Academics & Faculty

Obituary: Suzanne Bianchi, 61, UCLA sociologist who studied American family life

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Suzanne M. Bianchi, a UCLA sociologist who helped define the field of family demography with her research into the dramatic changes in the American family in the latter half of the 20th century, died Nov. 4 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif., a short time after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.
 
Bianchi, the first holder of UCLA's Dorothy Meier Chair in Social Equities and a distinguished professor of sociology, was former president of the Population Association of America, editor of the well-respected journal Demography, past chair of the executive committee of the California Center for Population Research at UCLA and former director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
 
The author of numerous award-winning books and articles, Bianchi is best known for investigating the rapidly evolving ways in which contemporary American women and men juggle the demands of their work and family lives. She studied women's employment, how wives and husbands divide housework and time with children, and how women take care of their children and aging parents.
 
"What happened on the road to gender equality?" Bianchi once asked rhetorically. "A lot of work happened," she answered.
 
As a modern feminist and working mother, Bianchi came to embody the work she conducted on the evolving American family and gender roles, using her life experiences to motivate her academic pursuits. She was noted within her field for her pragmatism, dedication and curiosity, as well as her mentoring abilities, from which dozens of scholars across the country have benefited.
 
"Suzanne's death is a tremendous loss for family demography and sociology, to which she contributed so much, and to the network of collaborators, students and former students that she nurtured during her too-short career," said Philip Cohen, a former student and University of Maryland, College Park, sociologist.
 
Until Bianchi's research, social scientists assumed that mothers' involvement in the workplace kept them from home, and that the loss of time with their mother harmed children. Bianchi found that even though mothers' labor-force participation had increased, the time they spent with their children had changed very little. In an attention-grabbing address that she delivered to the Population Association of America in 2000 and in the books and articles she wrote afterwards, Bianchi showed that employed mothers adjusted their work hours, did less housework, slept less and partook in fewer leisure activities in order to be able to spend more time with their children.
 
At the same time, children's lives also changed, with fewer siblings and more time away from home in preschool and other child-centered activities, so that even mothers who were not employed outside the home spent less time with children because children were busy elsewhere. Bianchi eyed the widespread impact of her findings with a measure of ambivalence.
 
"My one concern is that I have given the impression that women have found it quite easy to balance increased labor force participation with child rearing, to reduce hours of employment so as to juggle childcare, and to get their husbands more involved in child rearing; and that fathers have found it easy to add more hours with children to those they already commit to supporting children financially," she once said. "I do not think these changes have been easy for American families, particularly for American women.
 
"Why have women so increased their hours of paid employment?" she asked. "Many observers would emphasize constraints — men's poor labor force prospects — and this is probably part of the story. But this explanation is not sufficient, for it gives too little attention to the dramatic change in opportunities for women and in women's own conceptions of what a successful, normal adulthood should entail."
 
Bianchi once described her research agenda as having three acts. In the first, she focused on the time people spend working for pay and on how women balanced family time and employment. Her books "Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage, and Employment Among American Women" (1996) and "American Women in Transition" (1986), both written with University of Virginia environmental and urban planner Daphne Spain, were published during this period.
 
The award-winning 2002 book "Continuity and Change in the American Family," which she wrote with University of Southern California sociologist Lynne Casper, marked the start of the second act of Bianchi's research. In this phase, she studied time at home, gender differences in housework and the ways in which the division of labor determined just how pressured women and men felt by the demands of work and family life. She wrote "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life" (2006) with University of Maryland, College Park, sociologists Melissa Milkie and John P. Robinson. The book received awards from both the family and population sections of the American Sociological Association.
 
In the latest phase of Bianchi's research, she was studying transfers of time and money between parents and children, especially when parents launch adult children by helping them financially and looking after grandchildren and when adult children help their aging and infirm parents with errands and intense caregiving. At the time of her death, she was writing a book with UCLA sociologist Judith Seltzer on parent–child relationships in later life.
 
For all the variation in her research interests, Bianchi remained true to certain themes.
 
"In all three acts of her career, Suzanne remained interested in gender differences and the intersection of work and family life," said Seltzer, director of the California Center for Population Research at UCLA and a professor of sociology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "She always identified puzzles in the social world and tried to solve them by rigorous empirical studies, often requiring her to collect new data."
 
In August, Bianchi received the Distinguished Career Award from the family section of the American Sociological Association.
 
Bianchi's career as a demographer began when she joined the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1978. Eventually, she rose to become the bureau's assistant division chief for social and demographic statistics in the population division. In 1994, she joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park, as a professor of sociology. There, she became founding director of the Maryland Population Research Center, as well as chair of the sociology department. She joined UCLA's faculty in 2009.
 
Throughout her career, Bianchi made significant contributions to the social and population sciences. Her innovative studies with time-use data encouraged widespread use of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey and contributed to international data collections on time use. She was principal investigator on a new research approach to studying transfers between parents and children in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the premier survey for studying economic inequality in the United States.
 
"The public-use data she created will influence research on American families for generations to come," said Stefan Timmermans, chair of the UCLA Department of Sociology.
 
Bianchi served in many professional leadership roles, both elected and appointed. In addition to serving as president of the Population Association of America and editing the journal Demography (2004–2007, with Johns Hopkins University demographer Kenneth Hill), she chaired the family and population sections of the American Sociological Association and served on National Academy of Sciences committees, including, most recently, the committee on the Future of Social Science Surveys (2010–11).
 
"She was a valued member of advisory boards and committees for professional organizations because of her fairness, good nature and ability to get things done in a seemingly effortless way," Seltzer said. "These qualities made Bianchi an exceptional mentor to junior colleagues and students. Her attention to fostering the careers of the next generation came from her unwavering belief in a bright future."
 
Bianchi was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1952 to Rita and Pesho Bianchi, a housewife and a meat-packing plant employee. Having graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, Bianchi was the first in her family to go to college. She attended Creighton University as an undergraduate and received a master's degree from Notre Dame University. By the age of 26, she had obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
 
"Her Midwestern values stayed with her, keeping her grounded in what is important in life," said Jennifer Browning, Bianchi's oldest child. "She succeeded in achieving a balanced work and family life, although she would have been more likely characterize it as a constant striving rather than an achievement."
 
Bianchi often said that her career demonstrated the importance of having a fully involved and supportive husband, recall friends and colleagues. She was married for 31 years to Mark Browning, a retired economist with utility PEPCO and a fellow Ph.D.
 
In addition to Browning, whom she met in graduate school, Bianchi is survived by children Jennifer, James and Jonathan; her mother, Rita Bianchi; and five siblings.
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