Jayanti Owens has had an awareness of and a desire to study issues of inequality since her days in college. It’s an issue she sees manifested almost everywhere.
“For me, it was very hard to escape this reality. The U.S. is a very unequal society and I think that it’s very difficult to exist in the world for one day within this context and not have that stand out in multiple ways,” she says.
That awareness drove Owens to begin research in educational inequality and public policy while she was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College. She studied how educational experiences affect career paths and organized national conferences on how those experiences differ for immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income students.
When she was accepted into a fellowship program in college that guided participants into the professoriate she realized that she could fold her passion for raising awareness about these issues into a career in research.
“It was important for me to think about how I could do research in a way that would help educators, policymakers, employers, and government officials think about policies and practices that would help create more equal opportunities,” Owens said.
In graduate school at Princeton, where she earned a joint Ph.D. in sociology and demography, Owens studied and taught at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and had the opportunity to work with a broad range of interdisciplinary scholars, from economists and sociologists to psychologists and political scientists. Through that exposure, she broadened her research interests to look at the intersection of gender, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic inequality.
“In the areas I research, that intersection is a pretty prominent one. For example, you can’t fully understand what’s going on for African American men in the U.S. in terms of educational attainment by studying gender, race, ethnicity or social class alone.”
Her dissertation, Habits that Make, Habits that Break: Gender, Children’s Behavior Problems, and Educational Attainment across Two Decades, looked at the gender disparities in both educational attainment and early labor market outcomes. Recent research has shown that fewer males than females are earning advanced degrees but they continue to make greater gains in the labor market. Owens’ dissertation specifically looked at how the interpretation of certain behaviors, known as social or self-regulation skills, in a gendered context influences these differences in education and labor market outcomes between men and women.
What she found was that in schools, problems with these behaviors — concentration, self-control, temper — tend to be regarded more negatively for males than females, while employers tend to reward them in men, while viewing them more negatively in women.
Owens joins the Brown faculty as assistant professor of sociology and public policy. She will teach public policy statistics and research methods in sociology this academic year.
She will also continue with research she’s been working on for the last two years as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
There, she’s been working on a project looking at the educational achievement of children diagnosed with ADHD. Owens and her cohort are looking at the positive and negative effects of being labeled with the disorder.
“If you control for early cognitive ability and achievement, as well as symptoms, it turns out that isolating the effect of the diagnosis is associated with a pretty large negative effect on academic achievement.”
The research is still in progress, and Owens and her fellow researchers are now trying to home in on the specific mechanisms underlying the social labeling accompanying the diagnosis.
The project embodies the type of interdisciplinary approach that drives her research and her desire to come to Brown.
“I really feel as though Brown is a place where interdisciplinary research gets put at the forefront in a lot of ways and that the students are encouraged to think big rather than getting siloed into a specific discipline. “It’s about drawing on the strengths of all of these different areas of inquiry. I love that.”