American Sociological Association

Paula England

Paula England
To say she loves what she does would be an understatement. To claim that she’s hardworking—doesn’t begin to capture the truth. One colleague, Timothy Smeeding, put it best: “Many people think I am hard working, but I don’t hold a candle to Paula.” And as for getting it right, she’s as dedicated and as tenacious as they come. Perhaps her core quality, though, say colleagues, is her love of ideas.

When assigned the task of writing this essay for Footnotes, I set out to collect data from former colleagues and students across the country. Fellow faculty, past and present, were eager to share particular “Paula moments.” One colleague recalls a long, grueling day during a MacArthur research network in Aspen. The group retired to the hot tub to relax and the conversation wandered from one inconsequential topic to another until Paula joined. She was right back to the rich intellectual discussion that the group had been having earlier in the day. Another time, she and a colleague had been so intent in their discussion of what predicts unintended fertility that they walked out of the restaurant without paying. After the waitress chased them down the street and demanded payment, they realized they were so lost in conversation they were walking the wrong way. Then there are Paula’s distinctive habits—subject to change every decade or so. In the 80s and 90s, it was clogs and Diet Pepsi. When Paula left Arizona for Stanford, one colleague commented, “It sure will be hard to fill Paula’s clogs!”

Anyone who knows the subject of this essay well—incoming ASA president Paula England—knows she’s famous for her lack of a sense of direction—left or right. But her academic direction has always been sure. Even if she had a sense of direction, she would probably be thinking too intently about something profound—her work, a student’s paper, or some controversy within the discipline—to pay much attention to her physical surroundings.

Longtime colleague Greg Duncan says, “Paula has always been two steps ahead of me, regardless of the time of day” and many others agree. Fellow Midwesterners (including the author) might suspect this is due—at least in part—to her origins in America’s heartland. Born in Rapid City, SD, she was raised in the Minneapolis, MN, suburbs, the first of four children born to a professor at “the U” (if you have to ask....) and a stay-at-home mom. Even in her mostly white and middle-class Minnesota environment, England felt herself drawn to people’s suffering.

Choosing Academia

For college, she ventured west to Whitman College. She thought she would pursue a career “helping people.” Accordingly, she chose a double major in sociology and psychology. During college, two things occurred that turned England toward pursuing a PhD in sociology and becoming an academic. First, it was the 1960s with its various critiques of “the system.” England got interested in the deeper roots of problems, not just “band-aid” solutions. Second, she was coming to love intellectual life. Ideas interested her.   

After graduation, England began graduate study at the University of Chicago.  A pioneer in the study of gender, England largely served as her own mentor, though Edward Laumann, who would go on to provide the first reliable statistics of the sexual practices of Americans since the Kinseys, served as her chair. Rather than the study of sex, however, (a topic that would re-emerge in her later years with her study of the hook-up culture), what captivated England was gender—the gender pay gap in particular.

In England’s own words: “I was becoming a feminist in my personal and political life. I never had the opportunity to take a class on gender—or even one that considered gender nontrivially—as an undergraduate or graduate student. But it seemed that I could extend some of the tools and questions learned studying stratification to women and gender. I give my committee, chaired by Edward Laumann and including David McFarland and Jim Davis, credit for letting me take on the topic although they knew nothing about it, and I could at the time find only about 10 articles published on the sex gap in pay by either sociologists or economists. Talk about a wide open field!”

“I was lucky in my career that the idea that gender was a respectable, even important, area of study grew just as I was getting and changing jobs. I do, however, remember once in the mid-1990s when a young gender specialist on the faculty of a top PhD-granting department that will go unnamed told me that the senior colleagues (mostly men) in her department didn’t think gender was really a legitimate subfield of sociology and certainly shouldn’t have a prelim in it. I felt horrible for her. I said ‘Well you can tell them that the editor of the ASR disagrees with them on that.’”

A Focus on Sex Discrimination

The first two decades of England’s career were spent documenting a type of sex discrimination that most people never notice. When people think about workplace sex discrimination, what often comes to mind is the lack of equal pay when women and men hold the same job . Employers may also discriminate against women when hiring for particular kinds of jobs—say, for electricians. But England’s early work indicated a third discrimination. First, she corroborated the work of many others, finding that women and men tended to work in sex-segregated jobs. One might assume that female-dominated occupations required less education and general cognitive skills than men’s, thus leading to a gender gap in pay. Not so! There were both male and female jobs at most skill levels, and male-dominated jobs systematically paid more at each skill level. Why?

England argued that employers implicitly take the sex composition of jobs into account when they decide what to pay their employees. If it is a female-dominated job, they set the pay lower than they otherwise would. “It is as if there were a cognitive bias toward thinking that if jobs are done by women, they cannot be worth much. This bias, I believe, reflects a general cultural devaluation of women and, by extension, roles associated with women. Institutional inertia cements this bias into wage structures,” England said, as she summarized this body of work in her speech at the American Academy of Political and Social Science induction ceremony in 2009.

Being a worker-bee, England spent 20 years putting together convincing evidence that the sex composition of jobs actually affects pay. Trying her best to prove herself wrong, she controlled for everything she could think of, yet she consistently found a net negative effect of the percent female of an occupation on pay. Her critics charged that the pay differential was likely because those women and men who selected into female jobs were just losers on some dimension our datasets do not measure. But England deployed fixed-effects models to show that when the same person moves from a female to a male job, they make more money, and that when the move is the other direction, they lose money. Then, by pooling occupational data by year, she again used fixed-effects to show that as an occupation feminizes, pay declines. The change in wages follows the change in sex composition, rather than coming before.

Entering the World of Advocacy

In the 1980s and 1990s, while England served on the sociology faculties of UT-Dallas and University of Arizona, she took these results and dove in to the policy discussion of equal pay for equal worth, dubbed “comparable worth” or “pay equity.” England advocated for requiring employers to prove that they had used a consistent set of criteria to set wages across all jobs, regardless of whether they were male- and female-dominated. England began jetting across the country participating in debates—some with fellow academics, but also with lawyers and heads of personnel departments. She testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This was her first taste of the interdisciplinary dialogue, which has become a hallmark of her career, She often engaged with economists, many of whom were convinced that the lower wages in female-dominated jobs was due to “crowding”—the idea that women were crowded in to a few occupations—or to “compensating differentials”—the notion that employers were compensating people who worked in male-dominated jobs for unpleasant or risky attributes of those jobs. England argued that the evidence for the former was scarce—economists couldn’t actually measure crowding—and the extant evidence argued against the latter. In short, England argued that the evidence suggested that the nonpecuniary job qualities that men typically like (e.g., working outdoors) have wage premiums, but those that women typically like (e.g., caring professions) are penalized.

Time for a Change

England switched topics in the mid-1990s. England says of that point in her career, “At some point I realized it was getting really repetitious. I sometimes say that I said to myself ‘Girl, you need a new topic.’ Of course I never actually said that to myself. So I started exploring the arenas of gender in households and relationships, and …became fascinated with class gradients in things like unplanned pregnancies, contraceptive inconsistency, nonmarital births, [and so on]. Also, with what was going on with sexuality in new cohorts.”

Again, much of this work has been in dialogue with economics. Washington University economist Robert Pollak told me, “Paula has great intuition about economics and incredible tenacity. The example that comes to my mind is her persistence in questioning Becker's conclusion that efficiency requires gender specialization in household time use. Paula insisted that there was a role for bargaining power. She was right…. Paula saw that something was wrong and, characteristically, she wouldn't let it rest.”

Since then, England has been boldly entrepreneurial in her approach to research. Along with collaborator Elizabeth Armstrong, she has done groundbreaking work on the college “hook-up” culture, a phenomenon shrouded in myth but with precious little reliable evidence. To begin, she initiated the course, “Sex and Love in Modern Society”, using the class as a giant focus group. This course has now been replicated in universities across the country. With various collaborators, she has also explored class differences in unplanned fertility, arguing for the importance of efficacy—the learned ability to align one’s behavior with one’s goals—among other factors. To this end, in the mid-2000s, this veteran number cruncher decided to expand her methodological toolkit, diving into the deep end of qualitative research, following a group of new parents with children (mostly unmarried) from the delivery room through their child’s fourth year of life. One more story about Paula must be told here. She and a graduate student had set up an interview with a couple who lived in a midrise housing project in Chicago. Having read scores of ethnographies about public housing, they bypassed the elevator (which “everyone” who has read such tomes “knows” don’t work) and lugged about 20 pounds of video equipment up several flights of stairs. Arriving at their respondents’ door huffing and puffing, the couple exclaimed, “Why didn’t you just take the elevator?”

An Advisor and Mentor

Drawing data from former students and post docs, as a teacher, and especially as an advisor and mentor to graduate students, England is second to none. Former and current students celebrate her conscientiousness, one writing, “I remember working to get a draft done of a paper, or dissertation chapter, and sending it at the end of the day, at night, anytime. Without fail, I would get the draft back with full comments within 24 hours. It was almost too soon!” Another recalls her asking him to send her weekly progress reports on his dissertation. She would write back, offering comments. “The comments themselves would quickly cut straight to the heart of whatever was wrong and right with the argument, and were extremely helpful to a young student trying to figure out how to put together a paper that would have a chance for publication,” another student recalls.

Students also cite England’s honest, direct approach. Whether it was about a paper, their career path, or even a personal issue, they could count on Paula to be honest and direct. Her editorial skills—her “surgical precision” is also often noted. England recently told me, “One of my real joys today is when my graduate students bring me statistical output from their projects or our collaborative projects, and we pour over it together like Sherlock and Watson, trying to figure out what the data are telling us, and what analysis to do next to figure it out.”

Liana Sayer, who completed a post-doctoral fellowship under England’s direction, said, “I went on to work with Paula on an NIH post-doc using NSFH [National Survey of Families and Households] data on who wanted divorce in analyses of how women’s and men’s economic independence affected who left whom; many moons later one of the resulting articles was published and received two awards. All due to Paula’s keen intellect, good counsel, and dogged persistence… Paula is generous, wise, and the best example of mindfulness I’ve encountered.” Marcy Carlson, one of England’s collaborators, said that England is “generous in that she is quick to put others first and especially to promote the careers of junior scholars…. Paula is a true model for how to be a…colleague in this field."

Paula now serves as a Professor of Sociology at New York University. Before NYU, she was co-director of a new Stanford-Harvard Collaboration for Poverty Research, aimed at promoting new policy initiatives to deal with social problems related to inequality and poverty. England is the author of Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence (1992) and Households, Employment and Gender: A Social, Economic, and Demographic View (with George Farkas, 1986). She co-edited (with me) Unmarried Couples with Children (2007) and Industries, Firms, and Jobs: Sociological and Economic Approaches (with Farkas, 1988). In addition to Stanford and NYU, she has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas-Dallas, University of Arizona, University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as director of Women’s Studies and the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women and Gender, and Northwestern.

England’s awards abound. She, along with various coauthors, won best paper awards in 2013 and 2012, for an article appearing in the American Journal of Sociology. In 2013, she won the Distinguished Research Career Award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sociology of the Family. In 2009 she was elected Francis Perkins Fellow, American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sociologists for Women in Society chose England in 2008 as the Feminist Lecturer for 2009. In 2007 she received an honorary doctorate from Whitman College. She was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 2005-06. And in 1999, she was ASA’s Jessie Bernard Award winner, for career contributions to scholarship on gender.

Beyond the weighty CV, however, what I hope this essay has accomplished is to introduce to the members of the Association the “real” Paula England. She is someone to admire, laugh with, tackle important puzzles with, and model your life after. The ASA is in excellent hands.

Kathryn Edin, Johns Hopkins University