I am honored and thrilled to be stepping into the role of the Editor of Gender & Society. This position brings me full circle in my career, as my very first published article was the first article in the first issue of Gender & Society (Risman 1987). My career has spanned the growth and development of this feminist journal, and I feel very lucky to be at the helm for the next four years. I want to thank Jo Reger and her Deputy Editors for their leadership and efforts and for handing over a journal in such good shape.

The editorship of this journal is truly a team effort. And what a team I have! The Deputy Editors who began this journey with me include Irma Mooi-Reci, Mignon Moore, Kristen Myers, Smitha Radhakrishnan, Sheryl Skaggs, and Ann Travers. We have already lost Mignon Moore as she has recently been elected President of Sociologists for Women in Society. We will miss her tremendously, but we are thrilled that she will be at the helm of SWS. We are lucky enough to have a fabulous team of Managing Editors—Seth Behrends, June Macon, and Mary Ann Vega—all graduate students at University of Illinois at Chicago. They are the people whom most of those who submit manuscripts will “meet” as the face of the journal.

Our team will continue to do what the past editorial teams have done: publish the best of feminist scholarship with an intersectional lens. We continue to encourage scholars to submit research that pushes forward gender theory. We also are interested in theoretical articles about gender. We also encourage research that provides important empirical insights into gender stratification. My goal is to continue the efficient practices of those who came before us, ensuring quality feedback with quick turnaround times. I hope to make most decisions after the first revision, sparing authors the pain of multiple revisions with no commitment to publish. We are very interested in publishing research encompassing a variety of methodologies, and we are especially interested in articles that are multi-methodological. With the increasing use of an online appendix, we can publish quantitative articles with more empirical data without concern about page limits.

Our cover picture is artwork by Managing Editor Mary Ann Vega. They took the picture from the rooftop deck of the Behavioral Science Building at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where we work. The photo is a reminder that intellectual work includes the labor of real people in a particular geographic place. This is the view from our workplace when we work late at night to take the intellectual labor of our authors and turn it into a finished product, volume 34 of Gender & Society. I appreciate Mary Ann volunteering their artistic talents to our collective project.

Photo of Chicago by Managing Editor Mary Ann Vega, UIC

We continue to publish blogs written by our authors, and hope to soon begin a more assertive program to bring the important research that we publish into public conversation. Watch for our articles showing up in the news.

Again, it is an honor and a great responsibility to be at the helm of a journal that has feminist goals and uses serious social science research to forward them. Thank you all for your continued support of our journey.

Barbara J. Risman is College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford University Press 2018) and co-editor of The Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (Springer 2018). She writes about gender structure theory, and her current research is on the development of nonbinary identities. You can find her on Twitter, here.


Risman, Barbara J. 1987. Intimate relationships from a microstructural perspective: Men who mother. Gender & Society 1 (1): 6-32.

Understanding the Portability of Privilege

“I screen clients—look at what kinda shoes they got on before I go with them,” said Curtis, a 34-year old Black sex worker. Street prostitution makes up the bulk of his income, and he explained the importance of evaluating potential clients for signs of wealth.

The idea is that men with nice shoes will pay more for sex, but as other men in the street sex trade also explained, this is a way to access greater social status for themselves. We refer to this as “borrowing privilege.”

Women have long borrowed privilege in relationships with men—a consequence of patriarchal societies in which women have less status and resources. But there are also inequalities among men, which raises questions about how men might use interpersonal relationships to enhance their status.

In our article on men in sex work, we show how men low on the social hierarchy, in terms of race, class, and sexuality, capitalize on exchanges with other men. And these findings have implications for scholars studying other marginalized groups and people at the fringes of mainstream society.

We find that borrowing privilege is a tactic to undermine inequality and claim agency in otherwise constraining circumstances. The men in our study used tactics including evaluating clients and choosing the “rich” clients who look “nice” and appear formally educated.

Scott, a 49-year-old straight Black man, shared his own client selection process:

“[T]he person [client] I am talking to has to meet a criteria. They have to be able to interest me in some kind of way, either nice looking or very articulate. . . . I wish I could find somebody to give me a trust fund. I wish I could find somebody to send me through college.”

The sex workers in this study use looking “nice” and being “articulate” as vague descriptors for white, well-to-do clients. They are not simply interested in clients who “found a few dollars” for a blowjob; they want clients who pay for sex in full and from whom they can potentially extract other resources and privileges, especially if those clients become regulars or boyfriends. The ability to borrow class privileges is connected to the men’s understandings of race, which Daryl, a 47-year old Black gay man, made explicit. “Those I avoid would be younger, Black, Puerto Rican [men],” he said, keeping an eye out for clients “who are older European [white] men” because they “pay you straight up front.”

Another tactic to borrow status was changing their own self-presentation to access places where their ideal clients spend time. For Omar, who had been in the sex trade for 19-years, finding more “high-class guys” meant appearing on their same “level” and learning from them “what bars to go to, what neighborhoods to go to, how to dress, act, and [to] read certain books … Some of them might have a sophisticated way that they talk … Sometime[s] you portray this part.” In this way, the men mirrored how upper-middle class men behaved, hoping to become more desirable to advantaged clients.

Cultivating a classy masculinity not only helped to increase the men’s chances of attracting “ideal” clients, but often bolstered their sense of self-worth. For Scott this meant feeling “other prostitutes were jealous because [he] was handsome and got lots of clients.” And for Daryl, this culminated in men wanting “[to] be my boyfriend, who say, ‘I love you,’ and all that.”

Many of the men in our study attempted to “borrow privilege” by accessing clients’ status symbols, showcasing them for others to see. High-status clients sometimes gave or lent them luxury goods, including alcohol, drugs, and expensive clothes and cars. For instance, Omar explained how he cultivated ongoing relationships with wealthy “regulars” to get drugs and clothes: “I would say I need some weed or drinks. I ain’t gonna lie—I’m a clothes freak. I like smellin’ good and lookin’ good. If I didn’t have the money, I would have a lot of guys [clients] that would buy me gifts.”

The Takeaway

We found that the marginalized male sex workers in our study were able to “borrow privilege,” even if only temporarily. Some of the men wanted to secure a steady relationship with a privileged-client-turned-boyfriend who might connect them to legal work or pay for their rent or education. But most settled for more fleeting associations with privilege. Borrowing privileges from clients gave these men a sense of power and status in a life with where they faced chances of risk, violence, criminalization, and stigmatization.

Our research shows how some people claim whatever advantages are available to them as they cope with the harsh conditions under which they live and work. In this case, these men try to undermine class and race inequality thru attracting and mimicking higher-status men. Without power of their own, these marginalized men try to borrow the privilege of their male partners in ways women without independent sources of privilege have always done.

Sharon S. Oselin is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Academic Director of the Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Much of her research focuses on crime, deviance, sexuality and gender, and appears in a variety of journal outlets. Her book, Leaving Prostitution: Getting Out and Staying Out of Sex Work (NYU Press 2014), is an ethnographic examination of how organizational conditions facilitate or constrain women’s exits from the sex trade.

Kristen Barber is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is also co-Editor of the journal, Men and Masculinities. Her research focuses on inequality in work and organizations, cultural production, and everyday interactions and identity construction. Her book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry (Rutgers University Press 2016), examines high-end men’s salons as a case study in privilege and how women’s beauty work supports the image of the progressive “new man.”

Online Pornography: A Religious Man’s Cross to Bear

“My brain had been wired to use pornography,” explains Christopher, a 28-year-old man who self-identifies as a pornography addict.

A conservative evangelical Protestant, Christopher struggles with how his porn use fits into his religious beliefs. Though he describes porn use as natural for men, his faith insists that he shouldn’t be looking at it.

And so, Christopher joins a program we call True Intimacy (a pseudonym), a weekly support group for Christian men like himself who want to quit porn. In new research to be published in Gender & Society, we examine the stories of 35 religious men and women who attend pornography addiction support groups to better understand how they reconcile pornography addiction with their conservative religious beliefs.

According to many religious organizations and leaders, activists and advocacy groups, politicians, counseling and recovery programs, and mainstream media, pornography addiction has become a widespread social problem in the 21st century.

Indeed, there is no disputing that access to online porn is unprecedented. In 2018, there were nearly 100 million visitors each day who performed almost 1,000 searches per second on, the world’s largest online porn site.

Statistics like these have led 15 states to pass resolutions that declare pornography to be a “public health crisis.” Each resolution claims that pornography is biologically addictive and therefore is harming the l millions of people who watch it.

As qualitative sociologists, we don’t take a stand about whether pornography is a public health crisis or biologically addictive. Instead, we investigate the stories people tell about their experience of pornography as  addiction.

Our interview participants came from different religious traditions: most were conservative Protestant evangelicals, but some were Catholic, Latter-day Saint, and Jewish. All agreed that pornography is morally wrong, that’s why they are members of the support groups we studied.  Conservative Protestants in particular see pornography use as a sin that is similar to extramarital sex or adultery. But, it was not only through religious language that our participants talked about pornography addiction—it was through science.

In describing their pornography use, most respondents referred to the brain, neurological, or physiological processes. By placing science at the forefront, participants avoided pathologizing men’s pornography use. As Elliott, a 24-year-old Protestant group leader at True Intimacy explains:

“I’m a believer and I’m stuck in this sin…and yeah, I feel like there is a physical component [to pornography addiction]. Your mind is, like, rewired. You have pathways in your mind that are deeply entrenched and even if you are a believer in Christ, it is just hard to get out of that.”

Elliot’s emphasis on scientific claims helps alleviate potential feelings of shame or guilt. Others likened pornography addiction to alcohol or nicotine addiction to further entrench the idea that pornography is biologically addictive.  

But according to our participants, this physical addiction affects only men’s bodies, not women’s. According to their religious beliefs, God designed men and women’s bodies differently. They believed women desired emotional connection and support and men physical intimacy and visual stimulation. Participants’ beliefs about gender naturalized men’s pornography use, but stigmatized women who used pornography. Female users were typically described as using porn to deal with an emotional trauma.

The logic that it is natural and normal for men to want to look at porn does more than alleviate religious men’s guilt, it also frames the avoidance of pornography as a masculine feat possible only through faith in God.  Men talk about avoiding porn as a “fight” or a “battle,” like Jonathan who describes how he was “tired of being held down by the chains of pornography. I was tired of not being the person that God made me to be.”

For our interview participants, overcoming pornography addiction is both a masculine and religious accomplishment.  As our respondents were all cisgender, heterosexual and white, it seems that the redemptive process of recovery from pornography addiction is available only to men who already occupy multiple positions of privilege.

The Takeaways

Religious participants in pornography addiction support groups make both religious and scientific claims about the nature of porn addiction and how to overcome it.  They believe pornography addiction is natural for men but not women.  These beliefs reinforce existing gender stereotypes that limit women’s sexual expression within conservative religions and broader culture.

Kelsy Burke is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
Trenton Haltom is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. 

Can Gender Advisors Make Change in Development Projects?

Can people, working in development bureaucracies, push for radical social change and earn a living?

Gender advisors are the professionals in international development organizations tasked with incorporating gender mainstreaming into development projects. They can be employed on individual project contracts in aid-recipient countries or as full-time staff in donor countries overseeing the inclusion of gender in multiple projects.

The big question becomes: As gender experts inside development organizations grapple with bureaucracy, do they succeed in bringing change in feminist directions?

The Research

In my research, I completed interviews with 60 development professionals involved in agricultural development projects. Of these, 19 of them were gender advisors, many of whom spoke about this moment of women in development programming.

Gender advisors in the donor country noted that they no longer need to campaign for the inclusion of women. “Advocacy work is done,” they said. At the same time, they noted that people feel that gender is “already done” with their coworkers asking them, “didn’t we already do this?” 

One “gender enthusiast,” serving a development organization in the Global North, said she has to work hard to incorporate gender in her organization:

The devil is in the details. Staffing allocations, job descriptions, performance reviews, budget lines, the policies, how much time the vice president makes time for it, ‘Can you get that bullet point in the annual letter?’ I fought every single year in budget meetings for the line items. Every single year, I pushed myself into an executive meeting to give them a briefing… You have to be proactive and push it. Gender is a combination of not-people’s-most-exciting-priority and for people its passé: ‘Shouldn’t we have already fixed it?’ They’re so tired of it, so tired of gender training.

This gender enthusiast and others in the donor country were quick to point out incorporating gender into projects is stymied by workplace resistance. She alludes to the overarching bureaucratic context of working in development organizations to ensure resources are dedicated to the inclusion of women in development projects and notes that her coworkers in the donor country are tired of talking about gender. In order to try to figure out what is happening inside development organizations, I studied one important element of bureaucracy: measurement.

Measurement as a Tool for Power and Control

Now measurement practices may, at first glance, sound boring. But before you hit snooze on performance metrics and indicators, remember that Joan Acker (2006) once said, “Struggles for power and control are often struggles over bureaucratic tools.”

My research with gender advisors, involved in a large agricultural development initiative with stated intentions to empower women, found this statement to be true in paradoxical ways.

In international development projects implementation is often measured in very simple counts, such as “number of people trained.” And Global South gender advisors attempt to leverage these simple counts not as measurement tools, but as bureaucratic tools to force their reluctant coworkers to help with gender mainstreaming. 

Inside bureaucracies, employees are drawn into the dominant modes of acting and thinking within their organizations. Yet my research demonstrates that gender advisors aren’t buying into simple metrics as meaningful measurements. Although they advocate strongly for greater inclusion of “gender” in the quantitative measurement system, they simultaneously find indicators wholly inadequate for measuring change in women’s lives.

Gender advisors want to know how development works, they want to know why women are disadvantaged, and view women as nested within numerous structural barriers—something simple metrics do not capture. Gender advisors voiced wanting grounded, sustainable change that means, for example, if a woman is elected to a local community group leadership position, she will still be serving as a leader a year later. Instead, they felt that because the projects did not address women’s needs more holistically, women’s engagement and benefits were limited.

But by advocating for greater inclusion in the quantitative measurement system, these gender advisors reproduce a focus on metrics that do not serve their measurement interests, but do serve their bureaucratic interests.

How does utilizing simple metrics as bureaucratic tools enable and constrain the actions of people who may have a drive and passion for systemic change?

Due to the gendered nature of the organization, these gender advisors strategically promote metrics in an attempt to garner more staff involvement in gender mainstreaming.

Is measurement a smart battleground for social change? What is gained and lost by engaging metrics as bureaucratic tools to overcome the gendered workplace? For more info, read my forthcoming article about the everyday workplace realities for gender advisors. What do you think these gender advisors should do? 

Emily Springer is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and an affiliate of the Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change at University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on gender, organizations, development, and measurement. Her scholarly work is informed by her experiences as a development professional. Dialogue with the author through Twitter @Springer4Soc.

Constructing Spiritual Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Sister Amélie grew up in the small village of Ngeba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a child, Sr. Amélie remembers seeing Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur ministering in her village, but she did not know what community the women belonged to until she began to study at their local primary school.

Although she was introduced to other Roman Catholic religious orders in the region, the Sisters of Notre Dame remained her favorite. Observing the kindness they showed to others, she decided she wanted to be like the women she had admired from a young age.

“What impressed me the most was their humanitarian work,” explained Sr. Amélie, “When they arrived in the village, they would go from house to house every morning to greet people. The sisters fetched water and gathered firewood for the sick. I told myself I just need to go to the Sisters of Notre Dame and become like them.”

When Amélie shared the desire to become a religious sister with her parents, her mother initially resisted, and she worried that her brother would also oppose the decision. Amélie’s classmates taunted her: “Why become a sister? It’s useless!”

Undeterred, Amélie entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1984 at age 22, professing the three religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience for the first time in 1988. Dressed in a brightly patterned African wrapper, pagne, and matching blouse according to the style of local sisters, Sr. Amélie smiled a little as she shared the memory with me.

When she meets the same friends today, they react differently. Some are happy to see how well she is doing while others are envious. Most of the young women Amélie grew up with did not finish their studies. Sr. Amélie believes they are leading more difficult lives than she, farming, caring for children, and quickly aging while she “stays young.”

Sr. Amélie is one of the 71,567 Roman Catholic sisters in Africa today. She belongs to the transnational Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian religious order that first sent missionary sisters to the newly colonized État Indépendant du Congo in 1894, and now has approximately 1,400 members living in sixteen countries across five continents.

When European sisters began evangelizing Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, they initially had no intention of welcoming local women into their communities. The first African sisters were segregated into diocesan orders founded specifically for black women during the 1920s and 1930s.

Even after African women were formally welcomed into international religious orders following the rise of African independence movements and the Second Vatican Council (1963–65), they faced immense obstacles. Not only did the first local sisters endure the ethnocentrism of the missionaries who formed them, but they also faced resistance from their families for giving up the valued roles of mother and wife.

According to the traditional culture of the Kongo people — a Bantu ethnic group that predates the colony and national state established under Belgian rule — women’s primary obligation is to bear children, produce “riches in human beings” (mbongo bantu), and repair the clan (londa kanda) by giving life to future generations. For women like Amélie, the conflict between fulfilling Western ideals of celibate religious sisterhood and responding to local gendered expectations regarding childbearing and kinship obligations remains a persistent source of tension.

The Research

While doing research for my book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, I interviewed 80 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in the Democratic Republic of Congo, United States, and Belgium.

In my Gender & Society article, I highlight the distinct experiences of Catholic sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Taking lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the 30 Congolese sisters I interviewed chose not to fulfill these local cultural expectations to become wives and mothers.

As we talked in community rooms and outdoor pavilions on the grounds of convent compounds across the cities of Kimwenza, Kisantu, and Lemfu, these women described the resistance they encountered to their religious vocations among family members, extended kin, and peers who could not comprehend their choice.

“For us, procreation is a very, very important value,” Sr. Élodie explained to me,” I received life and I am obliged to give life. It is through marriage and children that I must continue life. But now, I have a block. It is as if I cut off that life, those umbilical cords…to transmit life to others.”

In response to widespread disapproval among their family, friends, and community members, I found that sisters affirmed their communal, moral, and spiritual ties to others through their social ministries. Referring to themselves as “mothers of all,” many sisters explicitly rejected the notion that they could not mother within the convent, focusing on the education and moral formation they provide to youth throughout the region in schools, health centers, and women’s development programs.

In addition to helping sisters expand biological notions of motherhood and redefine the spaces where mothering work is performed, these social ministries provided institutional resources through which sisters could resist regional gender regimes that restrict girls’ education, women’s professional trajectories, and female landownership.

Whereas it is rare to find women in formal leadership positions in many of the villages where they work, sisters administer their own institutions, including schools, dispensaries, and women’s development centers. Sisters also own and manage the land surrounding their convents, including 60 hectares of farmland, which is unusual since traditional practices do not allow women direct access to land rights outside of marriage.

Although most sisters remain in gender-traditional fields of education and health care, they are beginning to enter male-dominated occupations and professions. There are Congolese Sisters of Notre Dame who are working as theologians, linguists, veterinarians, and agricultural engineers, as well as an electrician, lawyer, information technologist, psychologist, anthropologist, medical doctor, laboratory technician, and an auto mechanic.

This is significant in a country where women remain underrepresented in most sectors of the formal economy, and are much less likely than male workers to be engaged in wage employment. In the words of Sr. Simone, who manages the Province’s farmland, “Women are capable of doing any work, no exceptions.”

The Takeaway

The religious women I studied could not completely undo local gender expectations through their religious practices. The ways Congolese Catholic sisters interpret their religious vows and subsequently do religion is clearly shaped by cultural expectations and gender ideals.

Although Congolese sisters make an exceptional commitment to their faith by professing religious vows that seem to conflict with cultural expectations to become wives and mothers, they continue to be influenced by local gender ideals.

Making the radical choice to live outside the institutions of marriage and biological family, sisters do not ignore the pressure to revere motherhood. Instead, sisters draw on Catholic notions of spiritual motherhood to avoid the stigma of childlessness and to redefine the space where feminine care giving is performed.

They do their mothering work in schools, health centers, and other social ministries. Doing religion is inseparable from doing gender as sisters embody alternative ways of being a woman in post-colonial Congolese society through their religious practices.

Casey Clevenger is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University. Her forthcoming book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, is an ethnographic study of Catholic sisters in the United States, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belgium. In addition to her research on gender and religion, Casey studies immigration and healthcare chaplaincy. 

Does having kids make you happier?

Did you know that past studies found parents to be less satisfied with life than non-parents? This is known as the ‘parental happiness gap’.

The parental happiness gap might have been a result of ‘bad’ decision-making due to social pressure and limited knowledge about one’s future situation as a parent. But, whatever may have been true in the past, our forthcoming Gender & Society article “Closing the happiness gap” suggests that the happiness gap has virtually disappeared in the 21st century, at least in Germany.

The decision whether or not to have children is influenced by social circumstance and rational consideration.  It can be a conscious decision based on knowledge about sex, reproduction, and pregnancy, as well as the anticipated social and financial consequences of parenthood. But if parenthood is generally what people desire and choose, why should there be a parental happiness gap?

Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, whose studies on “regretting motherhood” have gained widespread attention, suggests that women do not seem to be as free in their decision to have children as we like to think.  Motherhood tends to be presented as a blessing, the way to female happiness and fulfillment. Alternative accounts are far and few between, even if reality often falls short of these excessively high expectations. To speak freely of the negative aspects of motherhood – or parenthood, more generally – was in fact taboo until very recently.

The mothers in Donath’s study spoke of stress, boredom, a lack of time to themselves, changes to their body, limited professional opportunities, and financial strain. In public, however, the focus has been firmly and almost exclusively on the bliss of motherhood. Children seem to come with a promise of happiness – reality, however, is often a different story.

We wondered if the happiness gap still existed in Germany because mothers have made substantial gains in terms of professional and social opportunities there in recent decades. Women today can more easily opt out of motherhood and enjoy greater freedom in motherhood   – to pursue a career, use professional childcare and take parental leave, for example. These choices should, in theory, result in more people living the lives they truly want for themselves –with or without children.

The Research

Indeed, we found in our study that the levels of life satisfaction of mothers and childless women have converged, as have those of mothers and father. We analyzed a data sample from the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) consisting of more than 18,000 women and almost 12,000 men aged 16 to 55 and over 2000 transitions to parenthood between 1984 and 2015.

A series of hybrid panel regression models show a closing parental happiness gap, which we interpret to be the result of increasing equality among parents and non-parents in terms of education, occupation, and standard of living We find that the political and cultural climate plays a significant role as well, as family-friendly policies and the erosion of normative societal pressure have given rise to an increasing variety of lifestyles.

In Germany, where conservative family values were dominant throughout the 20th century, studies reported a happiness gap and decreased maternal life satisfaction. However, over the past three decades, the strictly gendered parenthood roles of homemaker and provider have been replaced by a much greater variety of family arrangements, and our research shows that German parents are now just as happy with their lives as those without children

We believe our findings reflect the new cultural acceptance of frank conversations about the realities of having children as well as the decline of gendered parenthood norms. In Germany today, having children is truly becoming a matter of choice, and egalitarian parenting is becoming the new ideal.

Today, people no longer have children simply because they are expected to, but rather because, having heard it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly, they desire to be parents. They are also able to select the family arrangements that best suit their needs.

The decline of normative gender expectations in heterosexual couples leads to a measurable gain in individual freedom and a significant increase in life satisfaction for parents and non-parents alike.

Klaus Preisner studied social sciences at the HU Berlin and obtained a doctorate and habilitation at the University of Zurich. Klaus’ research is on family, generations, life course and the welfare state.

Franz Neuberger studied sociology at the LMU Munich, doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2015, Franz has been a scientific consultant at the German Youth Institute. Research focus: Social inequality, family sociology, quality of life research, quantitative methods.

Ariane Bertogg studied sociology at the University of Zurich and the Stockholm University, had received a doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Ariane has done a post-doc at the University of Konstanz with research focused on life course, family sociology, welfare states, quantitative methods.

Julia M. Schaub studied Education at PHZH (Switzerland) and Queen’s University (Canada), and Sociology at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Julia has been an undergraduate research assistant at the UZH Institute of Sociology.

Letting Companies off the Hook: How Top Executives Explain Away Inequality

“The question I have is: do we really have a problem? Does [our company] have a problem? From the data I’ve seen, I don’t think so. I think the industry and this country potentially has a problem.”

This is what one high-level executive, Mike (pseudonyms used throughout), told me when I asked him about the causes of gender inequality in the technology industry.

In new research to be published in Gender & Society, I report on a year-long case study of a Silicon Valley technology company implementing a gender equality initiative. I explore how high-level executives’ explanations for inequality impact the change efforts they pursue. I find that executives tend to attribute responsibility to the broader society (as Mike does), or to individuals, rather than the organization.

Attributing inequality to societal explanations exclusively presumes broader cultural norms must change before gender inequality can be reduced. As demonstrated in Mike’s quote, these explanations often serve to exempt companies from responsibility for creating positive change.

Attributing inequality to individualistic explanations, also common among executives, points to unconscious biases in individuals. Executives might focus on men (e.g. making biased decisions when choosing whom to hire or promote), and/or women (e.g. failing to take risks or assert themselves.) Executives who hold these beliefs about inequality tend to pursue mitigation strategies such as unconscious bias trainings, mentorship programs, and developmental programs. While such efforts can be highly beneficial, if organizations stop there, they risk perpetuating structural forms of inequality that can be more difficult to eradicate. Research shows that without an organizational commitment to change, unconscious bias trainings can even exacerbate inequality.

In contrast, organizational approaches to reducing inequality would theoretically include efforts like changing recruiting procedures to access a wider array of candidates, using clear and specific evaluation criteria during hiring and performance evaluations, and ensuring pay and promotion decisions follow a fair process. However, executives rarely considered such approaches.

One intriguing question remains, beyond this study. Why do executives tend to favor individualistic and societal explanations for inequality? Why is it so hard for executives to see the organizational drivers of inequality?

Perhaps it is a symptom of broader cultural individualism, particularly in the U.S., and even more particularly in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps organizational incentives actively encourage and reward individualistic mindsets. Perhaps maintaining an individualistic view helps executives feel a sense of control in an otherwise disempowering situation. Providing executives with education about organizational strategies to reduce inequality might help them identify and improve organizational practices and procedures that contribute to inequality.

If executives can learn to identify problems in the way their organizations hire, sort, advance, and reward employees, they can hopefully begin to remedy important organizational sources of inequality.

Alison T. Wynn is a Research Associate with the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. She received a PhD in sociology from Stanford University and a BA in English from Duke University. Her research examines organizational policies and practices that may inadvertently create or reinforce inequality. In particular, she studies recruiting practices, perceptions of cultural fit, flexibility programs, and gender equality initiatives in industries such as technology, management consulting, and academic medicine.