Researcher Profile: Sarah Flood

MPC Researcher Sarah Flood Photo: Allan Tate


Life can sometimes feel as though it’s lived in “fast forward.” Stressful jobs, daily hassles, and the demands of raising children can leave parents feeling as though they are fighting for every moment of family time. The notion of “family time” can conjure romanticized images of years past, with families sitting around a dining room table discussing work, school, and current events. 

If you ask Dr. Sarah Flood from the MPC’s IPUMS-Time Use project about the history of “family time,” she might tell you that we are looking at the past through rose-tinted lenses. According to her recent research, time spent together is actually higher in 2012 than it was in 1965. The most dramatic gains in time come in family time, or time spent with a partner and children.

Since beginning work on the IPUMS as a research assistant in 2004, Flood has used the time use data to pursue a range of questions at the intersection of gender, work and family, aging, and the life course. Now directing the IPUMS-Time Use project, Flood fosters creative new uses of time-use data to “put some numbers behind commonly held assumptions of how we spend our time.”

Early Work

Sarah’s early academic work in the sociology of knowledge allowed her to pursue broader questions of gender and the equitable production of knowledge within the field of criminology. Flood explains, “Criminology was an especially apt place to study gender and knowledge production in the second half of the 20th century. Academically, criminology was starting to distinguish itself from classic sociology in the 1960s and 1970s, and criminology departments started popping up throughout the United States.” During this time, many women were earning doctoral degrees and actively participating in defining the field.

Drawing from a database of about 1,600 articles on crime and crime control, Sarah surveyed first authors about work and marriage, kids, and spousal employment. In addition, she reviewed authors’ CVs and conducted in-depth interviews with a select group. Her goal was to figure out how academics make it work: who publishes articles in leading journals, what ensures longevity in the field, and how interests change over time. All of these questions were analyzed through a lens of women’s participation and production of knowledge.

What Flood found was that, despite the opportunity for women that criminology represented in the 1960s and 1970s, women were more likely to end up in non-academic jobs, and at non-research-one institutions. These findings gave rise to new questions. Flood says, “I wondered what made women more likely to end up in positions where research production was not the core of their research duties? And did work and family obligations limit women’s willingness to take on high-level positions in more traditional institutions that might have provided a loftier platform for the knowledge they generated?”

Current Research

These lingering questions laid the foundation for a broader theoretical interest in time use. When opportunities to study time use with large-scale data presented themselves, Flood had the interest and experience to put them to use. Flood’s first opportunity came in 2007 when she was recruited to work on the American Time Use Survey because of her experience with large-scale datasets and interests in gender. Subsequent opportunities have come from collaborators looking to capitalize on her expertise in gender, work and family, and time use to understand how men and women allocate time differently.

In a recently published project, Sarah collaborated with Noelle Chesley from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee to look at how household obligations differed in single-income families when it was the fathers who worked versus when it was mothers. While the paper echoes findings from other work that working mothers spend more time with children and on household labor, this paper seeks to advance our understanding of the reasons that women are more inclined to take on extra work at home. Using ATUS data to account for the number of hours worked by men and women in a day, Flood and Chelsey found that women are still likely to take on additional duties at home. Flood says, “These differences, are likely traceable to different social pressures faced by women to remain more actively involved in life at home.”

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Looking back at the evolution of time use studies, Flood notes “I’ve been impressed by researchers’ increased interest in being creative with the time use data.” Where early research focused on quantifying mothers’ and fathers’ contributions to household chores and stratifying by ethnicity, income, or education; more recent research is looking at time quality and affective states during specific activities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently incorporated a module to the ATUS in which individuals report on how they were feeling during three randomly selected activities. Sarah calls these “tools for measuring a mini life course” or the building blocks of a life course. She explains, “When you’re asked to report on the quality of your marriage in general, you miss a lot of the fluctuations throughout the day, or even throughout a year. Using this new data, we can capture some of those fluctuations better because we’re only asking people to report on a single day.”

As more and more of time quality data is collected, more data will be available to answer questions related to changes in couple functioning and affective states associated with the broader life course and changing roles in couples as children grow and needs change.

Story by Jude Mikal