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.
6 years ago