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Ripped from the Headlines

Assistant sociology professor Elizabeth Kiester, Ph.D., researches gender inequality, labor markets and immigration. Her new course, “Immigration and Transnational Families,” is examining the very scenarios playing out across Europe and the United States today.


By Hilary Bentman

When you teach a course called “Immigration and Transnational Families,” today’s headlines inevitably seep into the syllabus.

There’s the migrant crisis in Europe. “We definitely talk about Syria in class,” says Elizabeth Kiester, Ph.D.

And, closer to home, attention is focused south on the U.S.-Mexico border, as the many and politically varied candidates for president offer their take on immigration policy and reform.

But Kiester, an Albright College assistant professor of sociology, is accustomed to addressing such hot-button topics. After all, when you research work and labor markets, gender inequality, and immigration, controversy comes with the territory.

Kiester’s “Immigration and Transnational Families” course, part of the Family Studies program and new to Albright this semester, is examining the social construct of immigration and how it impacts the family – from a father’s absence at home, to the shift toward more female migrants, to the issue of unaccompanied minors.

“How we talk about immigration influences policy,” says Kiester.

She should know.

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Assistant professor of sociology Elizabeth Kiester, Ph.D.

THE UTAH COMPACT

Kiester recently co-authored a new article in the Journal of Sociology and Social Work examining how reframing the immigration narrative affects popular opinion and legislative action.

The article, “Bringing Them ‘Out of the Shadows?’” examined the Utah Compact, a movement comprised of various political, economic, sociocultural and religious groups in the Beehive State, who came together in 2010 out of frustration over federal inaction on immigration, and concerns about the steps that neighboring Arizona was taking, namely Arizona SB1070, also known as the “Show Me Your Papers” policy.

“Everyone talks about immigrants in such negative terms,” says Kiester. “The Compact asked, ‘How can we change that?’”

A nonbinding document, the Compact called for federal solutions and for law enforcement to focus on criminal violations, not civil ones. It opposed the separation of families and reminded people of the role that immigrants play in the economy. And it called for a humane approach to this complex issue.

Kiester and her fellow researchers interviewed those involved with both the development of the Utah Compact as well as those affected by it, and discovered that by reframing the immigration narrative in more humanitarian terms, the Compact succeeded in finding bi-partisan support for its goals, even in a socially and politically conservative state like Utah.

“They gave immigrants a new story,” she says.

Other states looked to adopt similar measures, and real immigration reform seemed possible. But fast-forward five years and efforts have stalled, narratives are competing, and the rhetoric, particularly in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, is strong and, at times, caustic.

Kiester will discuss these very issues as a panelist for the Berks County Community Foundation’s inaugural “Consider It” event on Nov. 9, hosted by Alvernia University. Consider It aims “to promote civil public discourse on divisive or controversial topics.”

The event, “Immigration: Open the doors or build some walls?,” will focus on immigration, immigration reform and its local impact.

Kiester’s research interests fall under the umbrella of work and labor market issues. Immigration is just one subset of this topic. Another, and a primary one for Kiester, is gender inequality in the workplace.

MOTHERHOOD PENALTIES & DADDY BONUSES

Kiester researches occupational sex segregation and the gender wage gap, including how parental status impacts the hiring process.

She looks at so-called motherhood wage penalties and daddy bonuses – a scenario in which women are less likely to be hired and promoted if they have children, while the reverse is true for men. Some employers believe that women with children will be less productive and dedicated to their jobs if they have kids waiting at home. 

Conversely, some employers are demonstrating parental bias on the other end of the spectrum, viewing mothers as potentially good workers since they are likely to be adept at skills like multi-tasking.

“So some mothers in some industries are starting to see wage premiums, although it does vary when they had their children,” says Kiester.

Although laws protect against employment discrimination, Kiester says the subjective nature of the hiring process makes it difficult for a female job candidate to prove she was not hired simply because she happens to be a mother.

Despite the advances in workplace equality, “change comes very slowly,” says Kiester.

Even in a field like medicine, old-fashioned constructs persist. Women, the traditional caregivers, are more like to be family doctors and pediatricians, while men still dominate the roles of surgeon and radiologist, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2015 Report on Residents.

Occupational sex segregation is perhaps most pronounced in the kitchen, says Kiester. Though cooking was and still is traditionally a woman’s domain, when it comes to the professional kitchen, men are top dog. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, in 2014, that only 21.4 percent of chefs and head cooks were female. By comparison, 26.3 percent of chief executives were women.

“Women have more luck in the corporate world than in the professional kitchen,” says Kiester.

Even the immigration debate gets wrapped in gender-specific distinctions, says Kiester. Mothers are considered by many to be the perfect migrant workers since they’re not looking to put down permanent roots.

“She’s more likely to have a family, so she wants to go home,” says Kiester.

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