Obituaries

Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist who documented bias in hiring, dies at 46

Dr. Pager with her son, Atticus, in their Cambridge home in 2016.
Liana Cosgrove for The Boston Globe/File
Dr. Pager with her son, Atticus, at their Cambridge home in 2016.

In the stories of homeless men she encountered as a graduate student, Devah Pager found the seeds for her studies documenting employment discrimination that hobbles men with a felony conviction and confronts all African-American men — even those with a clean record.

The results “show that a black applicant with no criminal background fares no better — and perhaps worse — than does a white applicant with a felony conviction,” she wrote in “Marked,” her award-winning 2007 book.

“That the impact of race could be as large or larger than that of a criminal record is shocking to those who see direct racial discrimination as a force in decline,” she added. “But for the millions of young black men who notice the tense expressions or clutched purses in their daily interactions with whites, this finding is of little surprise.”

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A Harvard University professor and a rising star in the field of sociology, Dr. Pager was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago. She was 46 when she died in her Cambridge home Nov. 2.

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In an era of historically high incarceration rates, millions of former convicts are trying to get hired. Dr. Pager’s findings, colleagues say, highlight the significant ramifications of a criminal record for men in the job market, for their families, and ultimately for the entire economy.

Liana Cosgrove for The Boston Globe
Dr. Pager in an undated headshot.

She designed the study in Wisconsin, where she had volunteered with a housing program for homeless and jobless men. To statistically measure what she had learned anecdotally, Dr. Pager recruited four college-age men — two black, two white — and had them apply for scores of jobs at the same places. One applicant in each team claimed to have a nonviolent felony drug conviction.

“The mark of a criminal record indeed represents a powerful barrier to employment,” she wrote in her book, and racial discrimination was also clear. Blacks faced “a ‘two strikes and you’re out’ mentality” among potential employers, she added. “Where for whites a criminal background represents one serious strike against them, for blacks it appears to represent almost total disqualification.”

When the results became well-known, “it ignited a whole ‘ban the box movement’ and provided research support for the idea of removing the criminal record question from job applications,” said Bruce Western, a friend and former Harvard colleague who is now a Columbia University professor.

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The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “issued a guidance that a criminal record by itself should not be a disqualification for employment. Devah’s research was very influential for their thinking,” added Western, who worked with her to replicate her original study with an expanded version in New York City.

Politicians such as former presidential candidate Howard Dean heralded her research, and the study itself was easy for those outside academia to grasp.

“Doing a very elegant, simple study that communicates across the board is actually quite hard, and I think Devah was a master at it,” said Mario L. Small, a sociology professor at Harvard.

“What was clear was the quality of her mind, and her unwillingness to be convinced by anything but the most robust results possible,” he added.

Indeed, colleagues noted that Dr. Pager designed the experiment to produce a best-case scenario. She chose men who were clean-cut and well-spoken to pose as ex-cons. Presenting a nominally safe choice for employers, their job hunt could be expected to produce the least discrimination.

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“It’s not very often that a single study in sociology ever comes close to settling a controversy, but Devah’s research on the negative effect of a criminal record comes as close as you can get,” said Mitchell Duneier, who chairs the sociology department at Princeton University.

‘She was always the brightest light in the room. She seemed to operate on a different level than the rest of us.’

They were colleagues when Dr. Pager taught at Princeton, and he added that “she was in the process of training a generation of young scholars who are already having a big impact on the field of sociology.”

That Dr. Pager and her work would make a profound impact was not surprising to those who knew her well.

“She was always the brightest light in the room. She seemed to operate on a different level than the rest of us,” said Kelly Musick, a Cornell University professor of policy analysis and management who became friends with Dr. Pager when they were University of Wisconsin graduate students.

Dr. Pager “was laser-focused on having an impact on the world and the things she cared about. She also had this accessibility about her, and this incredible capacity to love and to give to other people,” Musick said.

“It’s almost as if she had more hours in the day than the rest of us. She really did have these very deep commitments to her scholarship, and as life progressed, also to her husband and her son and her colleagues and her many students,” Musick added. “She always had time.”

Devah Iwalani Pager was born in Honolulu in 1972. Her father, David Pager, was from South Africa, and is a computer science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii. Her mother, Dr. Sylvia Topor Pager, a pediatrician, was from Australia and died in 2015.

“She always had a bubbly character,” David said of his daughter. Everybody, kids and adults, liked her.”

Even as an adolescent, Dr. Pager “had that same confidence in what she was doing, but also that humility, that other people’s stories were as important as hers,” said Liana Cosgrove of Cambridge, a friend since they were growing up in Honolulu.

Dr. Pager graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She received one master’s in sociology in 1996 from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and another the following year from Stanford University. Her book “Marked” evolved from her doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which she graduated in 2002.

Formerly a Fulbright Scholar in Paris, Dr. Pager taught at Northwestern University and Princeton before joining Harvard’s faculty more than four years ago. There, she directed the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.

At a Thanksgiving dinner nine years ago, she met Mike Shohl, a writer and editor. She was “this amazing person,” he said of Dr. Pager, whom he married in 2016. “She was really smart and really funny and beautiful and kind.”

Their son, Atticus, is 5½, and though she had been hospitalized for treatment, Dr. Pager insisted that “she be able to get out to take Atticus to kindergarten for the first time,” Mike said. “That was something she was absolutely determined to see, to get him off on his path.”

In addition to her husband, son, and father, Dr. Pager leaves two brothers, Sean of East Lansing, Mich., and Chet of London.

Family and friends will gather to celebrate her life at 2 p.m. Dec. 1 in the First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church in Cambridge.

The Dr. Pager that people encountered at work was no different than who she was at home. “Devah was really a ray of light in the academic community,” Western said. “She was just so beloved.”

And at home with her son and husband, Mike wrote in a tribute, “even while helping to save the world, she was the driving force in our little family, every day showing she was the most devoted, compassionate, loving mother and wife.”

In a Facebook post, Cosgrove recalled that Dr. Pager “said to me, ‘People often say that when they get a cancer diagnosis, it inspires them to start living their lives more vibrantly and passionately. But I have always lived my life that way.’ ”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.