Liana Christin Landivar

As an undergraduate, Liana Christin Landivar, M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’07, wrote for a class assignment that her career goal was “to do research for Congress to impact social policy in a way that is beneficial.” During her career in the federal government, she has been able to live that dream.

Landivar was recently appointed as the Senior Researcher for Equity at the U.S. Census Bureau to develop the agency’s equity research program. Prior to joining the Census Bureau, Landivar was a senior researcher at the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor, regularly briefing Congress, White House staff and national media on her findings. At the Women’s Bureau, Landivar focused on women in the workforce, exploring how factors like the lack of childcare, job flexibility and paid leave so often cut women’s careers short.

“There’s so much more work to do to get us where we need to be in terms of equity for working mothers,” she says. “I’ve cared about that issue for as long as I can remember, and there are many different ways that research can move it forward, and for me to contribute my little piece.”

Supporting women

Raised by her father in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Landivar always knew she wanted to help people. She came to California to attend college, and took an introduction to sociology course at Vanguard University of Southern California. The class explored gender and family violence in a way that resonated with Landivar’s own experiences, and aligned with her desire to make a positive difference in society.

By the time she enrolled in the doctoral program in sociology at UCI, Landivar had decided she wanted to work in a federal research position. While Carter Butts, UCI Chancellor’s Professor of sociology, helped Landivar master statistical knowledge essential to her research, Judith Treas, UCI professor emerita of sociology, taught her about gender, work, family and demography, and how to effectively communicate her research. 

While pursuing her doctorate, Landivar chose to earn her Master of Demographic & Social Analysis, as well – an emphasis that would further prepare her for a career in federal research. Ultimately, Landivar completed her dissertation on social policies that support women’s employment including family leave policies, childcare support, and work hours.

“Even at the time when I wasn’t sure if I would have kids, I wanted to see women supported and remain employed, if that’s what they wanted to do,” she says.

Throughout her time as a graduate student, Landivar attended conferences and workshops where Treas introduced her to a variety of government researchers, including the then-director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I had very supportive advisors at UCI, which was important,” she says. “They knew I didn’t necessarily want to become an academic, and they wanted me to follow my own path and honor what was right for me.”

Data-informed policy

When she graduated from UCI, Landivar received job offers at multiple branches of the Census Bureau, but chose the Industry and Occupation Statistics Branch, where she had a lead role in the Equal Employment Opportunity Tabulation – a large set of data that includes race, ethnicity and sex of people in different types of jobs, and is used for compliance and enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in employment.

Landivar also joined the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland as affiliated faculty, and she continues to publish journal articles and helps organize conferences and workshops there.

“I enjoy engaging with academic research, and sometimes that includes translating research from the academic work for the government, in ways that are meaningful for policy and key stakeholders,” she says.

In 2014, Landivar’s research made a splash when the Census Bureau announced that nearly three-quarters of people with bachelor’s degree in STEM work in jobs outside of science, technology, engineering and math fields — because those degrees are useful in a variety of fields. She worked with the Bureau’s visualization team to develop a way to convey the findings in more digestible graphics, and briefed the White House and Congress on the racial and gender disparities in STEM that the project revealed.

Landivar had become a subject matter expert on women’s employment by then and, in 2017, she published the book Mothers at Work: Who Opts Out?, which leveraged data to debunk the myth that it’s primarily women in high paying jobs who leave the labor force to raise their children. That same year, she officially transferred to the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor, to focus on advocating for working women.

Pandemic’s impact on mothers

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Landivar’s son was in kindergarten, giving her a front row seat to the havoc the pandemic wrought on working women’s lives. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics put out monthly employment updates, Landivar teamed up with other researchers including fellow UCI alum Leah Ruppanner, Ph.D. ’09, professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne, to create a database of U.S. school closures and match that to employment trends.

Their team found that school shutdowns had a direct and lasting impact on mothers’ employment. In areas where schools stayed closed into the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, mothers’ employment declined by an additional 5 percentage points. For women without college degrees, employment remained down even six months after schools reopened. In a recently released analysis, Landivar found that, on average, mothers’ employment rates returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2023 – except among those without a college degree. Remote work, which is more available in higher wage jobs, played a key role in the employment recovery of mothers with a college degree.

“One thing we found that was really supportive for women was the ability to telework. That really kept more mothers in the labor force than we probably would have seen, and is also helping to support their continued employment,” she says.

Grappling with childcare prices

One of Landivar’s recent projects is a monumental effort to build a comprehensive national database of childcare prices by location. While state-level childcare averages are known, the variation in prices between cities and rural, wealthy and impoverished areas, has not been tracked before. So she set out to create a database, in partnership with state governments and other agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, that breaks down child care prices by location, children’s age and type of care.

“The affordability of childcare is really important to women’s employment, and makes a huge difference in promoting equity in employment and keeping families out of poverty,” she says. “This project is trying to fill a gap in our knowledge to help us understand what childcare means for people all over the country, and what they’re paying.”

Childcare accounts for between 8 and 19 percent of household budgets, per child, and Landivar has advocated for policies that will lower out-of-pocket costs for families and support the care workforce. Landivar has given briefings on this new data to Congressional committees and White House policy councils, and her work was even cited in the 2023 Economic Report of the President.

Because of the increasing acceptance of remote work, Landivar recently moved back to Southern California after 15 years in the Washington, D.C., area. She spoke to sociology students in the spring of 2023 about her research agenda and career opportunities in government for sociologists.

“There’s a variety of types of roles available, and you really get a chance to get your research or data out there in a way that’s useful and reaches a lot of people,” she says. “It feels really meaningful.”

Which is exactly what Landivar wanted from the very beginning of her career. In January of this year, she returned to the Census Bureau to advance research on equity for women and marginalized workers.

“I always knew I wanted to work in a role where, in my own way, I could make the world better,” Landivar says. “I’m still an optimist, and believe that research is an effective way to make a difference.”

-Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences
-photo by Jennifer Heffner

Liana Christin Landivar was interviewed in her personal capacity as an alumnus of UC Irvine. The views expressed in this story do not necessarily represent the views of the U. S. Government.

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