Jessica Calarco

Associate Professor of Sociology

College of Letters & Science | Department of Sociology

Jessica (Jess) Calarco is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Calarco has published three books: Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School, A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum, and Qualitative Literacy: A Guide to Evaluating Ethnographic and Interview Research (with Mario Luis Small). Calarco’s fourth book, She’ll Fix It, will be published in 2024 by Penguin Random House and reveals how US families, schools, employers, and policymakers get away with treating women as their social safety net, and forcing women to bear the risk of precarity, rather than demanding or building the kind of sturdy social scaffolding that would better support us all. Calarco has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, CNN, Insider Higher Ed, and Business Insider. Calarco has also been featured on NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and other radio and television news outlets, and has contributed quotes to dozens of news stories in a wide range of national and international news outlets from the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine to Scientific American and the Chronicle of Higher Education, to Glamour and Good Housekeeping and Ms. Magazine. Calarco has also offered expert testimony as part of a Congressional briefings on families’ decisions regarding Covid-19 vaccines, and she has worked closely with local policymakers on initiatives related to digital equity and to supporting families and children in times of need.

Areas of expertise, contd.: Inequalities Related to Social Class, Gender, and Race/ethnicity; Education and Family Policy; Qualitative Methods


Teaching with Empathy for Equity

Recent events–from the Covid-19 pandemic to increases in mass shootings, police violence, and bias incidents–have created tremendous stress for students, especially students from systematically marginalized groups. These challenges highlight for educators the need to teach with empathy and for equity. In this talk, Dr. Jessica Calarco will discuss what such an approach looks like in practice, with concrete recommendations for instructors and administrators at all levels of schooling.

Other Countries Have Social Safety Nets; The US Has Women

The late 1970s marked the beginning of the “great risk shift,” in which US policymakers moved responsibility for people’s wellbeing away from government and employers and onto individuals and their families, instead. In this talk, Dr. Jessica Calarco reveals how US families have dealt with that increased burden–by shifting the risk onto women, including women within families and, if they have the means to do so, onto other women less privileged than them. Calarco will also discuss the implications of this gendered risk shift for families, employers, and the country as a whole, and she will offer recommendations for building the kind of coalition that will be necessary to shift responsibility for risk back the other way.

Why Rich People Cheat, and Why We Let Them

Who gets to break the rules, and who has to follow them? In this talk, Dr. Jessica Calarco will reveal why people from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to try to get around the rules and why institutions–including education, healthcare, legal, financial, and policy systems–tend to look the other way, even when privileged rule-breaking exacerbates inequalities in society as a whole.

Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School

When we think about inequalities in education, it’s easy to start from a deficit perspective–treating inequalities as the product of “bad choices” made by struggling students or their families. In this talk, and drawing on nearly five years of ethnographic observations and interviews with teachers, students, and parents, Dr. Jessica Calarco will reveal why we should start instead from a privilege perspective–focusing on how privileged parents, especially college-educated white parents, contribute to inequalities by coaching their children to challenge rules and request assistance, accommodations, and attention in excess of what is fair or required.

Uncovering Grad School's Hidden Curriculum

Some of the most important things you need to know in order to succeed in graduate school—like how to choose a good advisor, how to get funding for your work, and whether to celebrate or cry when a journal tells you to revise and resubmit an article—won’t be covered in any class. In this talk, we’ll discuss what’s included in the hidden curriculum, why it’s hidden, the consequences of that hiddenness, and how that hidden knowledge can be made more accessible to all.

The New Digital Divide

Digital devices might seem ubiquitous on college campuses. And yet, as Dr. Jessica Calarco will reveal in this talk, focusing on access to technology ignores wide variations in the quality and reliability of the devices that students use for their academic work. Drawing on surveys and focus groups conducted with more than 1,000 college students in introductory level classes, Calarco will show that students from socioeconomically and racially marginalized groups are less likely to have reliable digital devices and reliable access to internet, that they’re more likely to be paying for their own devices, and that it would take them longer to recover if their devices were broken or lost. Calarco will show how these digital inequalities are linked to inequalities in students’ grades and in students’ mental health.

Pandemics and Academics: COVID’s Impact on Gender Equity

The Covid-19 pandemic affected college educators in vastly different ways. Some scholars used the pandemic shutdown as a chance to be wildly productive. Others were trying to support students and colleagues, often on top of disproportionate family responsibilities, which limited time for research/writing or led to burnout if they tried to do it all. Drawing on surveys and in-depth interviews with faculty, staff, and graduate students, Dr. Jessica Calarco will show how the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the progress that women have made in academia. Calarco will also offer recommendations for university officials looking to better support women scholars and all those who are struggling with the ongoing crisis of care.

By Default: Gender Inequalities in Pandemic Parenting

Why were mothers the ones who took primary responsibility for pandemic parenting, even when doing so took a steep toll on their health, their relationships, and their wellbeing? Why weren’t fathers stepping in to do more, especially if they shifted to working from home? In this talk, and drawing on surveys an in-depth interviews with 250 families with young children that she has been following since 2018, Dr. Jessica Calarco will reveal that couples rarely talked about how they would divide pandemic parenting labor. Instead, that work just fell to women “by default,” doing so because of gendered structural and cultural conditions that made it seem “practical” and “natural” for women to do more the parenting while children were at home.

Homework and the Myth of Meritocracy

When it comes to homework, it’s easy to focus on the up-sides–it’s potential for reinforcing concepts and helping students develop a sense of responsibility. As Dr. Jessica Calarco will show in this talk, however, homework also has significant down-sides for equity in school. Drawing on nearly five years of ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with teachers, parents, and students in elementary and middle school, Calarco will show how homework can operate to amplify and justify inequalities in school. Calarco will also offer recommendations for educators interested in adopting more equitable approaches to homework.

Vaccines and Moral Calm

Uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine has been far lower among young children than among adults in the US. As of October 2022, when the CDC stopped tracking vaccination rates, less than a third of US children under 12 years of age had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to more than 80 percent of those ages 18 and up. What explains these patterns? Combining data from analyses of mainstream media, surveys, and in-depth interviews with parents, Dr. Jessica Calarco will show how early pandemic messaging persuaded many parents–and particularly parents of “healthy” white children–to adopt a sense of “moral calm” around Covid-19. Going a step further, Calarco will show how adopting that sense of moral calm led many parents to reject the need to vaccinate their children against Covid-19, even if they were vaccinated themselves. Calarco will offer recommendations for increasing uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine among children and reducing the chances of spillover into other childhood vaccines.

Drinking Buddies: How Social Networks Influence Decisions about Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy

How do pregnant people decide whether to drink alcohol during their pregnancies? Drawing on surveys and in-depth interviews, Dr. Jessica Calarco will show that pregnant people often rely on their social networks for guidance around “controversial” health decisions. Going a step further, Calarco will show how these patterns lead highly-educated white women to drink more during their pregnancies than other women do. Calarco will also offer recommendations for policymakers and healthcare providers on how to approach this issue with their patients.

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