Taking an Intersectional Approach to Society
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:42
Gretchen Sisson ’06
Divergent interests in women’s and gender studies, psychology and sociology opened up doors for Gretchen Sisson ‘06.

When Gretchen Sisson ’06 was a senior in high school, she only applied to five schools. When she received her first letter back, she opened it, set it aside and waited.

Then she received her Amherst acceptance and didn’t open any of the following letters. “My mom wasn’t too thrilled with that decision,” she said. “But I felt confident and I didn’t want to complicate the decision — I had made up my mind.”
Now a sociologist studying abortion and reproductive health, Sisson credits her time at Amherst as critical to her life and career in research.

Nurturing Interest in Research
Raised in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Sisson came to Amherst wanting to be a doctor. Once she arrived at Amherst, however, she realized that despite her original plans, she would not have enjoyed the “process of getting there.” Instead, Sisson pursued a double major in Psychology and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies. The classes she took, she says, gave her the tools to think in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary ways.

“Doing research with demographers and epidemiologists and public health scholars and nurses and physicians, we’re definitely looking at the same issues in different disciplinary contexts,” she said. “I think that that’s what Amherst gave me — the ability to tackle important, urgent, controversial questions in a very thoughtful way.”

As a senior, Sisson took a Special Topics class with Professor of Psychology Matthew Schulkind. Together, they looked at gender differences in autobiographical memory and designed an experiment to test their theory.
Schulkind remembers Sisson well, describing her as “tough.”

“Gretchen was not disrespectful in any way, but if she heard something and she disagreed with it, or she heard something and wanted to know more about it, she would ask,” Schulkind said. “She didn’t just accept what I would tell her. She would challenge me in the best way, in the way that a student should challenge a professor.”

The results of their experiment fell through, but the process of designing an experiment, creating a procedure and executing a methodology gave Sisson insight into what a career in research could look like. “Even though my subject matter today is quite different, that was the first project that I worked on in great detail and it was an opportunity that was integral to me and in my research and work and grad school career and now as a researcher,” Sisson said.

Sisson pursued a thesis in her senior year, researching what she called a question “inherently based in sociology.” At the time, the idea of the opt-out revolution was gaining traction in American culture. Well-educated women were leaving the workforce to become parents. For Sisson, the question was why and what drove their motivation. She turned to her peers at Amherst to look at women still in the process of pursuing their education and what their plans were for future parenthood.

“What I found was that a lot of my fellow students at Amherst were planning on leaving the workforce before they even entered it, or working part-time or at a limited capacity while they were childrearing, and that it’s not a question of opting out of the workforce — they were never fully opting in,” she said.

This interest in parenthood would develop into something much greater in scale once she graduated.

Getting to the Bottom of Parenthood
Sisson wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after Amherst, but knew “she was good at being a student” and enjoyed the research process and thesis work, so she applied to graduate school.

At Boston College, Sisson took a turn from Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies and Psychology to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology. Working with a professor on research into the sociology of mental illness was her first foray into medical sociology. She soon followed an opportunity to look at infertility, reproductive technology and what that means for parenthood. What interested Sisson, she said, was how “infertility is not a real medical diagnosis.”

The real medical diagnoses, Sisson said, could be hormonal imbalances, low male sperm count or uterine problems. Infertility, however, is credited as the “catch-all phrase of what’s going on medically.”

“What was really compelling for me is that the treatment is always for women’s bodies, for the women trying to achieve pregnancy in these scenarios, even if there’s nothing medically wrong [with] her,” she said. If the problem is with the male partner, Sisson says, women are still the ones receiving treatment. Even with unexplained infertility, when doctors do cannot identify the cause, women still end up receiving treatment.

“So what does that mean to have faith in a medical model to derive a solution to a problem that they can’t identify?” she said. “That was my entry into that [area of study].”

As part of the research for her dissertation, Sisson began interviewing couples experiencing infertility and pursuing parenthood through reproductive technology — mostly white, upper middle-class heterosexual couples. At the same time, she was also working at the Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, interacting with young women who were becoming pregnant while in their teens and struggling with “so much hardship, so much stigma, just over the top stigma around their choice to parent, their choice to be a mother, around the work involved in parenting and finishing high school and getting an education.”

Looking at these two questions at once, Sisson soon identified an underlying, recurring theme in the idea of adoption and how it is often perceived as a solution for both groups.

“It really drove home to me the way that we prioritize different people’s parenting choices in ways that aren’t based in any way on their ability to parent,” she said.

The different ways in which society supports different paths to parenthood while marginalizing or stigmatizing others brought Sisson to the issue of reproduction at large. In May 2011, her paper titled “Finding a Way to Offer Something More: Reframing Teen Pregnancy Prevention” was published in the Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

De-stigmatizing Abortion
In her first year at Boston College, Sisson met her now-husband Andrew McCollum, co-founder of Facebook. When she finished her Ph.D. in 2011, Sisson and McCollum were based in Boston but planned to move to the Bay Area in California a year later after they married. She had no plans to establish a career in Boston in a year, so instead Sisson looked to other projects.

After 22 years of schooling, she spent her first year out of school blogging, volunteering with different organizations, working part-time at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy and planning her wedding.

Once she moved to California, she connected with her now-colleagues at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, who at the time needed a researcher to work on a grant. Currently, Sisson is a lead researcher for its Abortion Onscreen program, which tracks and analyzes how abortion is portrayed in popular culture — specifically in film and television.

“We analyze what abortion decision is made, so we look at any plotline where it’s discussed or considered, even if an abortion doesn’t actually happen,” she said. “We look at character demographics, we look at the provider who’s offering or performing the abortion and the efficacy of the procedure, if there’s any barriers that the character encounters in trying to get an abortion and generally how the procedure is portrayed.”

In 2014, part of Sisson’s work was published in the journal Contraception. Her research was subsequently featured or cited in numerous publications, including Slate, Bustle, PolicyMic, Huffington Post and MSNBC.

“We do this work because we know that there is a lot of misinformation and social myth around abortion as a procedure and its safety and who gets abortions and why and the frequency,” Sisson said. “So we want to see how abortion is portrayed in our culture and what the viewing audience is being informed of.”

Her work, however, hasn’t come without its challenges. As an abortion researcher, few foundations want to fund her line of work. “Abortion is a word that makes people wary,” she said. “It’s a divisive issue.”

One in three women in the United States gets an abortion, Sisson says, and research shows more than 95 percent of these women do not regret their decision. But a social stigma around abortion still exists. Media content creators remain nervous about handling abortion, and with these creators being overwhelmingly men, “we must seek out different ways of telling and constructing stories of abortion.”

She encourages students interested in studying reproductive health and abortion to persist in their pursuits.

“It’s hard work to do, studying reproductive health, the stigma you run into, the challenges you won’t [face] in other areas,” she said. “The thought that it’s hard doesn’t mean we don’t need to do it, so I would tell people that if that’s where your interests are, be committed to it.”

It was not a surprise to Schulkind when he heard of the work Sisson is doing. “The fact that she’s like, ‘I am going to take on this really difficult topic, where there are strong, hard feelings on both sides, and this is where I’m going to stake my intellectual claim,’ makes total sense,” he said. “That’s exactly where she would stake herself.”

Though Abortion Onscreen is her current project, Sisson hopes to return to a focus on adoption and parenthood in the future. Looking back, she says her journey through varying interests has come full circle.

“I had this interest in medicine and patient experiences and the health care system and its institutions, and I moved away from that for a while because these questions in Women’s and Gender Studies, in psychology and sociology were so compelling to me,” Sisson said. ”But I’ve ended up doing research in a medical environment and doing a lot of medical sociology. I think my interests definitely evolved while I was there, and they brought me back to a completely different place than from what I’d first envisioned, but probably in a better way for me.”