Family Values, Family Realities
Gerstel’s work clearly has impact beyond academia, addressing the limits and promise of public policies that affect American families.
Gerstel’s early work examined marriage. Her first book, Commuter Marriage, focuses on couples who live apart to pursue their jobs and, as she emphasizes, to maintain their marriages. More recently, 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, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education, to the Oprah Winfrey Show, Charlie Rose and Good Morning America.
In more recent work, Gerstel seeks to broaden the vision of what constitutes a family to include elderly parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, adult siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, a vision that runs counter to sociology’s historic focus on the nuclear family. In her book Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Lives, coauthored with Natalia Sarkisian ’01G, ’05PhD, they demonstrate that in addition to gender, both race and class shape caregiving and social connections with these relations.Gerstel and Sarkisian have coauthored a number of articles examining how race and class shape caregiving and the extended family, one of which was awarded the Rosabeth Moss Kanter International Award for best international research on the family.
Gerstel is a two-time Russell Sage Foundation scholar, an appointment offered to a select group of individuals each year to pursue their writing and research at America’s principal foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. During her most recent time there, she worked with colleague Dan Clawson, sociology, on a forthcoming book explaining the processes that influence the unpredictability of work schedules. Their research shows that work hours—whether shifts, vacations, or sick time—are shaped by inequalities rooted in gender and class. That work began in what Gerstel says was “a wonderfully productive time at the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families” where she and Clawson were Family Research Scholars.
Gerstel has spent her career shaping society’s conceptions of work and family, and plans to make the results of her work more publicly available. She has begun working with the Public Engagement Project (PEP), whose role is helping faculty learn how to bring their research outside of the academy—whether to domestic or international students, the media, Congress, local groups, or various social movements.
Gerstel’s work clearly has impact beyond academia, addressing the limits and promise of public policies that affect American families. She has written about three aspects of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including the political process shaping its passage, utilization of the act and compliance with its mandates. Collaborating with Amy Armenia ’97, ’02G, ’06PhD, her work shows that women are much more likely to take the leaves mandated by the act and that affluent white women are most likely to take the unpaid leaves that the FMLA mandates. Their research also shows high rates of non-compliance even among organizations mandated to comply with the act. This work has been the basis of plenary addresses, talks and consultations at the National Academy of Science and at the Yale Law School, and was featured on the Contemporary Council on Families and the Institute for Research on Women’s websites as well as in various news outlets.
Gerstel’s career is marked by a passion for passing her knowledge on to others. She loves to teach and was a recipient of the University Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching award at UMass Amherst. Gerstel served as director of graduate studies in the Department of Sociology and has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students. She has included students as co-authors on publications and, as graduate students’ letters warmly attest, she has proven to be an exceptionally caring and wise mentor, helping them to complete their dissertations and to move into productive post-graduate careers.
Gerstel’s groundbreaking research and scholarship has garnered her other awards, including the 2010 Robin Williams Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the 2008 American Sociological Association Race, Class and Gender Section Award for Distinguished Article, and the 2007 Samuel F. Conti Fellowship for Excellence in Research, and the title Distinguished Professor from the university’s Board of Trustees. She was recently elected a Fellow of the Sociological Research Association, the prestigious international research honorary society in sociology.
Karen J. Hayes '85