By Kate Elliott

If researchers were rock stars, Dr. Richard Petts would be the Bruce Springsteen of inquiry. The Ball State professor of sociology has now published or has forthcoming a total of 37 peer-reviewed articles and two book chapters, with five additional works under review and several projects in process. His work in premiere journals, including the American Sociological Review and the Journal of Marriage and Family, has been cited more than 1,300 times, according to Google Scholar Citations. He has coauthored and received several grants, including one from the National Institutes of Health for more than $160,000 — a rare feat in sociology. He also established a partnership with the Women and Public Policy Program in the Harvard Kennedy School to collect data about state- and city-level parental leave policies in the United States. And his research has been referenced by media outlets like the New York Times, USA Today, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.

This is only a snapshot of Petts’ productivity.

Petts was a clear pick for Ball State University’s 2020 Outstanding Research Award. His research focuses on issues related to family, masculinity and fatherhood, religion, and corporal punishment, and the outcomes of his work continue to inform policy and advance cultural shifts. Dr. Chadwick Menning, professor and chair of Ball State’s Department of Sociology, said colleagues refer to Petts as “brave” for his efforts to seek and find answers to pioneering questions, all “with patience and methodological rigor,” Menning added.

“Setting aside numbers of articles, their placements, citation metrics, and related grant work, I would like to turn to the qualitative impact of Richard’s scholarship,” Menning said. “Dr. Petts’ research seeks to understand the factors that contribute to family inequality and — more importantly — whether and how various social institutions and policies help reduce the consequences of inequality.

He could have spent his early career in the safety of incremental research questions and well-developed literatures,” Dr. Chadwick Menning said of Petts. “He did not. He’s developed whole strands of literature that were sparsely researched prior to his investigations.”

Petts said inequalities among American families have tremendous impact on the nation’s family relationships and cultural well-being. For example, increasing socioeconomic inequality among families, persistent gender inequality, and increasing pressure on families result in growing disparities in family well-being and in individual outcomes for men, women and children. His research about parental leave, religion and family life, and fatherhood seeks to understand factors that contribute to family inequality, and more importantly, whether and how social institutions and policies help reduce the consequences of inequality.

Pioneering research on paternal leave

The United States is a world outlier in regard to parental leave policies, Petts said. It is the only high-income country, and one of only a handful of countries in the world, that does not have a national paid parental leave policy. As such, Americans are often reliant on workplace policies if they want to take time off work after having a child. Despite international evidence that parental leave benefits families, little work has focused on the causes and consequences of the nation’s fathers taking leave.

Petts’ research has made substantial contributions in understanding who takes leave and what the consequences of leave-taking are for families and individuals. In doing so, his research has important implications for families, companies and policy makers.

Photo of Richard Petts in a Classroom

Dr. Richard Petts joined Ball State as a professor of sociology in 2008.

“My research is the first U.S. study to focus on patterns of paid paternity leave-taking. Findings show that most fathers lack access to paid paternity leave, and rates of paid paternity leave-taking are low. More advantaged fathers (those with better jobs, higher incomes, et cetera.) are more likely to take leave and longer periods of leave compared to less advantaged fathers. As such, the current structure of paternity leave in the U.S. likely contributes to existing societal inequalities,” said Petts, who has taught at Ball State for 13 years. “Increasing access to parental leave would likely help to reduce these inequalities and allow all families access to the benefits of paternal leave, including greater father involvement, stronger and more stable parental relationships, greater sharing of caregiving between mothers and fathers, et cetera.”

Why is the United States behind the curve?

Petts said the nation’s individualistic mentality plays a role. “Our solutions to social problems often sound like this: ‘families need to figure things out for themselves’ or ‘private companies should be able to choose to offer support or not.’” A second factor is the priority the United States places on paid work.

“Simply put, we work too much.”

Taking time off work for family is frowned upon, devalued and contradicts the nation’s worker culture. A third layer, he emphasized, is traditional gender norms that stress women should take care of the house and children. However, Petts highlights several examples of progress:

“Nine states and Washington, D.C. have enacted paid family leave policies, and some of these have happened because of a popular vote. This demonstrates that people are acknowledging the value of these policies and beginning to support them,” he said. “More companies are also offering paid parental leave policies. For instance, more than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies now offer paid parental leave to employees. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was also very effective in enabling people to take leave both due to illness and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic, and both political parties actively discuss paid leave policies. So, the tide seems to be shifting towards support for better paid leave policies, and I expect this movement to gain steam moving forward.”

The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development awarded Petts more than $162,000 to engage in a study about the influence of paternity leave on family health and well-being. Among the study’s findings, Petts reports that parents are less likely to end their relationship when fathers take leave after a child is born. He also found that 9-year-old children are more likely to be satisfied with their fathers’ level of involvement, feel closer to their father, and communicate better with their father when their father takes paternity leave. Fathers who do not reside with their kids appear to be especially likely to benefit from paternity leave, Petts added. Those fathers who take leave often experience dramatic increases in involvement with children throughout their lives.

Petts was invited to sit on the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, which includes experts from more than 40 countries. Membership is limited to a maximum of four members from any given nation.

The paradox of religion and family life

His second research area considers ways in which religion may either alleviate or exacerbate family inequality. While numerous studies have examined the influence of religion on families, much of this research has focused on intact, same-faith families, and little work has considered how family and religious factors may intersect to influence children, Petts said. His work pushes people to consider the role of religion for more diverse families, including cohabiting families, single parent families, families who have experienced a miscarriage, and interfaith families. He also explores how family and religious factors work together to influence children, adolescents and young adults. For fathers, he researches the impact of religion as a social institution that may encourage men to be more engaged in their family life, which may reduce the burden on women and potentially reduce gender inequality as a result, he explained.

“I find evidence that religious involvement enhances the influence of positive parenting practices on adolescent well-being. Specifically, adolescents and young adults are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior and have higher psychological well-being when their parents are highly involved and affectionate, and the benefits of positive parenting practices on youth well-being is even stronger when parents and youth are religiously active. This work provides evidence that religious involvement can provide support and meaning to family life that promotes positive family relationships and outcomes for youth,” said Petts, who serves as co-editor of Community, Work and Family. “My work shows that religion may help to promote greater gender equality in caring for children by encouraging (and providing support for) fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives. I also find evidence that religious involvement may help women who experience a miscarriage to cope with their pregnancy loss. It can also be an important social support for single mothers.”

Despite much evidence showing the benefits of religion for families (and children in particular), Petts said he has also found evidence that religion may exacerbate family inequality. His research shows that interfaith families are more likely to experience marital conflict, and that children in these families are more likely to engage in substance use. Second, the religious training that parents provide to their children appears to be less effective in nontraditional families. As such, children raised in these families are less likely to be religious compared to children raised in traditional (two-parent, married) families.

A focus on fatherhood

Petts’ third research focus is on fatherhood, particularly on the role of fathers in children’s lives as well as how gender norms and workplace practices may influence fathers’ attitudes and behaviors. This research, Petts said, permeates all his research interests and has important implications for understanding gender and socioeconomic inequalities.

“Advancing our understanding about the competing norms that fathers face is essential. We find that fathers who adhere to traditional masculine norms are less involved in their children’s lives. As such, this research suggests that encouraging men to embrace the new norms of fatherhood will be essential for increasing father involvement in children’s lives,” Petts said. “My research also finds that embracing positive attitudes about fatherhood can help to reduce fathers’ stress. This work provides further evidence that working to change traditional gendered norms of parenting will help to improve the lives of families.”

Petts has presented dozens of times about these and other topics related to fatherhood. including at an international symposium on fatherhood in Israel in May 2020.

A pandemic shift in research

Speaking of the pandemic, Petts said, COVID-19 has led him to think about his work differently and has informed new projects. For example, his work on father involvement and paternity leave argues that workplace barriers are one of the main factors that limit fathers’ abilities to be more engaged in their family life. Many of these barriers disappeared during the early months of the pandemic, when many people were working from home. This time provided an opportunity for Petts to assess to what extent the removal of these barriers enabled fathers to be more involved in domestic work.

That research led to a project that seeks to understand how the pandemic has affected parents’ division of labor. In April 2020, Petts and his colleagues collected data from a national sample of parents to understand how parents’ division of both domestic and paid labor had changed since the start of the pandemic, and how these changes have influenced parents’ relationships and personal well-being.

“We followed-up with these parents in November 2020, and we plan to survey these parents throughout the pandemic to assess how their lives change throughout the duration of the pandemic and once the pandemic ends,” said Petts, a father of two. “My hope is that this project will provide important insights into factors that enable parents to better achieve work-family balance. I hope outcomes inform policy decisions at both the government and company levels that will enable parents to better manage the stresses of work and family life.”

From theory to policy and practice

Across his research, Petts strives to make his research accessible to the general public. The Michigan native, who earned his master’s and doctorate from The Ohio State University in 2008, said he is driven to encourage the application of his findings to create positive change.

“I never saw myself as someone that would be engaged in public discussions about my research, but I now see this as a vital part of my work, as the goal of my research is to enact change and improve society. My mindset has shifted from being focused on academic prestige toward how my work can get men and fathers more engaged at home, develop paid leave policies accessible to all and reduce gender inequality.”

Petts admits he’s “made mistakes along the way” in talking to reporters and disseminating research briefs. His greatest lesson: To strip research of its jargon to present clear, simple communication everyone can understand. In addition, he added, it is important to think about and clearly understand the implications of research findings. “I am often asking myself, ‘why does this matter?’ And being able to articulate the importance and implications of research findings is vital.”

Of all his research, Petts hopes the public takes away the following truths:

  1. Men’s involvement in the domestic sphere is essential if we want to achieve greater gender equality as a society. We must create policies and embrace cultural shifts that empower men to be more involved in family life.
  2. Both public (e.g., paid parental leave) and workplace (e.g., workplace flexibility) policies are key tools that enable men to be more engaged in domestic work.
  3. Policies are not sufficient for promoting a more egalitarian division of domestic labor. We need broader cultural shifts that change the way we think about gender, work, and family to achieve greater gender equality. That is, we need to be accepting of workers—both men and women—who utilize family-friendly policies (instead of penalizing them).
  4. We also need to be accepting and encouraging of men/fathers as caregivers and not assume that women/mothers should have primary responsibility in this realm. In the same way, we need to change our perception of the “ideal worker” to not assume that the ideal worker is a man and acknowledge that women should receive equal opportunities and rewards in all aspects (and at all levels) of paid work.

Learn more about Petts and his research about paternity, fatherhood and religion and family life at

How does he get it all done?

Ball State’s Outstanding Researcher of the Year shares tips for productivity:  

  1. I am very organized, having a clear schedule and plan for when everything needs to get done. So, my wife and I plan out our schedule for the week, and this enables me to be more efficient in getting things done (when the schedule holds up, at least!).
  2. I do much more collaborative work than in the past. This not only results in stronger work (as each member of the research team brings different ideas and skills), but also helps to keep me accountable to deadlines.
  3. I feel strongly about the work I am doing. I also recognize my privilege in having a flexible job that enables me to be an engaged parent, and I want to use my platform to raise awareness of the benefits these situations provide. If my work is able to contribute in some small way to others gaining more opportunities to better manage their work and family life, then I have succeeded in my job as a researcher.