Center for Research on Families

Student Spotlight: Chantal Newkirk

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This article originally appeared in the Center for Research on Families’ (CRF) 2014 Annual Report

Over the past few decades, women have been leaving traditional jobs to start their own small businesses at a greater rate than men, but their motivation for doing so is different. To study this issue, Chantal Newkirk, a 2014 UMass Amherst graduate with a sociology major, was awarded a 2013-2014 Undergraduate Research Assistantship from CRF to work with sociology professor Michelle Budig on a project examining how specific work-family policies and gendered cultural differences shape women’s employment decisions.

Professor Budig’s prior work has found that mothers of young children are attracted to self-employment for the flexibility it offers in balancing work and family responsibilities. Budig found that mothers with children under four years old are highly likely to move into self-employment in more than half of the 15 countries studied. As children grow, motherhood self-employment decreases. During this year, Chantal has been conducting literature reviews and preparing graphs from large datasets for a paper on self-employment participation that she will co-author with Professor Budig and sociology graduate students Misun Lim and Irene Boeckmann. The research team presented their findings in May 2014 at the Population Association of America meeting in Boston.

As a junior, Chantal had enrolled in Professor Budig’s Gender and Society course. Budig, a 2006-2007 Family Research Scholar at CRF, says she has taught many undergraduates over the years, but few of them “make it out of the classroom and into her office to talk shop.” Chantal was an exception. They talked about research, graduate school, and scholarships. Budig has a history of supporting talented student and “watching them mature into well-developed scholars.”

Sensing Chantal’s enthusiasm and motivation, Budig wrote a recommendation for her to spend six weeks during the summer of 2013 studying at Trinity College in Oxford, England. On her first trip outside the United States, Chantal witnessed firsthand how work-family policies differ across countries and cultures, a major theme of her research. “It was really astonishing to me how in America we have such little support for mothers,” she said. “Other countries, such as the Netherlands, provide much greater support for new mothers like paid maternity leave for 2-3 years, whereas in the U.S. we offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave.”

Family researchers often come into the field having had personal experiences which motivate their research interests. Chantal’s background made her acutely aware of gendered assumptions about parenting responsibilities. Chantal was raised by a single-father. Her cousin was raised by a single-mother. Although both adults were in the same situation as single parents, Chantal noted that “my father was respected a lot more and people were more willing to help him.” On the other hand, “my aunt was frowned upon.” People were critical; she remembered hearing comments like, “oh, why did she have a son so young and where is the father?”

Chantal’s perceptions are consistent with many themes of bias and discrimination against employed mothers. For example, Professor Budig and her colleagues have found that new mothers experience a wage penalty while new fathers experience a wage bonus upon returning to paid employment following the birth of their child.

Chantal was extremely appreciative of receiving the CRF award during her senior year. In addition to her research project and coursework demands, Chantal spent 16 hours each work working as a Treatment Intern at the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton, where she helped inmates change the way they think about issues such as domestic violence and self-esteem. The CRF assistantship allowed Chantal to apply $3,000 to her living costs, alleviating the pressure of needing to work two jobs to support herself as a full-time student. Chantal says, “I really feel like people are interested in my progress, my feedback, and my success at CRF.”

Over the past five years, the Center for Research on Families has been able to offer assistantships to talented students, like Chantal, who seek to work with a faculty mentor conducting family research. Professor Budig’s students have applied in years past, and several received awards. The fellowships provide faculty with research assistants who help analyze data and write papers. But, Budig says, “the real value has been the enthusiasm and ingenuity these students have brought to the research.

“When CRF started funding students to do mentored research with faculty, that was huge,” Budig says. “Chantal is the latest in a long string of wonderful students that CRF has facilitated.”

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