Who Pulls the Purse Strings in Couple Relationships? Divergent Gender Revolutions

By Dr. Yang Hu

Who Pulls the Purse Strings—Why Does it Matter?

How partners manage their money is a key part of everyday family life. Money management illustrates the checks and balances of power that are crucial to understanding couple relationships. As financial management provides essential access to money in the household, gender inequalities in household financial management can lead to inequalities in partners’ living standards, health, and well-being. A few recent studies have also shown that gendered dynamics of partners’ money management also matter for relationship satisfaction.

The uneven pace of the gender revolution between the public and domestic spheres presents a major puzzle for understanding how gender equality at work translates into gender equality at home. Household financial management is an important, but often overlooked, link in this translation. In my previous research, for example, I have found that women were only able to translate their earnings into a reduction in their housework time when they participate in or control financial management in the household.

Context: Changing Couplehood and the Gender Revolution

Over the past decades, couple relationships have evolved as has the gender revolution. Popular media and scholars alike have predicted a decline in partners’ material interdependence and an “individualization” of couple relationships, as women’s labor force participation and economic status increases. However, it is less clear whether the “individualization” of couplehood is also reflected in how partners manage their money. Has the gender revolution given women greater power in household finances? As couples have different economic options, it is important to explore whether and how trends of household financial management differ between low- and high-earning women and couples.

The Research

In my paper, published in Gender & Society, I have analyzed data from 11,730 heterosexual couples from a nationally representative sample of the UK population. I have examined changes in financial management for cohorts of couples born between the 1920s and 1990s.

My findings show that the gender revolution in who pulls the purse strings has followed divergent paths. Over time, low- and high-earning women have come to take more control of the finances in their relationships, but in different ways.

As high-earning women develop a sense of autonomy from their earnings and can afford the transaction costs associated with keeping separate purses, their empowerment in household finances is primarily characterized by a trend of “individualization,” as reflected in a decrease in joint financial management and an increase in independent management, such as separate bank accounts. Further, the trend of “individualization” is primarily found among men and women with about equal individual income: the decline of joint financial management is particularly prominent among women with equally high earnings as their male partners.

Women with low earnings have seen more subtle changes. More recent groups of low-earning women now keep their own spending money rather than receive a housekeeping allowance, which gives them more freedom of choice on how the money is spent.

Changes have also taken place for men. More recently, men have become less likely to adopt a “back-seat” management of the finances, where they give their partners a housekeeping allowance to manage the delegated and onerous chore of making the money stretch to cover daily expenses. Rather, men have stepped up to share the chore of everyday money management. Taken together, these trends show a subtle relaxation of male control over household finances for women with low earnings.

Implications of the Findings

My findings lead to some room for optimism. I found progress toward, but not yet full achievement of, gender equality in how couples manage their money. The tale of two (divergent) gender revolutions by social class underlines the importance of an intersectional lens on gender equality in couples.

While some sociologists have long argued that modern couple relationships increasingly incorporate the ideals of equality and individual autonomy, how these ideals are achieved differs considerably between low- and high-earning women and couples. My findings draw attention to the role played by material conditions in shaping the way gender equality is achieved in couples’ money management. I show that (income) equality between high-earning partners is at the core of the “individualization” of couple relationships.

Yang Hu(Twitter: @dr_yanghu) is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on changing gender and work-family relations and their intersections with population mobility in a global context.

“Women’s Work” and the Welfare State: New analysis quantifies how gender, class and social policy shape unpaid care work

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in unpaid care work, with increased childcare and housework burdens disproportionately borne by women. Across Europe and North America, women have been pushed out of the labor market, while mothers are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout.

Social policy might be able to reverse these trends – and the Carework Network has been urging the Biden-Harris administration to take decisive action now and reinvest in care infrastructure to “build back better”. Similar campaigns have been launched internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

But what can data tell us about the potential for welfare programs to address the gender gap in unpaid care work?

In our recent article in Gender & Society, we quantify the connections between social policy spending and inequality amongst unpaid care workers across 29 European countries.

We find that social policies do matter in addressing women’s “double burden” (at home and in paid work). Spending on social policies targeted to families – i.e., child allowances and credits, childcare supports, parental leave supports, and single-parent payments – is associated with a smaller gender gap in time spent on housework. And while this dynamic is visible across the income spectrum, it is strongest in lower income households.

The Gendered and Classed Dimensions of Unpaid Care

Data from the 2007/2008 and 2016/2017 waves of the European Quality of Life Survey highlights the scope of the care crisis even before the onset of the pandemic.

Figure 1 presents the mean weekly number of hours spent on unpaid care, broken down by care type (i.e. childcare as compared to housework), gender, and income quartile, for people living with at least one child under the age of 18 years. Several patterns emerge.

First, across all income groups, childcare makes up the majority of time dedicated to unpaid care work. This means both men and women spend proportionately more time caring for children than cooking and cleaning.

Second, women devote around twice as much time to unpaid caring as men. This pattern is consistent across the income spectrum, though the gender gap is especially large in lower income households.

Third, women with higher household income spend less time on unpaid care work than their poorer counterparts – likely because wealthier women outsource work to paid care providers. Men, by contrast, dedicate similar (lower) amounts of time to unpaid care work regardless of income level.

Fourth, childcare makes up a larger proportion of unpaid care work for wealthier women than for poorer ones. This reinforces prior research on “intensive mothering”: time spent educating children has become an important means of class reproduction within higher-income families, while “menial” tasks such as cooking and cleaning are more readily outsourced.

Spending on Family Policy is Associated with Reduced Inequalities in Housework

Using national data from the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation’s SOCX database, we then examine the state’s potential role in reducing inequalities in unpaid care work.

Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between how much a country spends on helping families (as a percentage of GDP) and the mean number of total hours spent by women and men, per country, on housework.

The two panels highlight that the gender gap in unpaid housework is a common feature across each of the 29 countries we examine. Regardless of the country or level of spending, women continually perform more unpaid housework then men.

Yet the data also show that the more a country spends to help its families thrive, the fewer hours women spend on housework. Women in countries where money spent on families accounts for a higher proportion of GDP spend less time, on average, doing unpaid housework tasks.

Using Family Policy to Build Back Better

Our analyses show that while women – and especially poorer women – spend more time on unpaid care work than men, carefully designed social policy spending may help to shrink the size of that gender gap. For governments, then, (re)investing in social programs that target families offers a promising route forward to counteract the large increases in unpaid care work that have occurred during the pandemic. These programs should be a crucial component of post-pandemic efforts to create a more equitable and caring society.

Naomi Lightman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on the of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment conditions and health and well-being of paid caregivers in long-term care settings. Her related research publications examine the intersections of gender, inequality, care work (paid and unpaid), and social policy. You can follow her on Twitter @naomilightman.

Anthony Kevins is Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University. His research centers around inequality, public opinion, and various social policy programs, often with a focus on labor market vulnerability. You can read more about his research on his website, which also includes non-paywalled, open-access copies of his published studies – and you can follow him on Twitter @avkevins.

Teaching Module: Care Work

Image Source: BBC News

Are you looking for more information about gender in your classroom?

Take a look at this new teaching module from the Gender and Society Pedagogy Project on Care Work! If you want your students to understand the different conceptualizations of care work, “global care chains”, and the hierarchies and interdependences created by the stratification of care work, this module would be an addition to your class. The teaching module includes class presentations, a list of suggested discussion questions, a week-long Time-use Diary activity, and an activity assessment.

This module is intended for use in an upper-level undergraduate course and utilizes readings from two different articles published in Gender & Society, “Reproducing labor inequalities: challenges for feminists conceptualizing care at the intersections of gender, race, and class” (by Dr. Mignon Duffy) and “Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor” (by Dr. Rhacel Salazar Parreñas). The learning module can be adapted for both in-class and virtual learning in any size class.

The author of this teaching module is a member of the Gender & Society Junior Scholar Advisory Board, Carieta Thomas. She is a Doctoral Student at University of Calgary.

You can find this module on care work here.


Guest Editors:

Pallavi Banerjee (University of Calgary), Maria Cecilia Hwang (McGill University), and Rhacel Parreñas (University of Southern California)

Image taken by Dr. Pallavi Banerjee

This special issue on “Race, Gender, and Violence in the U.S.” seeks to return to the scholarly origins of “intersectionality,” a concept introduced 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw to understand acts of violence against women of color.

Focusing on this still pressing issue, one magnified by the recent targeted murders of Asian women in Atlanta, police killings of Black women, murdered and missing Indigenous women, and femicides near the Southern border of the U.S., this special issue welcomes works that offer theoretically informed and substantive empirical accounts of embodied, legal, and political economic violence against women and nonbinary persons of color.

By embodied violence, we refer to injuries to the body including violent representations, intimate partner violence, and violent state disciplining. By legal violence, we underscore state criminalization and dehumanization of women and nonbinary persons in communities of color with an emphasis on the oppressive gendered and racialized immigration regime and the criminal justice system. Lastly, by political economic violence, we focus on masculine authority structures, poverty, labor precarity, and workplace hazards.

This special issue is not on intersectionality as a theory or method but instead on intersectional violence, or violence resulting from the interlocking oppressions of gender, race, class and sexuality. 


We seek submissions that address a wide range of gendered racialized violences, including but not limited to missing and murdered women of color, transgender women and Indigenous women; forced border and carceral separation of families; intimate partner violence; rape and sexual assault; forced sterilization; policing of women of color and immigrant women; religious intolerance; racialized sexual harassment; labor precarity; evictions and homelessness; poverty; maternal and infant health; impacts of disasters and pandemics; environmental and climate issues; and assaults in public spaces. 

All papers must make both a theoretical and empirical contribution to the study of gender. 

Manuscripts may be submitted at any time but must be submitted by  January 15th 2022 online to http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/gendsoc and should specify in the cover letter that the paper is to be considered for the special issue.

For additional information, please contact the Corresponding Special Issue Editor, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, at parrenas@usc.edu

A Black Girl’s Crown Changes the Game

“Um to me, being a Black girl is fighting the stereotypes that people have, like about all of us being loud and obnoxious, ghetto, ratchet, promiscuous, and all that.”

Following a Saturday morning arts-based workshop with Deborah, Christa, Unique, Philippi, and Nicole (self-designated pseudonyms), I interviewed girls about their workshop experience. I was also eager to learn about how they defined Black girlhood. Sitting upright in her seat, looking up at the ceiling and then eventually lowering her gaze to meet mine, Unique candidly shared her thoughts. She expressed frustration that despite being smart, serious about her education, and performing an unproblematic comportment, she felt unseen and overshadowed by the negative stereotypes. While it could prove useful to examine the racialized characteristics and the larger archetypes they support—like the thot, welfare queen, hood rat, and even older relics like the jezebel— it is also essential  to hear the reality that fighting is quotidian to being a Black girl.

When a Black girl is bullied and forced to choose between uninterrupted education and self-definition a fight follows. For example, when a Black girl is invited to the front of the room only to be sent back to her seat in tears with a braid missing or denied the experience of taking yearbook photos or required to remove beads in the middle of a game, a fight follows. As anti-Blackness and racialized expectations of femininity converge with loose and subjective interpretations of policies and regulations, Black girls must decide with whom or what they want to brawl. Although frequently attached to girls at each other’s throats, this truism is evidence of how Black girls’ embodiment is marked problematic, something to be policed, a reason for her confinement.

In what ways is justice intimately tied to expression and self-definition?

“I understand hair clips and stuff that’s like on my forehead and stuff. I understand that, cuz it applies to everybody. But ask yourself, who else wears beads? Who else wears things that hang off braids in your hair?”

On April 19, 2021, high school sophomore and softball player Nicole Pyles became the target of anti-Black and gendered microaggressions. After playing a full inning and hitting a double, her beads were suddenly an issue. Nicole’s teammates collaborated to use some bands to secure the beads, and she tucked them into her sports bra. Allowed to return to the field, she helped her team strike out their opponent until it was her turn at bat.

In Nicole’s statement during an interview with The News & Observer, she made plain that the decision to label her hair a problem at this particular moment was both unethical and unnecessary. In addition to playing the first inning of the game on April 19, Nicole had played the first four games of the tournament with no issue.

The coach of the opposing team first brought attention to her hair, claiming it obstructed her jersey number, and then an umpire gave Nicole the ultimatum to remove the beads or sit out of the game. To Nicole, these were fighting words. Appalled by the demand and aware that the call wasn’t really about following a rule, she firmly and candidly communicated, “And so I made the decision that I was gonna remove my beads and I was gonna play my game.” The groundedness of Nicole’s deliberation can be understood as a transgressive act, one wherein a boundary is crossed in the name of a benefit, a desire, and in this case, an insistence on doing what she came to do: play (and win) her game.

Only the opposing team’s coach knows his true motivations for rigidly enforcing the rules at that particular moment. However, it would not be the first time a Black girls’ adornment or expression of self has rattled others, nor the first injustice endured due to hair stylization. They changed the game on Nicole. Under pressure from the other team’s coach, the umpire decided to invoke the code, placing full responsibility and blame on Nicole and her coach in the final hour of the tournament. Perhaps they bet on her having a different response to their push, that she would get rightfully indignant, loud, or disheveled. Being a Black girl requires us to choose our opponents carefully. Nicole decided to place her undivided attention on the game and fight her battle off the field.

What do Black girls’ deliberations about their bodies teach us?

In the face of varying textures of injustice, Black girls are inviting us to practice reliability. While there was no physical altercation on the field, the restriction of beads in the rules and the after-the-fact argument that her number was covered by her hair revealed the foul play afoot.

From over a decade of work with Black girls, reliability emerged as a pedagogy and tenet, a way to represent Black girls and the lessons they gift. Returning to Unique’s statement about fighting stereotypes and Black girlhood, to practice reliability with Black girls requires that their self-definition is welcomed. It is to ensure that rules and policies involving their livelihood are based on actual concerns of harm. To practice Black girl reliability in Nicole’s case would have meant breaking out into the game ‘Little Sally Walker’ cheering, “Gon’ girl, do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang, switch,” because she was on her game and her beads weren’t bothering nobody.

It would have meant leaving her be and believing in Nicole’s assessment of potential injury, her hair, and the game she came to win and wanted to play. When we say Black girls’ names, let it be in exaltation. Black girls everywhere are demanding that we see the injustice in denying their flavor, especially in spaces where they aren’t expected to be or shine. It’s up to all of us to listen.

Read Hill’s piece in the #SayHerName symposium here.

Dominique C. Hill, PhD, is a Blackqueer feminist whose written and performed scholarship interrogates Black embodiment with foci in girlhood, education, and artistic expression. Hill, in research and praxis, seeks to extend the field of Black girlhood studies as an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Colgate University.

“We ‘said her name’ and got zucked”: Black Women Calling-out of Digital Platforms

It’s like we are out of place. Like we are taking up too much space. Our concerns and voices are never heard. But we show up and show out all the time… We’re like space invaders, until some work needs to be done. Then they call us.


This poignant, concise, and powerful comment was made after a Rekia Boyd rally organized by activists in New York City, late spring of 2015. Raneisha posted this Facebook message while remarking on how few people showed up to the rally, a stark contrast to the Freddie Gray and Eric Garner rallies in the same city previously. In this small statement she uttered a common refrain that Black women report about their experiences within social movements of being ignored, overworked, and undervalued. Later in that same Facebook post, Raniesha commented that her post might get removed for being too vocal and critical of  racism and sexism. This punitive practice of getting banned or having a post removed by Facebook is known as getting “zucked.”

In our essay, we explore the concept of getting “zucked” as part of larger trends within digital platforms that punish Black women online for expressing their distress at the inequalities they experience. According to Urban Dictionary user Saikh, getting zucked is when your expression is sucked out of you by Mark Zuckerberg’s mysterious Facebook community standards. 

The play on words is to indicate the parallel of getting ‘fucked’ by Zuckerberg. While this rhetoric certainly has gendered and homophobic undertones, it also reflects rape culture in terms of the unwanted intrusion by an outside entity.

Urban Dictionary user Raiayyyyyy defines it as, “we got fucked by zuck”. This process, as perceived by Black women, is one where the existing policies on digital spaces are not objective or race-neutral but instead continue a practice of centering whiteness as the normal operating system. Digital platforms have become places that  police, surveil, and criminalize Black women’s practices around micromobilizing.

Black women connect with one another and voice their concerns and demands for justice in digital spaces.  Twitter can function as a sanctuary or safe space to engage with others outside of a traditional face-to-face interaction. The use of hashtags opens a space for issues to be acknowledged and discussed without judgment, which allows for voices in the margins to be heard and to type back about erasure of Black female narratives. Through digital interactions, Black women as invisible victims of state and/or personal violence can be heard.  Black women center Blackness in their digital practices to show their refusal to be erased or ignored.

While getting “zucked” might seem like an innocent response to violation of terms of service, Black women suggest that this practice disparately targets them for speaking back to racist and sexist incidents on and offline. Black women are more likely to get “zucked” when they focus on police violence and the intersection of compounding harms. There is a correlation between increased content using the #SayHerName hashtag and  Facebook’s disciplining of Black women’s presence. In our essay, we show how Black women are punished within digital platforms as the latest iteration of cultural policing  that contributes to the subjugation of Black women online and off.

Dr. Kishonna L. Gray (@KishonnaGray) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois – Chicago. She is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She also previously served as a MLK Scholar and Visiting Professor in Women and Gender Studies and Comparative Media Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Gray is an interdisciplinary, intersectional, digital media scholar whose areas of research include identity, performance and online environments, embodied deviance, cultural production, video games, and Black Cyberfeminism.

Krysten Stein (she/her/hers) (@stein_krysten) is a first-generation, interdisciplinary Ph.D. student studying Communication and Media with concentrations in Gender and Women’s Studies and Black Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She investigates how television, digital media, and popular culture are intertwined with systems of power and marginalized identities. Rooted in critical/cultural studies, utilizing an intersectional feminist lens, her writing and research focuses on media industries, political economy, cultural production and representation.

Translating Implicit Bias from Theory to Practice

Many scholars do their work in the hopes of making both an academic impact, and, when possible, a broader impact, to influence policy, raise public awareness, and change behaviors and practices.

Sociology, including feminist sociology, has long cared about public scholarship that seeks a broader impact on society. What are the different ways of approaching public scholarship? What ideas make it into public conversation? What happens to particular ideas when they go public, such as diversity and inequality? Our paper, recently published in Gender & Society, focuses on the stunning increasing visibility of the concept of implicit bias, a theory about how people can act based on prejudice and stereotypes about social groups without intending to do so.

Implicit bias is, quite simply, one of the most successful cases of an academic concept being translated into practice in recent memory (see Figure 1). Its popularity, from implicit bias trainings cropping up in virtually every industry and their subsequent ban by the Trump administration (a ban rescinded by the Biden administration), to presidential candidate Hilary Clinton using the concept in a presidential debate, to entire industries built around the concept, means you probably have an opinion about implicit bias and its application. Whatever you think about the concept, however, it is a remarkable success story for those seeking both academic recognition as well as broader impact. Given its exceptional academic and public trajectory, we wanted to know more.

Implicit Bias in the ADVANCE Program

One of the programs that has used the concept of implicit bias to promote organizational change is the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program. For the past 20 years, NSF has funded the design and implementation of systemic interventions aimed at increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic STEM careers. Implicit bias became one of the central concepts orienting the program, especially for the evaluation of faculty in hiring and tenure and promotion processes. (It is by no means the only concept – other foci include culture, networking, workload balance, work-life conflict, and mentoring, among others).

We used the ADVANCE program to dive deep into what makes implicit bias such an attractive anchoring concept for institutional change. We found a trade off between how easily it is understood and the possibility of really transformative change. Implicit bias doesn’t sound threatening and so can be used in places feminist ideas do not typically gain traction. But this also limited its potential for systemic organizational change. For example, because implicit bias is demonstrable and relatable (you, yes you, can take the IAT test and see for yourself!), it has convinced those who are skeptical about the existence of gender or racial bias that bias is a real thing (even if they do not consider themselves racist or sexist). Awareness of biases itself, however, is not a structural critique.

Similarly, implicit bias is actionable, and in a way that can also appear impartial. Small changes, such as using rubrics for more transparent evaluation or accountability of individual decision makers (who, through no fault of their own, may unintentionally act with bias), can effect real change within organizations. At the same time, these impartial actions can leave more politically-charged conversations about what excellence means and who has the power to define what merit means, off the table.

Moving Forward

After scientists offer theoretical explanations for gender or racial inequality, they do not have control over what happens to those ideas (see Sarah Ahmed’s work on diversity). We can celebrate the awareness the concept of implicit bias has brought to the structural inequalities in everyday life. But we suggest remaining critical of how the concept has been translated into practice.

The challenge remains: how can we take advantage of a concept’s versatility while also mobilizing its most radical, structural implications? Oppressive stereotypes are so deeply embedded in the structure and culture of our society that they impact everyone, down to their subconscious. For organizations, one step is to increase individual awareness. Further, and perhaps more difficult, steps include identifying and changing biased organizational practices, standards and procedures, as ADVANCE leaders have revealed is possible. Only societal cultural and structural change can possibly address the full extent of the problem revealed by the existence of implicit biases.

Ultimately, simply raising public awareness about the role of bias in inequality is not enough. We need much more work to change the very organizational contexts in which behaviors based on bias can occur to effectively transform organizations. We hope our research helps move us in that direction.

Kathrin Zippel is professor of sociology at Northeastern University. She has published on gender politics and policies in the workplace, social movements, and globalization in the United States and Europe. Her book, Women in Global Science: Advancing Careers Through International Collaboration was published by Stanford University Press. She currently directs a research project on the diffusion of innovative gender equity ideas in the network created by the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program.

Laura K. Nelson is an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she is core faculty at NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, an affiliated faculty at the Network Science Institute, and on the executive committee for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She uses computational methods, principally automated text analysis, to study gender, social movements, culture, and institutions. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Sociological Methods & ResearchPoeticsMobilization: An International Quarterly, and Gender & Society, among others.

The Specter of Motherhood in Academic Science and Engineering

Why do women leave academic science and engineering? This puzzle has plagued scholars and practitioners for decades. Despite a rising presence in graduate programs, women still constitute only 24 percent of tenured professorships in the natural sciences and only 15 percent in engineering fields in the US. 

A popular explanation is that the job is very demanding. The work hours are long, and the structure, like the ticking tenure clock, does not make combining a career with parenting easy, especially for women. This is even more apparent now that COVID has exposed and exacerbated the disproportionate impact of caregiving responsibilities on women’s academic careers. It’s no wonder that some women don’t want to stick with it.  

Though parenting demands are undoubtedly critical, they don’t paint a complete picture. Many women leave before they have children, and therefore, before they presumably encounter work-family conflicts. Further, parenthood doesn’t explain why women are more likely to leave science and engineering careers than other demanding professions, like law or medicine.  

Fortunately, studies of academic workplace culture can offer some insight: gender-based discrimination, exclusion, and harassment have been documented for decades in academic science and engineering. But knowledge about the ways in which academics actually communicate beliefs and assumptions about motherhood, in particular, remains limited. As such, it is an open question as to whether or not exposure to workplace beliefs about motherhood might help explain gender differences in early-career decision making. 

The Research

Our study, based on in-depth interviews with 57 young, childless, PhD students and post-docs in natural sciences and engineering fields at four universities, fills this gap. We find two critical things. First, the young women and men that we talked to described a pervasive workplace culture that frames motherhood, but not fatherhood, in opposition to legitimacy as a scientist or engineer. In this context, it is widely believed that motherhood is controversial and should be feared, rejected, and hidden. Second, these ideas about motherhood disadvantage women in their day-to-day interactions and, ultimately, motivate some of them to leave academia. 

Interviewees told stories of faculty saying things like “There’s more to life than babies” and “I don’t understand why women complain . . . you just have to decide you get a family or a career in chemistry, one or the other and just accept it.” One recounted how a professor’s “gist was that having children is sort of narcissistic. And she’s above that . . . like, simpletons want to have kids.” When asked what topics she might discuss with her dissertation advisor, one graduate student explained: “If it were something [like] ‘I’m having a child’ . . . I would feel uncomfortable about how he’d receive that because of the ‘women always fail’ thing.” Some described an alarmist narrative about motherhood, such that women’s, but not men’s, reproductive plans and decisions were publicly discussed and critiqued by colleagues. 

Not surprisingly, most women reacted negatively to this culture. Words like “scary,” “frightening,” “worry,” “struggle,” and “stressed” routinely came up when we asked women their thoughts on combining family with a career in academic science or engineering. These words were never used when we asked men the same question. The more women were taught to fear motherhood, and the more they felt they could not discuss family plans, but rather had to reject and hide them, the more these plans seemed to pose an insurmountable obstacle to career success. We use the phrase the “specter of motherhood” to describe these circumstances. 

These beliefs and practices surrounding motherhood made it particularly difficult for young, childless women to gain professional respect. Women recounted stories of having their commitment questioned and being asked why they were getting a degree since they would likely “end up dropping out anyway to have babies.” Others realized they would be taken more seriously and given more attention from their advisors if they made it known that they did not plan to have children. These experiences taught women that their already questioned presence in the profession would likely become more tenuous if they were to become mothers in the future.  

We show how this recognition—that gaining professional respect requires continuously engaging in practices that reject, denigrate, and hide motherhood—disproportionately drives women away from academia. Of the people we interviewed who had already decided to leave academia, despite originally being open to it when they started graduate school, the specter of motherhood was a factor in nearly all of the women’s rationales. It was not a factor in any of the men’s. 

It is noteworthy that most of the men and women we interviewed disliked or disagreed with these norms and practices around motherhood. Most perceived them as “extreme”, “odd,” and generally out of step with “normal” people—people who presumably value family and see motherhood as an ordinary aspect of life. Given that, it is not surprising that some women are unwilling to engage in this unusual approach to family life, especially if they can still achieve career success outside of academia that doesn’t require them to give up motherhood.  

Our findings offer insights for academic institutions. A larger presence of mothers could help dispel the specter of motherhood and so policies that lead to better recruitment and retention of mothers, like tenure clock extensions are necessary. But our work reveals that interventions that target attitudes about motherhood are also critical. Programs that raise awareness about the many mothers who are successful academic scientists  and that describe the benefits of academia to mothers—like, scheduling flexibility and job stability—are crucial to counter the spectre of motherhood we discovered. Programs should also address motherhood during graduate advising to normalize seeing and talking about children in workplace settings.  

Our study is focused on academia but the specter of motherhood may be present in other professions, especially elite male-dominated ones. If ideas about motherhood are similarly powerful in shaping women’s career aspirations in other occupations, then measures that target these attitudes are  critical for addressing the stalled progress toward gender equality more broadly. 

Sarah Thébaud is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research identifies cultural, social psychological, and institutional processes that contribute to gender inequalities in the workplace, families, entrepreneurship, and higher education. She earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University and was a postdoctoral 
fellow at Princeton University. 

Catherine J. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a mother. Her main research and teaching areas are gender, work and occupations, social psychology, health, and methods. Before joining the faculty at UCSB, Professor Taylor earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University, was a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University, and was a faculty member 
at Indiana University. 

Gender, Race, and Faculty Workload Inequities

Faculty members carry out many different tasks – teaching, research, advising, and administrative and leadership work (often called “service”). How these tasks are weighed in faculty rewards systems may differ from institution to institution – with teaching valued more heavily in some settings, and research valued more heavily in others. Across settings, mentoring and service are often devalued.

Within this system, workload inequities are rampant. Women report a greater mismatch than men between what they want to spend time on and what they actually spend time on. Women faculty members tend to spend less time on highly valued research. Service work is often particularly devalued, and men are much more effective at avoiding it, while women are more likely to be good team players. Students also expect more mentoring and support from women faculty members. Time spent on campus service, teaching, mentoring and advising appear can reduce the time that would otherwise be spent on research.

This problem is worse for women of color, who face an identity tax, carrying out more service and mentoring than other faculty members. Women of color also often feel overburdened with responsibility for the much-needed diversity work on their campuses. These inequalities in workload have long-term effects. Faculty members who focus on research are often more likely to get recognized and promoted, while the good citizens of the department go unrewarded, hindering their career progression.

Workload Distribution and Valuing

Our article in Gender & Society draws on our NSF-ADVANCE funded project, which carried out a survey of 957 faculty members from fifty-three mostly STEM departments, primarily located in research-intensive universities. 

We find that white women, by and large, feel that the workload distribution in their departments is unfair, and are less likely to think that their colleagues are committed to having a fair and equitable workload. This finding supports what we already knew about women doing more of the less-valued mentoring and service work in their departments. We further find that women of color are more concerned about how their workload is valued. Women of color indicate that the essential teaching, mentoring, and campus service work they do is not credited within their department rewards system. The work that women of color see as important appears to be devalued by their colleagues and goes unrecognized and unrewarded.

These findings are troubling. Faculty members who believe that their workload is unfair, or that their work is undervalued, are much less likely to be retained. This is both because they feel frustrated in their work, and because their colleagues may not support their promotions. Furthermore, in the wake of the protests for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are more critical than ever. Institutions need, and sometimes require, faculty members to engage in this critical work. They must align their rewards systems so that faculty members are recognized, retained, and advanced when they do.

As long as white women and women of color do more of the undervalued work, and are not recognized for the work they do, the senior ranks of faculty will primarily be made up of white men.  As this figure below shows, faculty diversity still remains a substantial challenge in the U.S.   

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2016 through Spring 2019 Human Resources component, Fall Staff section.
(This table was prepared November 2019.)

Solving Workload Inequities

However, our study also had some good news. There are a number of strategies that departments can use to create workload policies that faculty view as more equal. For example, faculty in departments with transparent workload systems, clarity about workload expectations, and fair teaching and service assignments are more likely to see workload as fair, regardless of their race and gender. Similarly, faculty members in departments with clarity about workload expectations and fair teaching and service assignments are more likely to see workload as fairly valued, regardless of their race and gender

These policies can be adopted by departments to and make a positive difference relatively quickly.  Departments can have explicit conversations about what activities are valued and compensated; they can also publish benchmarks, perhaps by rank or appointment type, to clarify expectations in teaching, advising, and service. Department leaders can ask faculty members for their preferred teaching and service assignments, and make those assignments in ways that promote equity. Importantly, these simple steps can help address whether white women see workload as distributed fairly, and whether women of color perceive their work as being credited in evaluations. Other publications from this project lay out how to create transparent faculty work activity dashboards, to ensure that faculty workload is equitably distributed, as well as how to adopt workload policies and assignment procedures that promote equity.

We recognize that many leaders think of faculty workload inequity as a can of worms that they are afraid to open. But addressing faculty workload inequity has immediate, long-term effects on race and gender equity. Workload equity must remain an ongoing project, tracked yearly, and consistently adjusted, to reap the benefits of these systems.  Yet departments that strategically design their faculty workload systems, and put in place mechanisms to foster workload equity, can make meaningful progress toward advancing equity.

Joya Misra is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and the Director of the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. You can find her on Twitter, @JoyaMisra.

Alexandra Kuvaeva was a research assistant for the ADVANCE program and recently earned her Ph.D. in international education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

KerryAnn O’Meara is a Professor of Higher Education at the University of Maryland and was 2020 President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Dawn Kiyoe Culpepper, is a doctoral candidate in higher education and Faculty Specialist for the ADVANCE Program at the University of Maryland.

Audrey J. Jaeger is the W. Dallas Herring Professor and Executive Director for the Belk Center for Community College Leadershipand Research at North Carolina State University.

Women Scientists and the Academic STEM Workplace: Why Perceptions of Meritocracy Matter

Children growing up in the U.S. today, as in decades past, are taught that if you work hard, you will succeed. They are also taught that the world needs more scientists—a lot more scientists. Future prosperity, if not survival, lies in our capacity to solve pressing environmental, social, and economic problems. Accordingly, we invest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in hopes of growing and sustaining a STEM-savvy workforce. If we equip more young people to do science, we can tackle even bigger problems.

Building and sustaining a STEM-savvy workforce, however, requires more than educating future generations with the knowledge and skills for doing science. It also requires matching highly educated scientists, engineers, and tech professionals with the jobs that enable them to use their specialized skills. While public policy debates commonly draw attention to the need for more people to pursue education and careers in STEM, such debates shy away from the particulars of how (and which) STEM professionals get the best STEM jobs and recognition for their work.

Most of us assume that the best qualified people get the jobs they deserve. This idea is commonly referred to as ‘meritocracy’. And we assume that organizations, including institutions of higher education, corporations, and government agencies alike, operate consistently to fulfill the ideals of meritocracy.

But as research has shown for decades, organizations, including those that champion the ideals of meritocracy, fall short in their efforts to live up to their meritocratic ideals. The systems by which people are matched to jobs and then advance in their careers are far from perfect.  Barriers to equal opportunity exist such that some groups are hindered from getting STEM jobs and from moving up into higher level positions.  Even so, most people continue to believe meritocracy best explains who gets ahead in STEM education and jobs. Likewise, many people—including scientists and engineers themselves—often assume that meritocracy is not simply an ideal, but rather a reality.

In our study, published in Gender & Society, we ask, to what extent do women STEM academics actually perceive barriers to equity in the context of their own jobs? Using interview data from 53 STEM faculty at a research-intensive university in the U.S. Midwest, we explore how women scientists’ perceptions influence university efforts to reduce systemic barriers to equity.  


Our findings reveal that the vast majority of the women scientists we interviewed recounted how as girls and young women they had assumed that if they studied and worked hard in school, they would succeed.  These women had excelled and received considerable recognition in their academic endeavors and then landed what they considered great jobs as faculty members in academia.  At the same time, a smaller subset of these women had a different story to tell—one in which they came to realize even before securing jobs in academia that their paths were not determined solely by meritocracy.

Our most interesting findings are that about two thirds of the women scientists who had not questioned meritocratic ideals before they began their careers came to recognize after becoming faculty members that inequities in academic STEM are very real indeed. The remaining women (almost a third of our sample) still believed that opportunities and advancement are primarily a function of meritocratic processes. The implications of our findings are that universities hoping to recruit, retain and promote women scientists, especially women of color, must address faculty members’ differing assumptions about how meritocracy influences opportunities.  Universities need to remove the systemic barriers that often keep highly qualified scientists from excelling in STEM careers. 

Sharon R. Bird is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University. Her current research focuses on organizational strategies for reducing workplace inequalities, especially in the context of higher education.  Her related research and publications examine gender gaps in small business success and workers’ experiences and success are shaped by organizational demographics and cultures.

Laura A. Rhoton is a Research Analyst in Institutional Research. Her research focuses on women’s gender practices in academic STEM disciplines and the implications of these practices for addressing gendered inequalities in higher education.