Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Trailing Spouse

A reader writes with a description of her situation as a tenure-track professor whose department hired her husband and then created a position for her as part of a hiring package. At the end of her description, she has some questions:

I am writing with a question regarding the issues of the two-body problem and trailing spouses. When scientists talk about the "two-body problem", they are usually referring to the challenges associated with finding two academic jobs in the same department/university/city. My husband and I were fortunate in that we were able to overcome this challenge: we both have tenure-track jobs in the same department. After several years together in this department, I am realizing that there is another component to the two-body problem that I had not anticipated: although we have equal jobs, we are not treated as equals. I am not sure if this is the result of 1) difference in job performance; 2) gender; or 3) trailing vs. non-trailing spouse. Our job performances are relatively comparable, we each have our strengths and weaknesses, but overall each of us is achieving the goals that were set by our department and both of us on track for tenure. Regarding gender, there are some female tenured or tenure-track faculty in our department; however, there is a bit of a boys network in our department (important things are often discussed behind closed doors and in the men's room - seriously, I can hear the conversations from the hallway - not that I linger but occasionally pick it up in passing...). I am writing to see if you or your readers have any insight into inequities arising as a result of the trailing/non-trailing spouse issue.

In our situation, my husband was offered a position first. Our negotiations led to a second position (mine) in which I was provided similar resources in terms of space, start-up, salary etc. Based on our negotiations, which were extremely fair, we assumed that we would be treated as equals in our department.

I am very disappointed to report that the traditional two-body problem has morphed into something much subtler but more troubling. Despite starting on nearly equal footing, several inequities have developed since we started our jobs. For example, despite equal teaching components of our job, our teaching loads are far from equal. Since we joined this department, my teaching assignments have involved more (different) courses, with more students per course, with courses that meet more often during the week. My husband has taught fewer courses with fewer students, which meet less often during the week. Is this the result of savvy planning by my husband? I don't think so, these were the assignments handed down by the chair.

A second example comes from service assignments. I have been asked to serve on numerous, sometimes time-consuming but largely inconsequential committees where as my husband has been asked and has served on every major decision-making committee we have (e.g., graduate admissions, finances). I am disappointed to report that these inequities have been consistent across time, and at this point the situation appears to be worsening as he is benefiting from lower teaching loads (more productive research program) and leadership positions within the department (e.g., he is regularly consulted about space and equipment needs). I am in the extremely demoralizing position of having to communicate my professional needs through my husband, as he is in a position with some leverage and I am not.

Is it common that the trailing spouse, although equal in job description, is not on equal footing?

Have your readers observed inequities between trailer and non-trailer persisting and in some cases expanding over time?

How frequently is the trailing spouse female relative to a man being the trailing spouse?

If the man is the trailing spouse, are the same inequities encountered?


I don't know the answer to the general questions, but I can mention my experience relevant to the second question. In my case, the initial offer was to my husband, and I was hired as part of the deal. Longtime readers know the background, but, briefly: I was already a tenure-track professor at another university and we could have both stayed there with TT positions rather than going to the new university, so the only way the new university was going to get my husband was to hire me as a TT professor as well.

In that sense, I was a trailing spouse. Some colleagues were very happy that I had joined the department and in fact were more interested in my research field than my husband's; they treated me as a valued member of the department from the beginning. To others, I was less visible and was mostly just a useful person to have on committees because I was good at getting things done. To some, I was completely invisible despite the fact that my research was going well and I arrived with a CAREER award.

Inequity was built into our positions from the start. My husband was given more start-up and better lab space. I took a pay cut from my previous position, and I was given more service work than my husband, in part because some committees had to have a woman, and there weren't (and still aren't) many of us. I was appreciated, but not seen as a leader. I was never put in charge of anything important.

Things changed with time, so I can report, in answer to the second question, that inequities don't need to persist and magnify with time. A very key element to eliminating the problem for me was that I had a very supportive senior colleague.

Also important for me were some awards that I received that were of the sort that my faculty colleagues respected and that gave me some visibility. These were awards for which I was nominated, so it was again very important to have an effective mentor who was proactive about helping me. I never had an official mentor, but my kind senior colleague served this role better than any officially designated mentor. Is there anyone who can be your advocate in this way?

Have you talked to your chair about the situation? Is he/she someone who would be willing to look at the data (your teaching/service load relative to others at a similar career stage) and work out a constructive solution? If you've been a diligent department citizen, a sane administrator would not think you are whining but instead would see that there is a problem to be solved.

Perhaps I would have reached this point anyway -- the point at which the early trailing/inequity experiences seem very far away and almost absurd to remember -- without a mentor of sorts, but it's easier if you have some help.

Also, as your career progresses and you get tenure and younger faculty are hired, they will not think of you as "trailing", and may not even know this history, so what is foremost in the minds of some older colleagues will not even occur to your new colleagues. Eventually, if things work out, you will forget about it too, as I do unless I have reason to think back on days of yore. I hope that's how things go for you as well.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't it stand to reason that the non-trailing spouse will be the one who is more greatly valued and has a greater chance of productivity? Why should the two be on equal footing, regardless of gender?

P.S. Most guys do not like to talk about important things (or anything) in the bathroom. While it is possible that the big players in the reader's department are amongst those who do, I really doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that my husband is not an academic as I don't think I could handle being in the position of your reader without some serious resentment building up that could possibly threaten our marriage!

Also, FSP's responses indicate how crucial it is to an academic career to have a mentor with clout. I have seen time and time again how junior scientists' careers are squashed or simply never got off the ground because of a lack of a senior or powerful person as an advocate. It is unfortunate that merit and hard work and determination are all necessary but not sufficient but such is the way of the world. I hope the reader will thus get busy building some allies among senior powerful colleagues.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say that I have found myself in EXACTLY the same situation despite my husband being the trailing spouse. I never found the senior colleague that FSP found, but I agree that it would be a big help.

I can't say that it has gotten any better (we are now newly tenured associates), but I've developed a strong reputation in my field despite the persistent inequities in my department, and thus just care less what those in my department think. I am more assiduous about self-promoting within my department, though.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I have to say that while the letter writer's situation is unfortunate, it really isn't all that surprising.The department probably feels that they were doing her a favor by creating a post for her, especially if they hadn't planned on hiring two people from the start, and that she therefore "owes" them extra service, teaching, etc. Whether it is true or not, her colleagues might also think that she was not qualified to get the job without her husband, and there might be some resentment from those who had to get the job "on their own." When you add the gender bias that is still so prevalent in academia, things only get worse. My advice to the writer: 1) Seriously evaluate the quality of your work. If you truly feel that it is on par with your husband and others in the department who get better treatment, then bring your concerns to the chair or other senior faculty. But do so without mentioning your husband if you can. i.e. Don't say "why does my husband get treated better?" Instead, say "why do other dept faculty get X when I only get Y even though I have the same number of grants/students/publications/awards/etc." 2) Stop making requests through your husband. This practice probably exacerbates the problem and places you more firmly in your husband's shadow -- i.e. "Oh, she only got the promotion/lab space/assignment/tenure/etc. because of her husband, just like the way she got the job in the first place." Don't think of yourself as the trailing spouse. Your are your own independent researcher, and that is the image you should be portraying to others. Concentrate on your work and moving your career forward without reference to his career. And speak up for yourself when things are unjust. If there are other female faculty, they are probably also annoyed by the boys' club mentality. You can work together with them to change things. And try to enlist sympathetic male senior faculty to your cause as well. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

to anon #1:

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume trailing spouse will fail at research, so we give them extra dept duties like teaching and service, so their research falls behind, and we are proven right. This says nothing about trailing spouse's actual "chance of productivity".

I've seen cases in both gender directions though sadly among senior faculty the most common case seems to be wife-as-support-staff. The male senior faculty in letter-writer's dept are probably just annoyed that she's not staying in the kitchen/husband's lab with all the other wives where she belongs.

Best of luck.

BugDoc said...

I agree with one of the earlier comments that this faculty member should regard herself as any other faculty (without regard to her husband) and speak with her chair. Rather than ask why she is getting assigned additional teaching/service, one approach could be to talk to the chair and say "As I'm sure you are aware, I've had extensive teaching and service commitments for the past several years. I'm happy that I could help out the department in this way, but I'd like to ask for these committee/teaching assignments (more prestigious/less time consuming) for next year so that I can focus more on my research program." Sadly, sometimes these assignments get made unfairly without anyone realizing that these inequities get built up over time, so just stating the concern and asking specific for what she would like (in person, not by email) might alert the chair that some changes need to be made.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would want my wife to be hired because of me. I would prefer to just take twice the salary, vacation, startup, etc. And just have my wife work somewhere else (or stay at home cooking/cleaning).

Anonymous said...

I think my advice would be to stop acting like a trailing spouse.

Act like half of a power couple who could at any point get swiped away by another institution. Protect your time. Learn to say, "No," or rather "I would love to, but unfortunately I am already committed on X, Y, and Z, so I will have to decline."

Discuss your teaching load with the chair. Sure, your husband may not have had to, but that's the chair's misconception and it needs to be corrected. Yes, we're discriminated against but in the short-term that means we need to work harder and speak up for ourselves more. You don't have to put up with things that are unfair, bring it up just like BugDog says.

The trailing spouses in my department were hired before I got here and I never would have known they were trailing spouses if it weren't for their admissions as to that's why they have such completely undeserved low self-esteem. One of them recently tried to leave for another school and only now, after being given a counter-offer, has she gotten out of the idea that the only reason she's employed here is because her husband has a job. The change in attitude is remarkable.

inBetween said...

My experience has been much like the person who wrote with the question to begin with. I was in an excellent tt position at a major research university, and as a retention effort was interviewed and offered a job at my husband's university. His school is very prestigious, but more so in attitude than in reality from the place where I was originally.

I was promised repeated and backwards and forwards that I would be treated equally, as we were both very concerned about the trailing spouse issue.

This has not ended up being the case at all, despite my very successful research program and high esteem of many of my professional colleagues off-campus.

The majority of the department sees me as a second class citizen who doesn't deserve anything more than the smallest lab space (if I want more I should borrow some from my husband, I was told). Even the dean agreed that I was treated like a second class citizen and that's what I get for how I was hired.

I am pretty bitter about the situation, but have no solution for how to fix it. Although I turn down a lot of the dinky but time consuming dept committee assignments I get asked to do and focus instead on university service. People outside my department treat me very well, and so I focus my efforts where I am treated with respect.

The equity office on my campus had recommended this approach, and it has been good for me so far. If the dept won't consider me an equal, then they don't get my commitment and energies.

the unknown said...

this kinda thing happens all the time, not juz in the academic arena, but in a corporate organization as well.

despite all the technological advances made, ppl r still susceptible to gender bias.

it's best to stay cool and focus on ur work.

Anonymous said...

Um, why are you making requests to your department through your husband??? You should be making requests on your own, stomping louder if necessary to get heard. No wonder they treat you like a second class citizen.

Female post-doc said...

It's too bad that "trailing" is often perceived as "less-than". I look at "trailing" as nothing more than "if we had a job opening with your description we would hire you". Will a University really hire a partner to recruit another even if that "trailing" partner is inadequate according to their usual standards? (Yes I realize there can be a difference between actual hiring process and how a new hire is perceived, but still.)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I wonder if the issue here is not so much that your reader is a trailing spouse as much as she is the trailing FEMALE spouse?

Given the described "bit of a boys network," I wonder if the same apparent inequalities would exist if her husband had been the trailer.

Anonymous said...

I was also hired at the university where my husband held a position but in my case I won a major grant that payed my salary for 5 years and after that time period the university had to hire me.
I am the only female in the department and I have noticed over the years that I am rarely chosen to serve on major committees whereas my husband is. I was pressured to take an academic duty that nobody wanted right after my maternity leave which did not suit me at all...etc. I try to carry on my own work but it certainly is difficult at times not being treated as equal

Hypothetical Engineer said...

The letter writer might be suffering real gender bias, but most likely it is as other people have said in here, just being looked down on for being the following spouse. Also guys do not in general discuss anything in bathroom. It's pretty rare to hear any conversation in there at all, as it's a little awkward for all parties involved.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this "trailing spouse" issue is just a (very poor) excuse for gender bias. Are there any male trailing spouses being treated in this way at your university? To be honest, at my university (North Dakota State) many women report being treated as you describe, whether or not they have a spouse and without regard for how they were hired. The good ol' boys network runs from department chairmen to deans and provost. There is very little recourse to address grievances with such a unified cabal of decision makers, resulting in very low retention of female assistant professors.

Noumenon said...

It is very unclear that paragraphs 2-9 of this post are someone else who is not you. They aren't block quoted or even set off with a quotation mark. I didn't realize it wasn't you until I got to the very last paragraph of the post.

Another female professor said...

I am not a trailing spouse, but I and other women in my department have experienced differences in course loads than our male peers. We learned from an internal study that the difference in course loads between males and females were statistically significant (p<.05 on various measures). We have addressed this issue and are making changes

Anonymous said...

I just found this blog. Interesting post. I may be missing something, but since the husband is the one the department was *really* interested in, and the wife was the one they *had* to make a position for in order to get who they really wanted (i.e. the husband) isn't it only natural that the wife isn't valued as much by the department? If anything they may have thought "well to make it worth our while we now have someone to do all the grunt work that no one else wants to do."