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February 15, 2022

Researcher Spotlight: Kim de Laat

Kim de Laat discusses her research on family diversities, inequality and parental leave.

February 15, 2022

Gaby Novoa

Kim de Laat, PhD, is a Mitacs postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at Brock University and at the Vanier Institute of the Family, whose research interests include work and occupations, culture, gender and race, and social policy.

In our new Researcher Spotlight, Kim joins Gaby Novoa from the Vanier Institute to discuss her research focus; what drives her work; her current project, which explores fathers’ use of parental leave policies; and how cultural representations and stereotypes shape perceptions and expectations related to work and parenting.

What led you toward your chosen areas of specialization?

I started out in the PhD program interested in how people manage uncertainty and inequality in their work lives. This interest stemmed from my lived experience working in the music industry, which was undergoing rapid technological change. I was trained by cultural sociologists, so I developed theory and methodological expertise in analyzing media as well. I had the opportunity to collaborate with my doctoral supervisor on a project exploring depictions of mothers in media – TV commercials, in particular. Those projects were wonderful for me. I got to learn and read up on all of the literature on contemporary parenting cultures, and that interest always stayed with me.

When I was devising a postdoctoral project, I decided to shift my focus from navigating uncertainty and inequality in the workplace to how parents navigate these things in the workplace as they manage competing demands for their time related to work and family responsibilities. What ended up being a side project with my supervisor became the main focus of my postdoctoral research agenda.

What motivates you in your research?

Like a lot of sociologists, I am interested in identifying and highlighting sources of inequality, as well as the consequences of these inequalities. In addition to that, I have had the opportunity to work on policy research and try to devise policy solutions that could lead to actionable change. Those are really the two things that motivate my research – identifying sources of inequality, but not stopping there and trying to envision what we can do to overcome sources of inequality. I’m very excited to be at the Vanier Institute, which is focused both on mobilizing research and knowledge, and connecting with those who are working on advocacy issues.

Could you tell us about the current projects that you’re working on?

As a postdoctoral researcher, I undertook a study at a big multinational company and my goal was to understand parents’ perceptions and uses of flexible work arrangements. I’m interested in how organizational cultures and practices might either help or prevent parents from making use of these policies, which are ostensibly designed or provided to help them reconcile some of their competing demands. So, I’ve launched this big project, and that work is ongoing, with a paper on that topic forthcoming early this year.

As a Mitacs postdoctoral research fellow, I’m extending that research to consider of how a suite of policies might best fit together to support parents and their families. I’m collaborating with my supervisor, Dr. Andrea Doucet, on a study that examines fathers’ use of parental leave policies, and their use of flexible work policies, and how these policies fit together to influence fathers’ contributions to childcare and housework. We’re currently undertaking some survey data analysis and then, this spring, we’ll be conducting in-depth interviews with fathers. We’re taking a mixed-methods approach to the first paper from this collaboration.

What are some of the things you’ve learned in your research on fathers’ use of parental leave policy and their childrearing involvement?

We’ve done some preliminary analyses and we have found that, in line with previous research, fathers who take parental leaves are more likely to be engaged in childcare and household care responsibilities. However, fathers who make use of flex time (which is a specific type of flexible work arrangement, where workers can choose when they start and stop working) less frequently make contributions to childcare. They are, in a sense, less likely to be engaged in actively looking after their kids and helping clean the kitchen and things like that.

When we think of these flexible work arrangements, we expect that there will be benefits to employers, because employers are not going to provide something that’s going to put them at a disadvantage. There is this idea that these policies are offered on some level to help families navigate all those things outside of work that need to get accomplished, especially since couples are increasingly dual earners.

It’s no coincidence that these flexible work arrangements have emerged as we’re seeing a continued increase in dual-earner households. So, this finding that making use of flex time does not help one manage one’s household responsibilities is a bit disconcerting. I don’t know if I’d say it’s surprising, but it’s certainly disconcerting. We’re really excited to be conducting interviews to dive deeper into some of the underlying issues with people’s experiences with these policies.

What has your research shown about what prevents or inhibits dads from taking parental leave?

In many contemporary workplaces, there is a kind of a cultural stereotype of what it means to be an “ideal worker” – someone who conveys ambition and can put in long hours at work with arguably no outside obligations to prevent them from putting in those hours. Historically, this model of an ideal worker has been a man, something that emerges from the period after the Second World War, when they were returning from overseas in droves and entering the workplace, while many women scaled back the paid labour they had taken on during the war. Men then had this huge support system at home to facilitate them living up to this conception of an ideal worker.

Fast-forward to nowadays, when it’s both men and women, and mothers and fathers, working in the paid labour market, and it’s much harder to live up to the ideal worker image. Because women have historically been responsible for more work that takes place inside the home, we don’t, on a stereotypical level, hold them up to the same expectations as we do men.

So, interestingly, men face increasing scrutiny and stigma when they make use of these policies, because we tend to think that they’re designed for women and mothers. There’s a negative association with these policies. It’s actually harder for men to use them, because they face more potential discrimination. There’s research that demonstrates that, in fact, there are real-world consequences to this that include not only lower job satisfaction but also earning less and higher rates of attrition in the workforce.

Your work has looked at media depictions of motherhood, age, gender and race. What are the significance and impacts of these representations in relation to families?

Well, motherhood is a beautiful thing, and on one very basic level it’s nice to see it represented at all. On another level, my research on how motherhood is depicted in ads shows that it’s kind of this all-consuming role that doesn’t reflect reality for most. Mothers are not unidimensional. There are many aspects to what makes them who they are, and their contributions to the family are not just solely based on their role in social reproduction.

The other issue with these portrayals is that, by and large, only white women are represented. There are aspects to these commercials that also managed to convey that it’s mothers in middle- or upper middle-class settings. So, we’re left with a very narrow definition of what it means to be a mother, one that is not representative of most mothers in Canada or their lived experiences. We’re reinforcing this idea that the white mothers managing the unpaid household work is the baseline from which everyone else should be compared. I think that is very harmful – for women of colour, in particular – to not see their experiences and representations of themselves reflected in popular media.

How do your work–life and family diversities research inform each other?

In wanting to ensure that when researching, theorizing and thinking through how workplaces influence families and how families influence workplaces, we can’t have a narrow definition of what a “family” is. Families are diverse, and peoples’ race and ethnicity, gender identities, abilities and disabilities, sexual identities and more intersect and interact in ways that shape how they are affected by policies.

Working with the Vanier Institute, I’m so pleased that family diversities are a core part of the research framework and are hopefully going to help guide our thinking on these issues moving forward.

What’s next for you?

I’m very excited to be continuing this work with the Vanier Institute and with Dr. Andrea Doucet throughout the spring and summer, and we have several collaborations in the works. So, what’s next for me is conducting more research, conducting more interviews and, I hope, writing up the results of our findings this summer!

Visit Kim de Laat’s website.

Gaby Novoa is responsible for communications and publications at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.