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Feature Stories

Social Science Mecca
On everything from same-sex marriage to equal pay, UMass Amherst scholars are cited around the world
Men being driven in red car holding sign "49 Years Together! Finally married!"

"No other University in this country has so many work-family scholars. I feel so lucky to have ended up in a place where a lot of great people came together."

-Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy

UMass Amherst has a national reputation in clean energy, nanotechnology, computing, and engineering research, and is acknowledged increasingly for work in the life sciences. Perhaps less known but equally impressive is the campus's national prominence in the social sciences. An unprecedented number of leading scholars have chosen UMass Amherst as a home base for investigating the role of work, family, race, and gender in the formulation of national economic and public policy. This large and interdisciplinary subset of the campus's top-ranked social science faculty is playing a major role in the latest social movements by providing information to popular media, winning national and international awards for groundbreaking research, and offering expert testimony to governing bodies around the world.

Through the Center for Research on Families and the Center for Public Policy and Administration, a core group of researchers meet regularly to discuss prevailing social issues and the best ways to address them. Sociologists, economists, regional planners, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and women, gender, sexuality experts among them, their collaborations continue to result in world-class research that stands as a resource for stakeholders across the globe.

“We’re really giving people tools to act on these issues,” says economist M. V. Lee Badgett, an international expert in matters effecting same-sex couples.

In the months and years preceding the recent overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act by the U. S. Supreme Court, Badgett’s research surrounding the societal implications of the legalization of same-sex marriage was at the forefront of the debate. During the 2010 Proposition 8 trial in California, Badgett served as a key witness. Citing data from Massachusetts and the Netherlands, she testified that the legalization of same-sex marriage would strengthen the community and boost the economy. Beyond the U.S. she has had enormous impact on same-sex rights in Australia and Vietnam.

Michelle Budig, Sociology
Parents, Gender, and the ‘Motherhood Wage Penalty’

As the gender pay gap continues to be a hot topic, sociologist Michelle Budig is breaking new ground with her research showing that childless women in the United States make about 94 cents to the dollar made by their male counterparts, a gap that is exacerbated by parenthood—the average mother makes only 60 cents to the average father’s dollar, or about $1,100 a year less per child. Mothers earn less than childless women; fathers earn more than childless men. The difference is called the “motherhood wage penalty” and the “fatherhood wage bonus.”

In 2010, Budig was called to testify before the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee as it attempts to mitigate the problem. Budig also worked with sociologist Joya Misra to compile their ongoing cross-national research on policies that affect mothers’ employment and wages into the Work-Family Policy Indicators—a specialized database hosted by the Luxembourg Income Study and funded by the National Science Foundation. The new database is held in high regard within the sociopolitical realm and Budig’s work is among the most highly cited within the scope of the gender pay gap.

Joya Misra, Sociology
Misra’s research surrounding the gender pay gap and the cost of child care has recently been featured in the New York Times, cited in various media stories, and led to Misra’s appearance on several radio shows. As the editor of Gender & Society, the top-ranked gender studies journal, Misra has appreciated being surrounded by a great number of her successful colleagues on the UMass Amherst campus. She attributes the success of the many social scientists at UMass to their individual strengths and to the ways they work together, bringing the value of an interdisciplinary perspective to much that they do.

Psychologist Maureen Perry-Jenkins, the newly appointed director for the Center for Research on Families, has also done a great deal of research surrounding the transition into parenthood in working-class families and is one of the most highly cited work-family scholars in the world. Her research, which has been largely funded by the National Institutes of Health, is centered on the psychological well-being and emotional stability of parents and children with regard to work and responsibilities. She has found that violated expectations surrounding the division of child care are associated with increased distress after children are born, that working night shifts may be a risk factor for depressive symptoms and relationship conflict in new parents, and that shared leisure time during pregnancy and after is integral to well-functioning marriages. Her work also reveals that while lesbian couples tend to divide housework equally, biological mothers often contribute more to child care.

Miliann Kang, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Race, Nail Salons, and Tiger Moms

Women, gender, and sexuality expert Miliann Kang has found herself in the limelight in recent months. Her book, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work, has been widely praised. It employs intimate, firsthand encounters to delve into the racial and societal implications of the manicure industry, which is increasingly driven by Asian immigrants. The book has won four awards from the American Sociological Association as well as the National Women’s Studies Association’s Sara Whaley Book Prize. Kang’s research surrounding the ‘tiger mom’ stereotype has also landed her lectures and talks around the country.

Sociologist and department chair Donald Tomaskovic-Devey’s recent work has turned heads as it shows that racial employment segregation has hardly budged since 1980, and is even on the rise. His research shows that although it was initially effective, affirmative action has recently had little impact on employment equality, while African Americans are more successful in workplaces that require formal credentials to make hiring decisions. With regard to employment equality, sociologist Jennifer Lundquist has also brought new information to light. Focusing on the military, Lundquist used five measurements of career satisfaction for military subjects, yielding data that shows African American women are the most satisfied with their jobs, followed by African American men, then Latinas, Latinos, and lastly, white men. Lundquist notes salaries and benefits are awarded equally and promotions are given based on standardized success and seniority, allowing for an equal playing field.

An Award-Winning History

Economist Nancy Folbre and sociologist Naomi Gerstel began their long careers during a time when the perceived women’s role was much narrower, yet their contributions have significantly changed the way we think about families. Folbre’s work with family economics can be found in the Economix section of the New York Times blog, while Gerstel continues to conduct award-winning research on marriage and family. Her articles on how marriage limits social ties to relatives, neighbors, and friends have been widely cited in the media, from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education to the Oprah Winfrey Show, Charlie Rose, and Good Morning America.

“No other university in this country has so many work-family scholars. I feel so lucky to have ended up in a place where a lot of great people came together,” Misra says.

Amanda Drane '12