Friday Roundup

Vol. 2, No. 4

May 25, 2018

Happy Friday, sociologists! Friday Roundups have been few and far between this semester, but we’re on summer time now and we’ll be ramping them back up. Here are a few of the things we’ve been watching and reading over the past few weeks.


Changing Economies



Health Care

On Campus

Research Findings

The problem with behavioral incentives

May 21, 2018

Behavioral incentive programs have become a popular policy tool for combating poverty. The premise of these policies is simple: pay the poor to behave “optimally,” thereby improving their outcomes.

The catch, however, is that the behavior of the poor is a symptom, not a cause, of their poverty.

In 2008, the Egyptian government, responding to a gap in child school access, launched a program drawing from a model used in many countries around the world, a Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT). This program, like other CCTs, gave cash to low-income mothers, who are primary caregivers, in exchange for sending their children to school.

In a recently published study, I showed that while the mothers did send their children to school as a result of the program, the premise of the behavioral incentives was wrong.

The mothers in the Cairo neighborhood I studied did value education, so much so that they struggled, through debt and odd jobs, to cobble together the monthly fees demanded by teachers. Teachers, underpaid due to decades of declining public-sector spending, pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, kicked students out of classrooms if they did not pay “study group” fees.

The cash from the CCT was a godsend for families, but the conditions were superfluous. The result was that the program subsidized the state’s failure to provide a basic service.

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Research Findings

The pointless distraction of unconscious bias training for workplace racism

May 15, 2018

The latest management fad to combat workplace racism is unconscious bias training. It has worthy intentions, but is seriously flawed. Knowing about racial bias does not automatically result in changes in behaviour by managers and employees. It is pointless and distracts managers from addressing the radical, organisational changes that are needed.

Unconscious bias training (UBT) has become popular. It has been led by psychologists, delivered by consultants and popularised by big-name organisations keen to demonstrate their social responsibility credentials. These proponents have been influential in positioning UBT as an effective management fix suitable to a wide range of organisations in different contexts.

UBT proponents promise that the training will make a difference. The argument tends to go like this: everyone has biases in the form of racial preferences. People are not aware of these – hence the “unconscious” label – but these biases influence our actions and decisions. Knowing about the preferences through special workplace training sessions allows people to change their behaviour by moderating their actions.

Let’s leave aside the tricky problem of how to measure unconscious bias – an issue that psychologists disagree on – and assume some sort of measure is possible. What impact does knowing about your racial bias have on your behaviour?

To a large extent this is going to depend on the type of racial bias. First there are those people who have learned to suppress expressions of racial prejudice because of the change in society’s values towards greater tolerance. In the workplace they might use more socially acceptable language while still taking actions that fail to help or to support the advancement of minorities. Finding out they are biased is not news to these ‘new racists’. They already know it and they are already choosing to behave as they do, so why would they change?

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Research Findings

Is flexible work the answer to the motherhood pay penalty?

May 10, 2018

For many families, integrating work and care remains a challenge. Is flexible work the answer? By affording workers greater freedom to organize their jobs in ways that suit their lives, flexible hours and the ability to work from home can help parents meet children’s needs while still getting their work done.

A puking child is never fun, but it doesn’t have to mean missing out on the day’s work. Daughter needs to be picked up from daycare at 5 sharp? No problem, start the workday earlier to compensate or finish it at home.

Since mothers still do most of the heavy lifting around caregiving, reducing work-life conflict could also help equalize their opportunities in the workplace. But is there a dark side to flexibility?

In our recent study, we investigate how flexible work arrangements – including flexible hours and working at home – impact wage gaps between otherwise similar mothers and childless women in Canada. Does flexibility enhance mothers’ capacity to accommodate work and family demands – or do mothers who access flexible arrangements pay a price in their wages?

The concern is that rearranging work to accommodate the demands of care can violate deeply held assumptions about what it means to be an ideal worker. Rather than help mothers at work, flexible work arrangements may stigmatize them as less committed to their jobs, strengthening negative stereotypes that contribute to motherhood pay penalties. Mothers may also be re-routed to less demanding work or encouraged to accept jobs that are otherwise less desirable (e.g. downshifting to a position with lower pay) to access flexibility.

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Research Findings

Does housework inequality ruin relationships?

May 5, 2018

Forget the red roses and teddy bears this Valentine’s Day – the best way for men to shore up their relationships is to run the vacuum over.

Recent research backs this up. A Swedish study found heterosexual couples were more likely to divorce if men discounted women’s housework contributions. Also, women who did more housework than their partners were overall less satisfied with their relationships, and more likely to consider breaking up.

For many couples, housework is often a site of negotiation. On average, women perform more housework than men in all countries, including Australia.

For decades, sociologists have been intrigued by the persistent gendered division of housework, because women’s greater time spent on housework is often at the expense of their time in employment and leisure. Women’s greater housework share, even when earning more money or working longer hours, is pointed to as an illustration of patriarchy and lingering homemaker/breadwinner gender roles rooted in the Victorian era.

Even in a socially progressive country like Sweden, women spend more time on housework, on average, than men. While many studies have documented these differences across groups and countries, fewer studies investigate the consequences of housework inequality.

So the question has to be asked: does housework inequality ruin relationships?

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Research Findings

Adventitious collaboration: On the value of blended research

May 1, 2018

How do collective academic projects come into being? Behind the polished acknowledgment sections that one usually finds on the first pages of published books and articles, the dynamics of co-authored intellectual enterprises are often more convoluted – and possibly more interesting. The story behind our article “Work and Identity in an Era of Precarious Employment: How Workers Respond to “Personal Branding” Discourse,” recently published in Work and Occupations, is no exception.

First, the story itself. Our project began with a regular session at the ASA meetings in Chicago. One of us (Angèle) was presenting a paper called “Living in the Market: How Freelance Journalists Manage Careers and Reputations in the United States and France.” The paper used ethnographic methods to compare web journalists in Paris and New York. A key part of the paper concerned the meanings these web writers gave to their work, which required them to engage in a conscious effort to accumulate clicks and followers, a vital symbolic currency in the digital landscape. The American journalists tended to view their audience-promotion efforts through the prism of “personal branding,” a discourse that the Parisian journalists rejected, even though the actual work situations of the two groups were virtually identical. Angèle’s study thus showed how meanings and attitudes could vary sharply even as the very tasks, tools, and work situations of web journalists increasingly converged across national borders.

To explain her findings, Angèle alluded to the explanatory power of Michel Foucault’s work on neoliberalism and subjectivity. It was this thread, coupled with Angèle’s discussion of personal branding, that piqued the interest of Steven, an audience member listening to her talk. (Interestingly, Angèle recognized him from the picture featured on his webpage, which she had looked up beforehand to find out more about his research; not unlike the situation in web journalism, online visibility plays a role in academia as well).

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Research Findings

Alternatives to prison for parole violators: Collateral consequences for employment

April 28, 2018

Although “mass incarceration” is now a commonly used term among academics and policymakers alike, the huge increase in imprisonment in the United States since the 1970s was also accompanied by an expansion of many other aspects of the criminal justice system. For example, at year end 2015, one out of 53 US adults was on community supervision – either probation or parole – according the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The surveillance and monitoring that is central to community supervision puts parolees and probationers at heightened risk of imprisonment for technical violations, but that is not the only punishment available to authorities. Alternative punishments, or what are sometimes called short-term custodial sanctions, can mean short stays in jail, residential prisoner reentry centers, or probation detention. These sanctions are a common occurrence that has real employment impacts for those who experience them.

While researchers have long been studying the effects of imprisonment, until recently little was known about the effects of these short-term custodial sanctions. On the one hand, such sanctions could interrupt a job search, sever social ties, enhance the stigma of a felony record, or lead to the loss of a job. On the other hand, such sanctions are a response to violations of parole like absconding or substance use. They might interrupt a downward trajectory or provide needed services at a crucial moment.

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Research Findings

From opt out to blocked out: Stay-at-home parents face challenges re-entering the workforce

April 24, 2018

The decision to become a stay-at-home parent is often not easy – many parents weigh the costs of career sacrifices relative to the benefits of increased family time. They might want to consider another cost: how easy will it be to return to work?

Previous research has demonstrated that unemployed job applicants are disadvantaged in the hiring process relative to applicants who had no employment lapses. Researchers have also studied how parents who try to balance family demands with inflexible workplaces can face penalties at work – sometimes leading them to “opt out” of work to become stay-at-home parents. My recent study builds on this research to examine what happens to stay-at-home parents who want to return to work.

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Research Findings

Women’s changing occupational careers and gender wage inequality

April 17, 2018

The narrowing of the gender wage gap is an important indicator of progress toward gender equality. This pay gap narrowed substantially during the 1980s and then more slowly during the 1990s and early 2000s.  After 2007, wage convergence ceased entirely. Why?

Conventional analyses attribute changes in the female-male wage ratio to corresponding changes in the work experience and qualifications of the female workforce. My research broadens this focus by examining how changes in women’s occupational career paths, and in the relative earnings of the occupations to which those career paths lead, impacted the gender wage gap over the period 1979 to 2015.

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Research Findings

How much gender segregation is there in American doctoral education?

April 11, 2018

“The problem is not that we don’t want to hire women or scholars of color, it’s that there aren’t enough graduating from the departments from which we typically hire.” I heard this refrain often during my stint as a co-PI on Cornell’s NSF-funded initiative to diversify its STEM faculty, and it’s echoed in reports from similar initiatives at other universities.

An assumption embedded in this refrain is that the pipeline of women and scholars of color graduating from elite PhD programs – “the departments from which we typically hire” – is smaller than overall pool of women and scholars of color in a field. This is a claim about segregation: it’s not just that men and women, for example, earn PhDs in different fields (“field segregation”), but that they earn PhDs from programs that differ in prestige (“prestige segregation”).

But, how much prestige and field segregation is there in American doctoral education? Do all fields show prestige segregation, or just some of them? Are differences in prestige segregation across fields predicted by differences in the emphasis put on math skills?

To answer these questions, Dafna Gelbgiser, Sarah Thébaud, and I analyzed data on all PhDs awarded by gender, PhD field (e.g., economics, physics), and institution (e.g., SUNY-Binghamton, MIT) in the United States between 2003 and 2014. We linked these data to National Research Council rankings of PhD-granting programs (e.g., Cornell Sociology) and to Educational Testing Service data on the mean verbal and math Graduate Record Exam scores of test-takers in a field.

We excluded Masters and professional degrees, and limited our analysis to gender segregation. We are working on a similar analysis of racial segregation.

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