It is hard to imagine that only several decades ago, many women in the United States did not work outside the home. If they did work, their income was a supplement to the household, not the primary share. In fact, in 1960, census reports found that mothers were the primary breadwinner in only 11% of households. A new Pew Research Center study shows us how much times have changed. Not only are women working and making more money than ever before in history, the Pew Center is now reporting that mothers bring in the primary income for 40% of U.S. households. This is a dramatic shift in the politics of gender, work, and family in a relatively short amount of time.

Yet, not all women benefit equally. It turns out that there are two types of breadwinning mothers: married women who out earn their husbands and single mothers who are the only source of income for the family. The married women constitute 37% of the breadwinning mothers. They are well educated, better paid, older, and disproportionately white. The single mothers constitute the majority of breadwinning mothers, or 67%.  They are less educated, poorer, younger, and usually women of color. more...




Big Data refers to the enormous amount of information now possessed by companies, that we offer up in our day-to-day lives. In Google searches, Facebook wall posts, or any purchase we are contributing to the vast amount of data, and allowing companies to make predictions about how we will behave. The use of patterning, statistical analysis and algorithms give these companies a perceived ability to ‘predict the future’; ranging from suggesting future purchases to tracking the flu virus through Internet searches. Cheerleaders of this phenomenon (for example Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier 2013) see it is an extremely useful tool that will revolutionise our lives, unequivocally for the better. An opposing view comes from Evgeny Morozov (amongst others) who criticises ‘technological solutionism’ (Morozov 2013) arguing that these benefits are over-stated, and blind us to imbedded structural issues that cannot be solved by ‘more’ data. Whilst there is not space in this blog post to explore these views in full, the debate raises a consideration for Sociology: are there methodological issues with using Big Data, and what are the implications for the social sciences? more...



Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has created quite the buzz in the media, drawing accolades and criticism from widespread analysts, academics, feminists, business people, journalists, etc. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, contends that the norms of femininity prevent women from gaining success in the workplace. While insufficient work and family policies are obstacles for women, one major, often overlooked, barrier is the rigid boundaries of masculinity and femininity, which hinder men’s participation in family and relationships and women’s drive in the workplace. Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” to their own success, to work hard and to defy the norms that hold them back.

While some praise Sandberg’s strong business sense and work ethic, others criticize her claim that women are their own biggest obstacles to success in the workplace. As a sociologist and a feminist, I am skeptical about her assertion that women hinder their own progress. In addition to a cultural shift in ideas about women’s leadership and business skills, we need stronger work and family policies. However, I am intrigued by her claim that cultural norms about masculinity and femininity are a major part of individual work and family issues. This seems like an obvious claim, yet a hard problem to solve. How do we change cultural ideas about what men and women can and should achieve in the workplace and in the home? more...

Source: Feministing

Source: Feministing

This week, Stephanie Coontz contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times in honor of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz’s article, entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” explores some of the structural and economic reasons hindering equality between men and women. The attitudes and beliefs of individuals are not to blame for the stalled gender revolution; instead, Coontz points to a failing economy and inadequate work-family policies as the major obstacles to gender equality.

Coontz relies on recent research which suggests that many men and women want egalitarian relationships. Specifically, a 2010 Pew Poll found that 72% of men and women think that marriages based on equality are the best. The implication of this research is most people start out with an egalitarian relationship as “Plan A.” If the conditions are right, most couples want to fulfill a utopian vision of gender equality in their interpersonal arrangements. However, as in most situations, “Plan A” rarely comes to fruition, especially under a set of constrained structural conditions. At some point, many people have to fall back on “Plan B,” a plan that involves more work for men and more family responsibilities for women.

Coontz suggests a few reasons to explain the prevalence of this less than egalitarian back up plan. She describes economic conditions in which men make more money than women and in which neither men nor women have adequate access to family leave. When men and women have few economic options, they return to a more traditional arrangement because it is the most lucrative and/or the most obvious choice. Ultimately, Coontz makes a strong argument for better family/work policies in order to create the conditions for gender equality

I think Coontz’s analysis is insightful. As a sociologist, I appreciate her emphasis on the many structural problems that prevent more gender equality between men and women. Importantly, she showcases the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, highlighting the ways in which economic conditions uphold the patriarchal arrangements between men and women. We can’t expect a change in gender relations if our institutions do not reflect the goals of gender equality.

Yet, I am not convinced that these structural alterations are the only requirements necessary to produce the desired changes in gender relations at the individual level. Patriarchy has endured as a system of power not just because of social structures and institutions, but also because of cultural values and beliefs. While we have evidence to suggest that men and women want more egalitarian relationships, we also have evidence to suggest that cultural attitudes still reflect the belief that the household is women’s domain.

For example, when both men and women work, the bulk of the family and household responsibilities fall on the women. While this surely has something to do with economic conditions (for example, who can more easily leave the workplace without repercussions or significant loss of money), it also has something to do with the historical association of the household as the women’s domain.  This link between women and housework persists despite the many gains that women have made in the public sphere.

What I am suggesting is that we still have a ways to go with our cultural ideas about gender and family. Better social structures can help change these ideas, but can we think of others ways to disentangle women from the private sphere?

Suggested Readings:

Estes, Sarah Beth. 2011. “How Are Work-Family Policies Related to the Gendered Division of Labor?” Sociology Compass 5(3): 233-243.

Gerson, Kathleen. 2011. The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in an Era of Gender, Work, and Family. New York: Oxford University Press.

Latshaw, Beth A. 2011. “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same? The Paradoxes of Men’s Unpaid Labor Since The Second Shift.” Sociology Compass 5(7): 653-665.

National Science Foundation. 2008. Chore Wars: Men, Women, and Housework





The presidential debates have raised some interesting and important questions about gender inequality in the U.S. Specifically, the second debate (transcript) brought up the issue of fair pay and equal wages for American women. While Governor Romney’s response—which involved “binders full of women”—rightfully took a lot of heat, both candidates could have benefitted from a brief lesson in the sociology of gender discrimination. Perhaps their aides will pass this on.Gov. Romney’s answer focused on increasing women’s participation in the workforce by creating flexible jobs to account for women’s household responsibilities. President Obama positioned women’s labor as a family issue too, but added that we also need to address educational opportunities. I’d like to start with the issue of education, and then address the question of work-family balance.

Education is a key factor for increasing one’s income and class position. But, education doesn’t pay out equitably for everyone. Women’s low representation in high paying jobs is not necessarily a result of their low representation in higher education. In fact, there has been much uproar in the past five or more years about a crisis in boys’ education—some even insist that society has declared a kind of “war on boys”—but there just is no evidence to support this notion. Although women are earning slightly more college degrees than men, men are suffering very few consequences. In fact, women must advance their educational attainment significantly in order to earn equal pay—for example, on average, men with a BA will earn about the same as a woman with a PhD (see some very revealing charts here). And the gap in earnings is made worse when we consider women’s struggles in particularly high paying fields like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields). Increasing women’s presence in these fields could make a serious dent in the gender wage gap because these jobs are among the highest paying, and they have some of the lowest occupational wage gaps of any career (see Gwen Sharp’s analysis here). And yet, even as women pursue advanced degrees in these fields, they remain much less likely than men to get these jobs. Yes, women face barriers in education, especially in STEM fields (a lack of role models and mentors, for example), and these need to be addressed. But women’s equality and equal pay depend on much more than increasing their access to higher education.

If it isn’t about education, then what else contributes to women’s unequal earnings? In fact, a big part of the problem are precisely what Gov. Romney wants to encourage—the burden of women’s household and childcare responsibilities. The normative expectation that women be the primary caretakers of children and elderly or sick family members contributes significantly to women’s workplace discrimination. In his answer, President Obama mentioned the sociological phenomenon known as the “glass ceiling”—an invisible barrier that prevents women from advancing past a certain rank, regardless of training or education. But what kinds of things contribute to the glass ceiling? At least in part, stereotypes about women’s parental and household duties and desires. Oftentimes, employers blame women’s career stagnation on women’s “choices”: choosing to have kids; choosing not to work overtime, weekends or holidays; choosing not to relocate for promotions. But these are not necessarily choices; they are the result of demands made on women by the conventional heterosexual family structure.

If women are children’s primary caretakers, then it is women who must pick them up from school, stay home when they are sick, and be available for parent-teacher conferences. While Gov. Romney wants to ensure women’s flexible work schedules so they are free to make dinner, this is precisely the kind of discourse that produces the glass ceiling. Employers want unencumbered workers (read: men), not workers who need to get home to cook. Men are unencumbered workers because they have wives who will pick up this second shift. This is a contributing factor in the wage gap between mothers and childless women; childless women remain unencumbered, at least in the eyes of employers.

Families with children are forced to make difficult decisions about childcare. With rising childcare costs, the obvious financial choice is often for women to stay home. If their jobs pay less, then families lose less if women quit working. Yet again, this “choice” reflects women’s structural disadvantage.

While it seems to me that President Obama’s plans tend to be better for both women and their families, I think both candidates need to be better informed on the complex factors that produce workplace inequality. I’ve managed to list just a few, but there are many more. And I’ve only described the generic, predominantly white, middle-class woman’s experience and haven’t even touched on the impact of race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality discrimination that complicate the picture exponentially. I hope that women’s interests are reflected in the policies of the next four years.


Further Reading

Oliker, Stacey. 2011. Sociology and Studies of Gender, Caregiving, and Inequality. Sociology Compass 5(11): 968-983.

Wharton, Amy S. 2012. Work and Family in the 21st Century: Four Research Domains. Sociology Compass 6(3): 219-235.

One of the latest Romney ads attacks President Obama for removing work provisions from Welfare Reform.  In the ad, disappointed-in-himself Obama (pictured left) sneakily gutted welfare reform by dropping the work requirements, so that as the ad states, “They just send you your welfare check.”  The ad’s claims are false or, as the fact-checking website Politifact put it, pants-on-fire.  What Obama has actually done is allow states to develop their own welfare-to-work programs.  The changes provide states with some flexibility regarding how not whether they meet the work provisions in the original bill.  Republicans, and Romney in particular, previously supported giving states more flexibility but the narrative not the actual policy is really the point here. more...

“If you don’t believe that childcare is work, then try telling your parents or whoever took care of you that raising you was not work.  I don’t imagine that would go over well.”  I say this in my social problems class as a counterpoint to the assertion that welfare-recipients are lazy and immoral.  Most recently the sentiment was employed to defend wealthy “stay-at-home mom,” and wife of presidential candidate, Ann Romney.  The sentiment that childcare is work is fairly uncontested when referring to the non-poor.  In class, I urge students to consider whether the sentiment is equally valid for their (likely) non-poor parents and for poor parents.  I make this statement in the context of welfare to point out that both the ability to stay at home and the status of “stay-at-home mom” are class privileges and not merely reflections of moral or ideological choices.  Indeed, even for women who have privilege the vernacular meaning of “choice” rarely applies. more...

Older Workers: The ‘Unavoidable Obligation’ of Extending Our Working Lives?
Sarah Vickerstaff



Older workers are becoming an increasing topic of research interest and policy concern as the populations of Europe, the United States and many other countries age. Some commentators argue that living longer means that there will be an ‘unavoidable obligation’ to work for longer as well. This article considers the reasons for concern about an ageing workforce. It then looks at the different literatures, which seek to research and understand the position of older workers. It provides a snapshot of the work that those over 50 years of age in the UK currently do and poses the question of whether we want to work for longer or whether a culture of early retirement prevails. It concludes by arguing for a more fine grained understanding of the composition of the older worker cohort, differentiated by class, gender and race and for more research on flexible work, gradual retirement and managing health at work.


The invasion of time saving appliances and convenience food items is nothing new in American kitchens. Sociologically speaking this can (and has been) explained through a variety of theoretical paradigms. This could certainly be understood as an ideal example of Habermas’ notion of the (re)feudalization of the lifeworld, the colonization of the private sphere by the sphere of economy and consumerism. This phenomenon can also be explained through feminist theory as a source of liberation for women in particular, relieved from domestic duties. There is however, another aspect to this that is worth exploring. If we extend Arlie Hochschild’s work on the “Time Bind,” another picture emerges. According to Hochschild, it is not necessarily that our work lives have encroached upon our private/home lives but rather that they have switched places. This reversal sheds light on the fascination with streamlining and making more efficient the everyday tasks of home: poaching an egg, “dry cleaning” at home, instant potatoes. If the verbiage of work has indeed entered the home as she posits, then it is not surprising to see constant innovation and products aimed at making everything at home “easier.” The world of work now has fax machines, digital communication, printers, copiers, scanners, and automated answering systems. In fact, many people in offices even send emails to a co-worker even when their offices may be next to one another. As silly as some of these inventions may seem (see New York Times article below) such as toaster ovens that can simultaneously toast bread and poach an egg or a microwave that can cook omelets and pizza; understood through the lens of Hochschild’s work it makes perfect sense. Home has become a locus of efficiency and productivity a place that must juggle and manage multiple and conflicting demands. The reversal then of home and work has directed consumer-driven attention to make the daily tasks of home, like they did with the daily tasks of work, as easy as the push of a button.

“Honey, I’m Not Home” (discussing Hochschild)

“Kitchen Gadgets Take the Fast Food Mentality into the Home”

The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended.  The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion.  Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon.  However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism.  She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market.  These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively.  Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm.  In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves.  In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.