American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
September/October 2019
Volume 
47
Issue 
4

Introducing Christine Williams, 2020 ASA President

Adia Harvey Wingfield and Caitlyn Collins, Washington University in St. Louis

Christine Williams

Christine Williams

Christine L. Williams is the Elsie and Stanley E. (Skinny) Adams Senior Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also one of the most influential sociologists of the past half century. 

Christine earned her doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in 1986. Since then, Christine has amassed a dizzying array of publications, awards, and honors—an incomplete list includes the Feminist Mentoring Award and the Distinguished Feminist Lecturer from Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), the Distinguished Lecturer Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, the Distinguished Article Award from the ASA Sex and Gender section, and the Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association. 

As it conferred a lifetime achievement award for scholars who have revolutionized the study of women in society, the Jessie Bernard Committee described Christine’s career as one “marked by innovative insights into gender and sexuality at work.… Williams’ writing reflects her capacity to extend knowledge at the leading edge of scholarship.… Her research reveals her willingness to challenge established thinking in our discipline.… Williams’ publications, awards, commitment to students, and terms in elected office point to the success of the insistence she shares with Jessie Bernard—that feminism be central to sociological inquiry.” And this is only part of the recognition she has achieved over the course of her career. 

A Prolific, Pathbreaking Scholar

Christine’s list of publications is no less impressive. With several books and well over 50 articles and book chapters, she has been a relentlessly prolific scholar. Her research spans the sociology of gender, sexuality, work, and organizations. Her groundbreaking concept of the glass escalator found that men working in professions numerically dominated by women experienced advancement, mobility, and leadership opportunities, in stark contrast to the many obstacles women face working in male-dominated occupations. This research, published in her game-changing book Still a Man’s World: Men Who Do Women’s Work, forced sociologists to rethink how we understood the token experience. No longer could the old arguments stand that tokenism was driven solely by numerical minority. Rather, Christine documented that structural issues of gender, power, and hegemony shape men’s experiences, whether they are one of few or one of many.

Many academics would be protective of the landmark concept that placed them on the sociological map. They would be defensive about criticism and reluctant to hear their work challenged. But the beauty of Christine is that she never stops pushing to make scholarship better, even (or especially) her own. In 2013, Christine revisited her signature concept of the glass escalator and argued in her SWS Feminist Lecture that it needed to be updated to address intersectionality and sweeping changes in the world of work today—the declining public sector, diminishing power of unions, dwindling number of stable jobs, and deteriorating conditions for workers. Not content to rest on these laurels, Christine has also been working on a multiyear project on gender in the oil and gas industry, with a book forthcoming. 

A Pioneering Qualitative Methodologist

Christine is an innovator in qualitative methods and epistemology. Her research interests germinated early. The daughter of a kindergarten teacher and a U.S. Air Force test pilot, Christine moved often as a child, attending high school in Selma, AL, Monterey, CA, and Bogotá, Colombia and college at Wayne State University and the University of Oklahoma. 

Since her time at UC-Berkeley, she has made a name for herself in part through her creative, ambitious methods. Christine observed military bootcamp to understand women’s perspectives in the U.S. Marine Corps for her dissertation work. She conducted ethnographic research with men working as nurses, librarians, social workers, and elementary school teachers. Later, Christine worked full-time at two big box stores to gain insight into the low-wage retail sector for her 2006 book, Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality. Recently, she spent time with C-suite executives and geoscientists to understand workplace inequality and diversity culture in the oil and gas industry. 

Former student Kirsten Dellinger (University of Mississippi) adds: “I have always been truly inspired by Christine’s ability to provide incisive structural analysis of inequalities while also keeping human ambivalence and the complexity of meaning-making central to the story. Christine clarifies and distills without oversimplifying.” Her impact is far-reaching, says Catherine Connell (Boston University): “Christine’s brilliant insights into gendered organizations and occupations changed how sociologists understand workplace inequalities. From the toy store floor to the oil and gas industry boardroom, Christine’s research has uncovered the insidious and interlocking mechanisms of raced, classed, and gendered workplace inequalities across a variety of positions in the contemporary economy.” 

A Feminist Mentor And Teacher 

Christine’s scholarship establishes her professional successes in sociology, but equally important is her work as a mentor, guide, and friend to successive generations of sociologists. Christine was Editor of Gender & Society from 2003-2006. Shelley Correll (Stanford University) sees her as a conscientious leader: “Christine is an amazing mentor of her own students and also other junior scholars. I got to see this firsthand when, as an assistant professor, I served on the editorial board of Gender & Society and Christine was the editor. She took such great care to write decision letters that were encouraging and developmental, even when a paper was rejected. Christine is straightforward and direct. As my career progressed, I knew I could count on Christine to give me advice that was not sugarcoated but was instead an honest assessment of the best course of action.” 

Christine is well-known and respected for her wisdom and candor. Dellinger writes, “Christine has been a trusted academic mentor and guiding sociological force and inspiration in my life for over 28 years. I feel smarter in her presence—both in person and on the page. She has shaped me as a sociologist, and cared for me as a person, and for that I am eternally grateful.” Connell echoes this gratitude: “Christine has truly been a source of inspiration and transformation for so many. Her mentorship provided the foundation on which all of my intellectual, pedagogical, ethical, and professional pursuits have been built; the same is no doubt true for the four decades of other students and colleagues she has mentored.”

Her graduate school compatriots agree. Mary Waters (Harvard University) and Michael Messner (University of Southern California) describe Christine as a dear friend and trusted confidante. Says Mary: “Since our earliest days together Chris has always been my main sounding board, conceptual editor, and sociological muse. She has a wide-ranging curiosity about every possible topic and a no-nonsense approach to social science research. She is willing to share my excitement about an idea or a research finding but not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense or is just plain wrong. Talking to Chris about research always makes me feel better about myself and my work. Everything I have written throughout my career has been made better by my conversations with her and her advice about my work.” 

Every person who knows Christine has an anecdote (or 10) that shows she is exceedingly generous with her time. She is unceasing in her dedication as a mentor. She takes an undergraduate to coffee every semester to encourage them to consider graduate school, joins in for department happy hours, and hosts dinners for advisees at her home with her wonderful partner, Martin Button. Christine dropped everything to help an ABD student hone a job talk before a flyout (one former student recalls exchanging 19 drafts with her in one week). She fields phone calls in the evenings and on weekends to counsel peers and students on time-sensitive matters. Christine’s dictums are words to live by. Students can cite them from memory:

Study things that are timely and relevant—to sociologists and to your next-door neighbor. Design the best, most ambitious study you can. Never turn down a research opportunity. Write simply, clearly, and with panache. Always be willing to have your mind changed. Invest in a good reading chair. We have the best job in the world.

Christine is the first to remind us that it’s a privilege to spend our professional lives learning, thinking, debating, and writing. But equally impressive is that Christine embodies her belief that busyness and exhaustion are not merit badges. She embraces a work hard, play hard mentality and is an avid cyclist, cook, roller skater, and connoisseur of fine beer, wine, and scotch. Michael Messner on Christine’s animated approach to life: “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Christine Williams is laughter. I am one of many who on countless occasions have had my life lightened by her whip-smart wit.” 

A Tireless Advocate for Equity

Christine has also been an energetic and outspoken changemaker from the get-go. Christine’s “passion for social change and emphasis on action make her a powerful leader,” writes Kumiko Nemoto (Kyoto University of Foreign Studies). Christine joined the University of Texas at Austin as an assistant professor in 1988. At the time, the sociology department had only two other woman faculty members. She and Debra Umberson arrived together as assistant professors. Deb recalls: “Christine and I have collaborated on research, taken road trips together, and plotted to overthrow the patriarchy—and we’ve done all three simultaneously. Christine loves nothing more than lively, fierce, and creative debates about sociology—especially when accompanied by wine. These thoughtful conversations, followed by Christine’s generous and surgically precise editing, have inspired and ensured the success of many sociologists, including her students and including me. Christine makes sociology better and she makes it fun! Alongside all these contributions, Christine has played a transformative role in shaping gender equity at the University of Texas as well as nationally and internationally.”

Christine’s colleagues admire her lifelong commitment to institution building. She chaired the Department of Sociology from 2010-2014 and spearheaded efforts to diversify the graduate student body and faculty. Gloria Gónzalez-López (UT-Austin) writes, “Christine Williams is a tireless and unpretentious hardworking professional and academic advocate of her feminist colleagues on campus. She breathes—in and out—an honest, unapologetic commitment to feminist informed social justice. She is an inspiration and a source of priceless, unconditional support to those of us who are blessed to know her well as a colleague and friend. At the University of Texas at Austin she has been a trailblazer of positive change at the department level, changes that have rippled within the college and beyond. She is an invaluable source of institutional wisdom and intelligence to her feminist peers, women at all stages of their academic careers.” Christine has been fundamental in building the department’s national profile, especially its reputation today as a powerhouse in the sociology of gender.

She has also fostered a thriving international network of feminist scholars across institutions, career stages, and social locations. Megan Tobias Neely (Stanford University) says: “Christine founded UT-Austin’s gender workshop, called Fem(me) Sem, where she brought her students together to create an enriching scholarly community. Through lively conversations about empirical puzzles, qualitative methods, and feminist theory, we learned how to push our own work and that of our colleagues to be better. Christine cultivates these same kinds of conversations and relationships well beyond UT and has championed a vast community of feminist sociologists on whom she has made a lasting, meaningful impact.”

The impact of Christine’s personal and professional contributions cannot be overstated. Messner describes Christine as, “the quintessential feminist mentor and leader. Whether she is elevating her home department’s national profile, streamlining and improving Gender & Society, providing leadership in SWS or ASA, her deep social justice commitments coupled with a strong ethical rudder have always resulted in her leaving the organizations she works with in better shape than she found them—more diverse, more just, more efficient, and most likely just plain more interesting, too.” Affirming this appreciation, Gónzalez-López describes her as “the go-to feminist in times of chaos, challenge, and concern, and also in times of celebration of feminist-inspired triumphs. The ASA is very fortunate to have her as an intellectual and professional sociologist leading our discipline—the right person to represent, nurture, and stimulate the development of our profession, especially in these unpredictable, volatile times.” 

For more on the timely, important theme for the 2020 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, “Power, Inequality, and Resistance at Work,” see www.asanet.org/annual-meeting-2020/program