuality education.

Recent headlines such as “Men, Who Needs Them?” and “Why Fathers Really Matter” showcase a growing debate about the importance of including men in discussions of gender inequality. Two new studies from Gender & Society turn attention to areas in which men have long been ignored: at home, in the study of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, and at work, in the caregiving professions—particularly nursing. New research demonstrates under what conditions men’s contributions are slowly becoming more visible and what the benefits are (and can be).

Reproduction: Let’s start at the beginning…or before the beginning, before conception

In the Gender & Society study, “More and Less than Equal: How Men Factor in the Reproductive Equation,” Yale and Princeton University researchers uncovered widely varying views of men’s contributions to reproduction. Clinicians and scientists perceive men as incredibly important when it comes to conception; equally important to women when it comes to genetics; and incredibly unimportant when it comes to pregnancy.  Even now in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, basic information about how men’s own health status matters for reproductive outcomes, such as birth defects, is lacking.

About the study. Sociologists Rene Almeling (Yale) and Miranda Waggoner (Princeton) brought together their respective studies of professionals involved with sperm banks and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative (PHHCI). The sample includes data from Waggoner’s interviews with 57 experts involved with the CDC’s Initiative and from Almeling’s interviews with 18 people involved with sperm banks, including founders of sperm donation programs, clinicians, researchers, and staffers from four sperm banks. The investigators recognized that sperm banks are a unique site for pre-conception practices, complementing the PHHCI.

Men left out. The standard of care in preconception health is to ask “every woman, every visit” about her health and fertility intentions, but preconception researchers interviewed for this study believed it was not “feasible” to ask such questions of men. Despite giving lip service to the idea that “men are equally important” in reproduction, Almeling and Waggoner’s interviewees admitted that men’s contributions are “sometimes left out of the discussion.”

In a comprehensive analysis of research on preconception care, the study reported that a majority of journal articles did not discuss men at all or mentioned them only briefly. A striking example was in the introduction to an issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology (AJOG) on preconception health. In it, the AJOG authors discussed 84 different risk factors and components of preconception care. Rather than including men in categories such as alcohol or illicit drug use, they were segregated. This means that everything pertaining to men was addressed in a single catch-all category at the end labeled “men,” report Almeling and Waggoner.

Why does it matter? Almeling and Waggoner explain that medical knowledge about reproduction matters, not only for men and their children, but also for how we as a society think about reproductive responsibility. An important step is making sure that men’s contributions to reproduction—not only to conception but to successful, healthy pregnancies–are observed, tested, investigated and discussed.

Calling on the Affordable Care Act. The authors note that paying attention to how reproductive equations influence policy can suggest new and different avenues for improving public health.  Specifically, they point to the Affordable Care Act, which stipulates that women with private insurance are no longer required to pay a co-payment for a preconception health appointment.  “Excluding men from such coverage continues to obscure their role in reproduction,” argue Almeling and Waggoner.

Invisibility Continued: New Research on Nursing

One way of improving public health and men’s involvement in healthy families would be to recruit more men into nursing, so that men’s experiences, concerns, and values are more visible among the front line providers of family care. Yet only seven percent of the nurses in the United States are men, as discussed in a new study, just released online at Gender & Society.

In her Gender & Society article, “Recruiting Men, Constructing Manhood: How Health Care Organizations Mobilize Masculinities as Nursing Recruitment Strategy,”  Marci Cottingham, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Department of Social Medicine, discusses ways that health care organizations attempt to overcome the disconnect between “caring” – defined as the feminine sphere of nurses — and “curing” – defined as the masculine sphere of doctors.

Cottingham’s unique study examined the recruitment messages of healthcare organizations, including the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN). She conducted a systematic, in-depth analysis of 32 videos, brochures, and posters, as well as 286 pages of text from campaign reports, nursing webpages, and newsletters. A total of 124 men were featured in these materials. These materials included a YouTube channel dedicated to recruiting men into nursing. (Check it out to see individual men nurses discussing their perspectives on joining the profession.)

Cottingham finds that many campaigns attempt to redefine nursing in traditionally manly terms – such as an occupation that involves risk-taking, courage, and adventure. This YouTube video, promoting travel nursing, opens with men nurses engaging in extreme snowboarding and driving all-terrain vehicles as part of what travel nursing can look like.

A minority of recruitment efforts, by contrast, center on redefining manhood to encompass caring—this video highlights men’s stories of helping vulnerable people. “Encouraging men to engage in more caregiving—at work and at home—may decrease the burden of carework that typically falls on women and may increase equality between men and women,” reflects sociologist Cottingham.


Janelle Jones / CEPR
Janelle Jones / CEPR

Janelle Jones, Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, gives Girlwpen an update on her most recent CEPR report. Janelle Jones researches and writes on a variety of U.S. labor market topics, such as unemployment, job quality, and unions. (Bio here.) Jones’ bottom line: Our better-educated, older and more experienced black workforce still has seen a fall in the share of good jobs over the last 30 years.

In a recent report, John Schmitt and I demonstrated that despite large increases over the last three decades in educational attainment, black workers are less likely to be in a “good job” than they were three decades ago. We define a good job as one with good pay, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Even with our limited definition of a good job, this disheartening pattern holds true for both black men and black women.

Between 1979 and 2011, the share of black men with a high school degree or less fell almost by half (from 72.6 percent to 43.4 percent), and the share with a college degree nearly tripled (from 8.1 percent to 23.4 percent). Despite this massive improvement at both ends of the education spectrum, black men overall and at every education level – less than high school, high school, some college but short of a four-year degree, and at least a four-year degree – are less likely to be in a good job today than three decades ago.

Over this same time period, black women have made even more educational progress. Between 1979 and 2011, the share of black women with no more than a high school degree fell from about two-thirds (66.7 percent) to about one third (34.9 percent), and the share with at least a four-year degree more than doubled (from 12.9 percent to 28.5 percent). As a result, in 2011, a higher share of black women had a college degree than black men. However, similar to black men, black women were less likely to be a good job in 2011 than in 1979 at every education level.

Although there were large improvements in educational attainment for black women and black men, only black women experienced increases in good jobs. Because the trend lines for black women and black men have moved in opposite directions, the gender gap shrank steadily since 1979. The good news is that black women have continued to improve their standing in the labor market. However, in every year since 1979, and at every education level, black women remained less likely to be in a good job than black men.

These substantial gains in education tell us that a lack of “human capital” does not appear to be causing the difficulties black workers face in the labor market. Instead, one cause of these difficulties is the deterioration in the bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers, which includes a disproportionate amount of black workers. Decades of long-term economic trends – like a fall in the value of the minimum wage, decreased unionization, and the privatization of local and state functions – have taken away the bargaining power of workers, and had a disproportionate effect on blacks workers. Another factor in the lack of payoff for black workers is ongoing labor-market discrimination. In particular, black women must overcome a nasty form of double discrimination, which includes the need for pay equity, affordable childcare, and protection from sexual harassment at work on top of unfair practices based on race.

Black workers have made significant and often overlooked investments in education in the last three decades. The lack of growth in good jobs answers the main question of the report, has education paid off for black workers as a group? Short Answer: It has not.

Want to hear more? See Janelle’s interview at BloombergTV.

Pallavi Banerjee at Vanderbilt University

If you haven’t already seen this column originally posted at MsMagazine Blog by Pallavi Banerjee read it below. Pallavi is a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Sociology Department.

Do most of us still live in a 1950 nuclear family where dad goes off to work and mom stays home to take care of the family? Not in real life. But that lifestyle is enshrined in the United States’ dependent visa policies. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Leave it to Beaver way of life is the only way skilled workers’ migrant families ought to live.

It all begins with one simple fact. There is a shortage of high-tech workers in the United States. We don’t produce enough computer engineers, analysts, programmers, engineers, and doctors, to meet the country’s needs. The United States tries to solve this problem by allowing U.S. businesses to hire high-tech workers from other countries by granting H1-B non-immigrant visas to individuals from other countries seeking temporary work in  “specialty occupations.”

These visas allow a U.S. company to employ a foreign individual for up to six years with the possibility of permanent residency. To further entice migrant high-skilled workers to leave their homeland and come to the U.S., they offer H4 dependent visas to their spouses and children. In 2010, from India alone, 138,431 high-skilled Indian immigrants and the 55,335 Indian immigrants on H-4 dependent visas.

But the “dependent visa” puts many restrictions on the spouses, usually women, of the skilled workers who have an H1-B visa. The dependent visa holder is not allowed to work for pay until the lead migrant has gained permanent residency in the U.S., a process that can take six years or more. In some states, the dependent visa holders are not even allowed to drive.

When I studied families with an H1-B/H-4 dichotomy I found that most adult recipients of the H-4 dependent visas are highly qualified women. They experienced a loss of dignity and self-deprecation. Some women told me they felt they were thrown back into a model of the “traditional family” where women are not valued at all outside of the home. They talked about being rendered invisible, feeling lost, and for some, suicidal.

One of my study informants described her H-4 visa as a “vegetable visa meant to make you vegetate.” Others called it a “prison” or “bondage” visa. Another woman told me “You lose your individuality and in time all your confidence – and one day suddenly you realize you are just reduced to being a visa number in your head. It is scary – it’s like losing your head.”

Gaining permanent residency in the U.S., which would allow spousal employment, could take many years for H1-B workers. This means these women will be legally unable to work for years on end. Some of the women I spoke to simply could not handle their situation and decided to return to India. One high-tech worker who recently went through divorce told me, “we had absolutely no problem as a couple, it’s this visa situation…she was unhappy and depressed and it was not going to get better. We had to take the very hard and cruel way out – the many pains of being a foreign worker.”

As the U.S. debates Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and considers increasing the number of “high skilled foreign workers”, lawmakers should reconsider the constraints on spouses embedded within dependent visas.

Immigration policies designed to bring high-skilled workers and their dependents to the U.S. fill a need in the high-tech industry, but they fall short in building gender equal, stable, happy, and viable families. The 1950s are long gone. It is time to let wives work. Why force migrant families to live in the past?