Are Most U.S. Women Intensive Mothers? Perhaps Not.

By Jane Lankes

Today when we think about mothers, we often think of moms as overworked, tired, and stretched thin—more so than their own mothers were, and far more so than their grandmothers were. Women today spend more time with their children than in previous generations, breastfeed for longer periods, spend more money on kids’ needs and wants, invest more physical and emotion energy into parenting, and are more likely to prioritize children over their own health and well-being. This is called intensive mothering, and it is based on the idea that good mothering requires all this effort. This belief is widespread in the United States and several other western countries, leading to stress, anxiety, and guilt for modern mothers.

With so much emphasis on how much more common intensive mothering is today than a few decades ago, it’s easy to imagine most women believe intensive mothering is necessary and are intensive in their own parenting. Indeed, it feels nearly impossible to talk or write about modern women’s parenting without presuming it involves this kind of high time and energy investments. But, are most mothers actually that intensive? Who isn’t an intensive mother?

We know from the work of other scholars that women who are working-class or non-white are less likely to be intensive, in some ways. For example, they are more likely to believe that mothers’ health and happiness is an important goal, in contrast with intensive mothering beliefs emphasizing that children should always come before parents. But are these the only women who take a less “intensive” approach? How different are these women from the majority?

In my recent Gender & Society article, I found the presumption that most American mothers follow these intensive mothering norms may not be accurate. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS), I explored how women adhere to, reject, and negotiate intensive mothering attitudes and behaviors. I found four types of mothers: Relaxed Mothers (33%), High Investors (25%), Essentialist Mothers (22%), and Strained Mothers (20%). Relaxed Mothers were relatively low on intensive mothering overall. High Investors displayed high intensity behaviors, but still retained some attitudes that were more relaxed. Essentialist Mothers were the only group that believed mothers were naturally better at caregiving then fathers. Finally, Strained Mothers were emotionally stressed, but were still fairly non-intensive in their parenting behaviors. In short, while women who do not mother intensively are often seen as  “deviating” from the norm, my research suggest they may be in the majority, or at least as prevalent, as the ones with high intensity.

Relaxed Mothers and Essentialist Mothers tended to be less educated, less wealthy, and younger than High Investors and Strained Mothers. They were also more likely to be Black or Hispanic and be a single mother, suggesting Relaxed and Essentialist Mothers are overall less socially advantaged than High Investors and Strained Mothers. Therefore, while the least intensive group (Relaxed) was less advantaged and the most intensive group (High) was more advantaged, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how background characteristics are related to intensive mothering; Essentialist and Strained Mothers are both fairly moderate or mixed in their parenting intensity, but they looked very different in terms of education, income, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status. More research is needed in this area.

Employment status also had a complicated relationship with intensive mothering. Relaxed Mothers, the least intensive group, and Strained Mothers, the most emotionally strained group, both were likely to be employed. This suggests employment can result in varying parenting experiences for moms, with some showing high emotional strain and others appearing more relaxed. Moreover, monetary resources don’t appear to “protect” working moms from emotional distress, as Strained Mothers were far more wealthy than Relaxed Mothers.

My research shows far more variety in mothering styles exists than is often assumed, and these findings matter for social policy. We often assume that most mothers can and will be intensive parents, meaning, most kids are receiving the high levels of investment characteristic of intensive mothering. It’s important that we stop framing high intensity mothering as the norm, because this almost certainly hides important differences in children’s development across families.

Jane Lankes (@JaneLankes) holds a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from The Pennsylvania State University and is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Her research examines family, gender, and well-being, with focuses on motherhood and marriage.

Breaking Barriers? Unpacking Women’s Empowerment in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts

By Justen Hamilton

Women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) is among the fastest growing sports in the world. Long existing on the margins of combat sports, women are now routinely punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and strangling opponents into submission in front of sold-out crowds in the United States and around the world, as women’s “cage fighting” has suddenly become a very lucrative business for combat sports promoters. Catapulted by the meteoric rise of WMMA superstar, Ronda Rousey, WMMA has quickly gone from being viewed as a sideshow attraction to a major professional sport in just a few years’ time. As of 2018, MMA is now more popular with both men and women ages eighteen to thirty-four than major U.S. sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, and, globally, WMMA now has a bigger fanbase than almost any other professional women’s sport. While women have participated in other combat sports to varying degrees throughout history, no women’s combat sport has been met with the level of curiosity and attention than that which has been given to women’s mixed martial arts. 

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows athletes to use a wide range of fighting techniques to seek victory by knockout, submission, referee intervention, or judges’ decision while competing within the confines of a ring, or more commonly, a cage. Its athletes incorporate techniques from numerous martial arts disciplines—including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling, karate, and boxing—and wear minimal protective equipment to create the most “realistic” form of combat sport. MMA is most commonly associated with its premier organization—Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—and is colloquially referred to as “cage fighting” or “ultimate fighting” by outside observers. Although women were prohibited from competing in the UFC until 2013, women now account for more than 15% of their total roster and are featured in most MMA events throughout North America and across the world. 

While media coverage of WMMA has ranged from moral panic to acclamation, in recent years, WMMA has increasingly been framed as a site of women’s empowerment. Drawing from popular feminist language, media have routinely portrayed WMMA athletes as revolutionaries “breaking barriers” to liberated female subjecthood through their participation in the violent and hypermasculine world of mixed martial arts. The UFC has also capitalized on this empowerment discourse, itself, with marketing taglines such as “breaking barriers” and “women’s empowerment [with] a whole new look” ( while other MMA promotions have even begun holding all-women’s events, such as ONE Championship’s September 2021 event, “Empower.” This framing of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment raises interesting questions for the sociology of gender: Who are these new female subjects? In what ways are they challenging and reproducing gender? And to what extent should we characterize their participation in this new sport as “empowering”?

These are some of the questions I explore in my recent article in Gender & Society. Drawing from interviews with 40 professional WMMA athletes, as well as more than four years of ethnographic fieldwork on the sport of WMMA, I take seriously this notion of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment and attempt to unpack what that means—not just for the athletes themselves, but also for women in general.

I find that although women’s participation in MMA offers potential to challenge patriarchal constructions of womanhood and influence feminist social change, this potential is not currently being realized. Rather, WMMA athletes’ experiences in MMA only seem to strengthen their beliefs in “natural” sexual difference and male superiority, as well as instill in them an ideology of individualism that blinds them to inequality and allows them to believe in a world where  social change is unnecessary and even undesirable. I conclude therefore that rather than empowering themselves, paradoxically, these athletes are actually disempowering themselves by ignoring the existence  of gender inequality and undermining their potential to serve as agents of feminist social change.

The implications of my findings are that we must resist the inclination to see women’s participation in any traditionally “masculine” arena as inherently empowering. Rather, we should be embracing more radical and collective visions of women’s empowerment that incorporate intersectional concerns with class, sexuality and racism. While the symbolism of women fighters may be encouraging to feminist observers who strive for a more equitable society, such symbolism does little to alter the lives of women when the social and structural forces that constrain women’s lives remain unchallenged. Only by first addressing these barriers can we actually begin to break them. Only then may martial arts and combat sports fulfill their potential as spaces of women’s empowerment and combat sports athletes as allies in women’s liberation.

Justen Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His research is situated at the intersection of gender, sport, and ideology.

When the “Ideal Worker” is a White Man, Everyone Else Has to Work Harder

By Rachel M. Korn, Joan C. Williams, and Cecilia L. Ridgeway

When President Biden announced that he would be nominating a Black woman for the upcoming vacancy on the US Supreme Court, there was an almost immediate public backlash. In one high-profile example, Senator Roger Wicker was quick to claim that the future justice will be the beneficiary of affirmative action quotas, while Senator Ted Cruz called the suggestion offensive and insulting to Americans.

The criticism began before the names of any potential Black women candidates were suggested, which means that the actual qualifications of any particular candidate were not the cause of the backlash. Clearly, the assumption of these detractors is no Black woman in the entire county could possibly actually be qualified for the job. The other piece of the assumption is that a Black woman being chosen for Supreme Court Justice must have gotten an unfair advantage in the form of lowered standards.  Since the creation of the supreme court, 94% of justices have been white men. If any Supreme Court Justices are getting a pass on qualifications due to their race and gender, they’re the white men.

Let’s take a step back. Imagine a Supreme Court justice. Or a brilliant architect, savvy tech entrepreneur, or high-powered lawyer. If you’re like most people, what jumped into mind was a kinda tall white guy. This means that all other groups have a harder time navigating the workplace. These non-prototypical workers face a routine burden of extra work to get ahead in the workplace – a burden that is largely invisible to the white men around them.

Our research, reported in our recent article in Gender & Society, explored six forms of workplace bias in the profession of architecture: Prove-it-again reflects assumptions about who is competent – and who isn’t. Tightrope bias reflects that authoritativeness and ambition are more readily accepted from white men than from other groups, who consequently face more complicated office politics as they walk a tightrope between being seen as “too meek” or “too much.” Other forms of bias include a lack of fit with the dominant culture, exclusion from the information-sharing networks, being expected to do emotion work (like acting as the peacemaker), and being constantly interrupted.

We surveyed men and women architects from five racial groups about their workplace bias experiences and the results highlight the impact of intersectionality. Over and over again we found that the experience of women of color typically diverges the most from that of white men, with the experience of Black women often diverging the most as compared with other women of color. White women and men of color tended to fall in between, but typically reported experiences closer to women of color’s experiences than to those of white men. The notable exception was Latinos, who often reported experiences similar to those of white men (perhaps because architecture is such a class-conscious profession and Latino architects come from upper class families? We aren’t sure). We see these intersectional patterns very clearly, for instance, in how often women of all races and men of color reported having to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as their colleagues, or that they get less respect for the same quality of work. These are vivid, everyday examples of routine prove-it-again bias that white men were much less likely to report experiencing.

Tightrope bias means that white men typically are seen as a good fit for leadership roles, while others are expected to be deferential worker bees. Conforming to such expectations takes work: self-editing in order to prioritize the comfort of others in the workplace can be taxing and exhausting. While workers who are closer to the image of the ideal worker may be free to act authentically, other groups have to put energy into coming off as competent without being seen as “too aggressive.” Women of all races and men of color, for example, were less likely to say that people expect them to play leadership roles, and more likely to say that they get pushback for behaving assertively.

From the Supreme Court to architecture firms, those who don’t match the prototype of the ideal worker find they need to put in more effort and energy in order to have the same outcomes as white men. That extra work tends to be invisible to those in charge but it doesn’t have to be. Our work is a step towards making the routine burdens visible, and making them easier to undo – from architecture workplaces all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Rachel M. Korn is the Director of Research at the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Joan C. Williams is a Sullivan Professor of Law, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Cecilia L. Ridgeway is the Lucie Stern Professor of Social Sciences, Emerita, in the Sociology Department at Stanford University.

Why are Cambodian Women Underrepresented in Labor Unions?

By Kristy Ward

In 2013 hundreds of thousands of garment sector workers took to the street to protest about minimum wages in one of the world’s most durable authoritarian regimes – Cambodia. The minimum wage protest was not an isolated event. In the years prior to 2013 the number of labor strikes increased dramatically. Women-led strikes also continued even after the military violently cracked down on workers. Most protestors were women, who also accounted for 85 percent of the garment sector workforce. By 2022 women are increasingly found in high numbers the construction sector, at 40 percent of the workforce. Yet few labor unions – member organizations that represent workers on workplace issues – are headed by women or have women in their top leadership. 

Culture and the disproportionate burden of care work are argued to shape women’s opportunities in political spaces, including unions. Yet many women do challenge cultural norms, as evidenced by their willingness to digress cultural expectations of virtuous and proper women through labor protest. In my recent article in Gender & Society, I argue that to understand why women are systematically excluded from unions it is necessary to look beyond marginalization within institutional silos – work, unions and family. I argue that narratives and practices of gendered subordination across each institution are deeply interrelated. The outcomes of this marginalization across these institutions are also inconsistent and unexpected, thus undermining any gains made. Women who seek to influence union structures are sidelined, while the deeply political issues that affect them are reframed as questions of wages or contracts or of personal and family matters.

Male federation and plant-level union leaders told women workers that they needed coaching – to acquire new skills and knowledge – before they could take up a position of responsibility within union ranks. Women did not participate in union leadership, they said, because they were uneducated and lacking in experience. Women needed to learn from other leaders (who were male) so that they could acquire the necessary knowledge to perform in these roles. This was also true of paid positions in the federation where men were engaged in public facing and decision making roles, while women were employed in administration, mid-level finance, worker engagement and cleaning roles.

In both the construction and garment sectors women were paid less than men for the same work. As Thida, a female construction worker, told me, “They believe that in construction you have to be strong to do the work and, because women are not as strong, they get paid less. Why do we get paid differently when we do the same work? It’s unfair.” Women also described how employers and supervisors used violence to control their behaviour. Unions then justified women’s exclusion from union leadership roles on the grounds of harassment at work. When I asked why there were no women in leadership positions, Rottanak and Ros, both male leaders of factory-level garment unions, described how women unionists were repeatedly harassed by factory management and by pro-government unionists, making them unsuitable, in their eyes, for union duties.

A final point of intersection between work and gender regimes is precarious employment. Workers explained that fixed-duration contracts, ranging from two to six months, were used by factory management to fire workers who joined unions or did not work hard enough to meet production targets. Many women, however, said that they preferred such arrangements because it gave them additional, and much-needed, income. Yet according to male union leaders women lacked the education and knowledge to understand the implications of being employed on a fixed-duration contract. For this reason, they explained, women were ill-suited to become workplace-level union officials.

Care demands also shaped union leaders’ perceptions of where women belonged in the union hierarchy. Unionists from both sectors unanimously perceived that when women took up paid and elected union positions, it was difficult for them to fulfill their household responsibilities. These responsibilities, moreover, were repeatedly identified by senior union leaders as a barrier to women’s union activism, especially as union organizing activities were often conducted after work and on the weekends when children are not at school. Narratives regarding women’s safety and mobility – travelling to the province for worker consultations – were also used to demonstrate women’s lack of suitability for union work.

Women have begun to make headway within Cambodia’s garment and construction unions in the past decade. More women have taken up leadership roles in the last five years – particularly at the enterprise level – and matters such as maternity leave are now commonplace union issues. Several unions have amended their by-laws to allocate quotas for women in leadership roles or established women’s committees. On paper, at least, Cambodian union federations have stepped up their gender focus, often with support from international labor movement donors. One might expect that if there are gains for women in unions, there must also be gains in the workplace or in the family. Similarly, constraining norms that operate in the family would prevent political advancement in unions. Counterintuitively, my research shows the opposite. Women are punished for gains in one regime by an interlocking regime. For example, women’s activism in unions to defend labor rights may enhance their confidence and assertiveness within the union, yet they are penalized for these very same behaviors by workplaces and family members.

These gender regime dynamics have substantive effects. Women’s adverse incorporation in unions means that the issues that matter most to them as workers, such as gendered workplace violence and harassment, are often ignored by union representatives, employers and the government. Moreover, any gains within political spaces that advance women’s bargaining power are eroded by narratives and practices in another regime, such as the family, to reinforce a hierarchical gender order.

Kristy Ward is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on labor movements in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on their gendered and political dimensions.

Do the Marriageable Men Want to Protect and Provide? The Expectation of Black Professional Hybrid Masculinity

By Marbella Eboni Hill

Marriage is one of the most highly valued social institutions America. Being married is  as normative as being employed. Still, in the United States some groups have become less likely to ever marry over time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black Americans, who face racism in every aspect of social life are also fairing the worst in terms of marriage outcomes. Their likelihood of ever marrying cannot be explained by differences in the desire to marry. Many people who want to marry face challenges beyond their control to achieving this goal..

One of the challenges impacting young people’s marriage behavior today is the growing confusion about what qualifies one for marriage in the first place. The pathway to marriage was more clear, and socially required, in the past. Gendered courtship processes once involved familial involvement. Men were expected to be protectors and providers of wives and families while women were confined to the world of homemaking and caretaking. This was, of course, a white-coded marriage model not accessible to most Black couples who have historically shared marital responsibilities. Black women have always had a central role in the labor force, both paid and unpaid. Black men’s access to higher education and well-paying jobs has been impeded by various forms of discrimination spanning centuries. The white coded “separate spheres model” was always out of sync with how Black couples have historically done marriage.

In spite of this historical context, academics and non-academics alike have blamed Black men for racial gaps in marriage. They have argued that compared to other groups, Black women have access to far fewer marriageable prospects, given many Black men’s economic disadvantage due to unemployment, incarceration, and low levels of educational attainment. Put another way, men’s marriageability in the U.S. has been tied to their ability to take on the role of dominant financial provider, and according to this definition many Black men have been dubbed unmarriageable. However, these arguments paint a monolithic portrait of the Black experience by ignoring the 50 percent of Black Americans who are not low-income, but still marry at disproportionately low rates.

In other words, although Black middle-class young adults have also experienced a marriage decline, they differ from their lower-status counterparts in that these declines cannot be explained by economic disadvantage. This paradox motivated me to query a group of never-married and college-educated Black men about their marriage aspirations and expectations. How do they define the role of a husband in marriage.

The findings, presented in my recent article in Gender & Society, show that high-earning single Black men do not draw on dominant prescriptions of hegemonic masculinity to define their expectations of being a husband, but instead center goals like balance and fairness in their expectations for their future marriages. Each of my respondents aspires to marry a Black professional woman, who they presume will be successful in her own right and committed to her own career. Given these expectations, the men emphasize that it is only fair to evenly share household responsibilities, including financial provision, cooking and cleaning.

However, men paired these egalitarian expectations for marriage with essentialist gender ideas about men as naturally better suited for activities involving risk. Despite arguing that the role of financial provider should be shared between spouses, men define husbands as natural protectors of wives and children. In line with this, they suggest that outdoor household tasks like taking out the trash and mowing the lawn are men’s work, presumably because they are risky, and should remain as such.

Considering Black professional men’s endorsement of both egalitarian and essentialist gender ideologies I characterize their unique racialized and classed gender identity as a form of Black professional hybrid masculinity. I conclude by arguing that although this construction of masculinity does not meet mainstream standards of feminism, as it leaves essentialist ideas about biological gender differences intact, it does challenge long-held controlling images of Black women as masculine and Black men as weak. Black professional hybrid masculinity also undermines academic and public narratives of Black middle-class men’s partnering preference for non-Black women, as not only do these men plan to marry Black women, but they also construct their masculine identities around their needs.

Marbella Eboni Hill is a Sociology Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University in the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. Her research focuses on how early career young professionals navigate family formation and work processes at various race, class, and gender intersections.

Gender-Typed Skill Co-Occurrence and Occupational Sex Segregation in U.S. Professional Occupations

By Constance Hsiung

A popular “brain teaser” in the early 1990s asked: A boy and his father get into a serious car accident, and both are taken straight to the emergency room. The boy requires surgery and is taken to the operating room. The surgeon enters the room, and says “I can’t operate on this boy: he’s my son.” How is this possible?

The explanation is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but because so few women were surgeons then – and indeed now – it was assumed that few listeners would quickly arrive at this answer. This provides one example of a larger gender divide in jobs: some jobs are mostly performed by women and others by men. Although this form of gender segregation has been decreasing for over half a century, it persists today even in the professional jobs where women’s representation has increased most dramatically in recent decades. Present-day examples include registered nurses, special education teachers, and occupational therapists, over 80% of whom are women. Similarly, men make up over 80% of computer programmers, most types of engineers (e.g., aerospace, electrical and electronics), and the clergy. Such divisions sharpen when we also consider technical jobs such as physicians’ assistants and broadcast and sound engineering technicians.

Recent sociological studies have discovered an important explanation for this form of gender segregation: the “gender stereotyping” of certain skills. For example, it is widely believed that men are better at math and negotiating for higher salaries, whereas women are better at caring for young children and mediating social conflicts. The stronger such stereotypes are, the more they reinforce the link between a job’s gendered skill requirements and its sex composition. The basic reason for this pattern is clear: the more certain skills become associated with a given gender, the more both workers and employers will act on the basis of such associations. Consequently, jobs that require more “masculine” skills hire, retain, and attract more men, whereas those that require more “feminine” skills hire, retain, and attract more women.

But in reality, many jobs today require masculine and feminine skills. How does this combination influence the gender segregation of jobs? If we follow the gender stereotyping explanation discussed above, the skill requirements should have opposite effects on job sex composition. That is, for women the masculine skill requirements should decrease their representation, while the feminine skill requirements should increase it. However, this is not what we observe in many of the professional jobs dominated by women, e.g., nurses, most kinds of therapists (e.g., physical, speech), and pre-school teachers. These jobs have above-average requirements for both masculine and feminine skills: those involving physical strength, and those related to helping and caring for others, respectively. Yet, women’s representation increases with requirements for both types of skills. What explains this relationship? 

In my recent article in Gender & Society, I show that women dominate these professional jobs because the jobs’ masculine physical strength requirements co-occur with the feminine skills involved in helping and caring for others. In other words, as requirements for these feminine skills increase, so too do the requirements for the masculine skills (and vice versa). But the requirements for feminine skills are higher than those for masculine skills. Women are drawn into these jobs by feminine skill requirements and not deterred by requirements for masculine skills even if they are above what most other jobs require. 

My research suggests that the gender segregation of jobs arises from gender stereotypes about combinations of masculine and feminine skills rather than independently from any single skill requirement. The reality is that feminine and masculine skills are both needed in jobs often held by women.

The jobs I studied are popularly associated with women, in part as a result of their feminine skill requirements. Yet, they require more physical strength than many jobs dominated by men with similar levels of education and training! How can these skill requirements be reconciled with the widespread view of these jobs as “women’s work”?

The more we know about how these stereotypes operate and are formed, the more likely we are to understand and achieve gender equality in employment.

Constance Hsiung is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. Her research interests lie in the sociology of culture, gender, and work.

Black Mothers and Vaccine Refusal: Gendered Racism, Healthcare, and the State

By Courtney Thornton and Jennifer A. Reich

“Black & Brown parents actually do get penalized for not being able to afford vaccines or take time off to vaccinate children on time. CPS (child protective services) gets involved for medical neglect & child endangerment But ytpipo (white people) deliberately choose not to vaccinate their children with no consequences.”

This observation was offered by a Black mother in an online forum for other Black mothers who had   concerns about childhood vaccines. As the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, the success of public health campaigns, including those related to vaccines, depend on trust. Yet as this mother and others like her note, state efforts to support public health do not necessarily respond to minoritized communities as to white families who question the need to vaccinate.

Mothers who reject or delay vaccines for their children are most likely to be white, college educated (or have at least some college), married, and have higher household incomes. These mothers describe their decisions to reject vaccines in terms of their desire to feel like good mothers who are active decision-makers on behalf of their children. These mothers perceive vaccines as a personal consumption choice meant to optimize their children’s health. They view themselves as experts on their own children, free to accept or reject medical advice as they see fit. This practice is labor and resource intensive and comes with judgments from other mothers and society at large. Yet, white mothers seldom fear state sanctions for doing this in ways that mothers of color do.

Our findings in our recent Gender & Society article provide insight into how Black mothers who opt out of vaccines by choice view the stakes of their decision, including fears that they may be more likely to experience state surveillance and sanctions because of it. Much of the research on Black children who are not fully vaccinated has focused on structural barriers that limit access to vaccines. These children, labeled “under-vaccinated”, are more likely to be children of color, have families with lower incomes, and a mother who is not college educated and is likely to be single. Although structural barriers do limit access to healthcare, the focus on lack of access may ignore Black mothers’ agency and the ways their decisions reflect negative experiences with health systems. To understand this issue, we analyzed online discussions geared towards and used by Black mothers. We show that although Black mothers raise many of the same concerns about vaccines as do white mothers, they view their decisions as riskier since they lack the same privilege that protects white women from state policing and punishment.

Medical racism, in its many forms, is indisputably gendered. Black women face discrimination, heightened scrutiny in interactions with healthcare providers, and inadequate care that leads to disproportionate illness and premature death. Black women also encounter gendered racism in other social institutions that are interconnected with healthcare, including schools and welfare systems. These experiences contribute to Black women’s low levels of trust in public health systems. This often extends to their children and informs their daily parenting strategies.

The women in our study shared oft-cited concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy. But unlike white mothers, they saw vaccines as a white technology created without, and sometimes in contradiction to, the interests of Black people. Citing unfounded claims that Black boys experience high rates of autism after vaccination, one mother insisted,

“its wasn’t created by us for us, hence why so many of our black boys have autism, because we react differently… We have left holistic natural way to take for face value western eurocentric ways.”

Once Black mothers decide to avoid or delay vaccines for their children, they find themselves at odds with the state and its actors. Women who posted in these forums discussed how more privileged parents could avoid state surveillance and punitive action in ways they could not. These concerns often revolved around state laws that require evidence of vaccination as a condition of enrollment in schools or childcare settings. Many mothers recognized that some states are more permissive and allow non-medical exemptions from vaccine requirements for school attendance, but saw those states as often places that could be hostile to families of color. Illustrating this, one mother weighed the challenges of living in primarily white areas against the promise of being able to opt out of vaccines without losing access to schools for their children:

“I hear terrible things about Texas and being a black woman though. Unfortunately a lot of the more scary conservative, racist, sexist politicians are in the states/cities with the [more] choice friendly options for vaccine.”

Lower income Black mothers felt especially vulnerable due to the increased level of scrutiny and loss of privacy they experienced when enrolled in public assistance programs. Because the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) focuses on the health of children, many states require up-to-date vaccine records and regular well-child visits to access the benefits. Women who posted worried that WIC caseworkers would report them to CPS and worried about allegations of medical neglect. They often strategized what information they would share with pediatricians who often collaborate with WIC caseworkers. As one mother cautioned, “Advice do not use govt services. Not to use WIC or welfare because they will force you.” Another mother confirmed these concerns:

“I’m in the WIC program well kind of. I stop going because my WIC worker keeps talking about my kids check up appointments and vaccines. I told her several times I do not vaccinate.”

Pervasive stereotypes of Black women impact all Black mothers, irrespective of class, forcing them to manage their interactions with arms of the state, including healthcare, education, and welfare systems, to protect themselves and their children. Unlike white mothers who are more likely to view physicians as service providers or consultants, the mothers in our study discussed pediatricians as potential threats who could report their families to state agencies, an apt fear since evidence shows physicians are more likely to report Black families to CPS. Mothers referenced this fear as a reason they felt distrustful and alienated from healthcare systems. As one mother explained,

“I try to avoid CPS in all so I do a yearly checkup, lie about vaccination status etc… As soon as they would start to get suspicious of me saying delayed vaccinations, I would find another doctor.”

As Black mothers online identified the freedoms white mothers have, they pointed to the ways inequality powerfully shapes and constrains their options, their ability to exercise choice. This study shows how race, class, and gender are inextricably linked to views of vaccines specifically and of the state more generally. We do not suggest that vaccines are unimportant. Rather, the efficacy of public health campaigns depends on trust in leaders, scientists, and medical professionals, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown. Structural gendered racism in healthcare and in interactions with long arms of the state fuels Black mothers’ distrust, which informs the medical decisions they make for themselves and their children. The result may be that programs intended to improve children’s health may actually undermine Black families’ access. A deeper understanding of these dynamics should inform public health outreach in communities of color and requires medical professionals to more critically reflect on their power as extensions of the state.

Courtney Thornton is a Master of Arts in Sociology student at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include the influence of state policies and systems on the health and well-being of families, and the intersecting impact of structural gender- and race-based oppression on the lives of Black women.

Jennifer A. Reich is Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research examines how individuals and families weigh information and strategize their interactions with the state and service providers in the context of public policy, particularly as they relate to healthcare and welfare. She is author of Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System and Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines, and is editor of the books Reproduction and Society (with Carole Joffe) and The State of Families.

Gender, Veiling, and Class: Symbolic Boundaries and Veiling in Bengali Muslim Families

By Md. A Sabur

In the wake of rapid changes due to economic growth, women in Bangladesh have quickly begun to participate in secular education and paid labor. At the same time, there has been increasing visibility of Islamic practices and gender conservatism among women. I address this paradox: “more modern” and “more religious” at the same time in contemporary Bangladeshi society. My research focuses on the meaning of veiling among Bengali Muslim migrant families in rural Bangladesh. These women are experiencing upward class mobility based on remittances from family members who are migrant workers.

The findings from my recent article in Gender & Society focus on transnational families whose husbands work abroad and whose wives take care of families in rural Bangladesh. I show that veiling is not simply religiously motivated but also helps cultivate social boundaries, distancing these women who aspire to or already belong to the middle class from working-class or poor women. They do gender by veiling because doing so also identifies them as middle class and so they gain privilege, status, and prestige in rural Bangladesh.

My research team and I interviewed 57 Muslim migrant couples (114 interviews). We also did  ethnographic research in Bangladesh, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea. 43 of the 57 wives in these migrant couples practice veiling in public spaces—including the burqa, abaya, khimar, headscarf, and chador. Only two Muslim couples disagreed that women should veil and do not practice veiling. Twelve couples mention that although wives do not currently practice veiling, they may in the future. All the remaining 43 couples (86 respondents) report that  veiling was practiced and discussed why at some length in the interviews.

Although veiling is usually explained as a gendered expression of religiosity, my research digs deep into the everyday uses of veiling in Muslim families. We learned that the women in middle-class families wear veils to protect their natal and husbands’ families’ honor and assert their middle-class status. In some cases, these families have attained middle-class status through remittances from migrant husbands. Veiling serves as a form of conspicuous consumption, validating their newly acquired social status and setting them apart from lower-class Muslim families. Middle-class Muslim families both enable and encourage veiling to signal their upward class mobility.

Middle-class Muslim women make a variety of choices in what veils they wear, when they wear them and where they wear them. Their husbands also send or bring them expensive veils from abroad, which helps solidify their class status while encouraging them to veil. Yet while veiling helps women and their families emphasize their middle-class status, new middle-class Muslims encounter challenges, tension, and conflicts. For example, women may face generational conflicts as to “proper” gender norms, with mothers-in-law concerned that wives do not wear traditional sarees and have instead adopted veiling.

In the age of globalization and transnational labor migration, the expansion of the new middle-class has been accompanied by gender conservatism in many locations like Bangladesh. My research shows that veiling serves to daily produce class inequality and social hierarchy through conspicuous consumption.

Md A Sabur (@SaburMdA) is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at North South University Dhaka, Bangladesh. His research focuses on transnational labor migration, remittances, and changes in women’s status in rural Bangladesh.

Where are We in Closing the Gender Gaps in Time Use?

By Man-yee Kan and Muzhi Zhou

Do women and men spend time in the same way? The answer is a clear No. Across the globe, women do more unpaid domestic work than men, and men spend more time on paid work. There has been little change in the gender gaps in time use over the years. Advocacy for gender equality has lost momentum for this use of time as a political agenda.

Yet, other changes have happened. In most industrialized societies, the percentage of women with a college education has exceeded that of men. Mothers with children are no longer expected to stay at home. Women still shoulder most of the domestic work but does that imply that they work longer total work time than men when we consider both paid work and unpaid domestic work?

We know more about time use in Western than East Asian societies. Sometimes, it is assumed that gender inequality is higher in these East Asian societies because of the emphasis on traditional family ties and the prevalence of men working long hours. We wanted to know if this the case. We wanted to know if the patterns and trends of gendered time use is very different in East Asian societies compared with European and Anglophone countries.

In our recent article published in Gender & Society, we seek to answer these questions by using diary data from both western industrialized societies and East Asian societies: Beijing, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And we looked at data from the past three decades.

There are both differences and similarities between Western and East Asian societies.  There is overwhelming evidence of stalled progress in both Western and East Asian societies. In particular, in Japan, Korea, and Southern European countries, the gender gaps in paid work and domestic work are large. The trend toward closing these gender gaps has been extremely slow in Japan and Korea and has stalled in Southern European countries. In Beijing, Taiwan, and countries like the US and the UK, the gender gaps in paid work and unpaid work time are relatively small and these differences have stopped closing in the most recent decade. Still, women have longer total work time than men across both East Asian and Western societies.

Our findings indicate that policies dependent on family ties and the expectation for women’s providing unpaid caregiving hinders progress toward gender equality. The implications of our research are that we must design policies more carefully to tackle the social norms that presume women responsible for domestic and caring responsibilities because those norms impede progress toward gender equality in the division of labour at work and at home.

Man-yee Kan is an Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford. Her research interests include gender inequalities in the family and the labor market, time use research, ethnicity, and migration. She has been awarded a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (2018–2024) for the project GenTime, which investigates gender inequalities in time use in East Asian and Western societies.

Muzhi Zhou is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Urban Governance and Design Thrust, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou). She studies how critical life events, such as marriage or childbirth, reshape people’s lives in Europe and East Asia, family formation patterns, and how children spend their time and its implications.

Plastic Bodies: Women Workers and Emerging Body Rules in Service Work in Urban India

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By Asiya Islam

The climax of the hugely popular, if only slightly dated, series, Ugly Betty, is Betty’s makeover – in its various iterations around the world, Betty tends to lose her braces, smooth out her frizzy hair, replace chunky glasses with contact lenses, and tap into the transformative powers of makeup. Usually, the radical change in appearance helps her to achieve romantic success. From Ugly Betty and The Princess Diaries to Barbie and online games, makeovers are designed for women, targeting appearances, as a site of insecurity and as untapped site of personal power.

Some recent attempts at feminist retellings of Ugly Betty frame her makeover in terms of professional, rather than romantic, success and confidence. To a certain extent, this reflects contemporary developments in the world of work – globally, with the emergence of service work (think cafes, salons, hotels) and women’s entry into traditionally male occupations, women’s participation in the workforce has increased. In services, and particularly in front roles, such as, receptionists, sales assistants, stewards, and others, women’s appearances matter – service workers are expected to appease customer sensibilities through not only pleasant greetings, friendly conversation, and helpful demeanour, but also makeup and clothing.

Young women working in services in Delhi agree that a makeover is required to become a professional. I have been conducting long-term ethnographic research with such women. In a discussion about emerging job opportunities, a young girl, referring to her friend’s elder sister who worked at a mall, admiringly noted, ‘She wears pants and shirts to work, right?!’ Another woman, Chandni, shared how her personality had changed by being in work – she was no longer a ‘village-type girl’ with ‘oily braided hair’, rather she had become a modern urban woman who knew how to do ‘light’ and classy makeup. Many had indeed enrolled in ‘personality development’ classes at skills centres to adapt their body language – posture, smile, handshake – to suit the middle/upper class sensibility of their workplaces.

Is a makeover something that is done to you or rather does it require active participation to make yourself over? How do workers appraise emerging requirements for such makeovers in service work? In my research in Gender & Society, I show that although there are aspects of changes to their appearance that young women enjoy, they are far from simply accepting and endorsing these makeovers. Indeed, while strategically adopting some bodily changes, women also reflect upon and critique the workplaces that demand them in the first place.

The first time I met Prachi, she greeted me, smiling, with ‘Good morning, ma’am’ as I walked into the café she worked at. A few months later, when our relationship had developed beyond that of worker and customer, Prachi shared her frustrations with work. After she quit, she grumbled about having to ‘keep a plastic smile on the whole day’, referring to the artificial and forced nature of her smile. Chandni shared Prachi’s frustration, both of them agreed that although they are required to wear formal clothes – shirt, trousers, belt, black shoes, and socks – this is not matched by the quality of work. Prachi continued, ‘I was like what the hell are you trying to do. It’s only Rs.7000 [USD 95] salary anyway. Chandni also said it’s so professional in the training, neighbours think we’re going to a good job, then we go back to our aukat [status] …’ After donning smart appearance for the training sessions, the women felt that they were demoted to their working/lower middle class status with low pay, long working hours, and limited career progression at work.

Their makeovers are, then, really about attempting to appear as solidly middle class and changing their personalities to match their new look. At times, they  find pleasure in these changes, but they also experience them as a problem because of the mismatch with the low-end, poorly paid service work they are doing. They further worry that people will be able to see through their newly adopted looks and personalities, rendering them inauthentic and embarrassing. I consider these varied dynamics of changes to women’s bodies in emerging service work in urban India as “plastic.” This metaphor refers to the ways in which women use their bodies to find and keep jobs in service industries. My research shows how ‘plastic bodies’ are site for both self-expression and assertion of agency, as well as a way jobs compel women to change themselves. My findings draw attention to the complex ways in which, unlike the delightful acceptance of makeovers by fictional characters such as Betty and Princess Mia, women workers both enjoy and critique the changes they must make to their bodies to participate in service work.

Asiya Islam is a Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds. Her research explores emerging gender and class relations in urban India through the life narratives of young lower middle class women, with particular focus on emerging forms and futures of work and social inequalities.