Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

On ‘Poor Husbands’ and Two-Body Problems

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This is Part One of a two-article series by Kelly J. Baker on the two-body problem. Read Part Two—in which Kelly and her husband discuss their journey as an academic couple—here.

In the fall of 2008, I had a campus interview for a tenure-track position in the religious-studies department of a flagship state university. At lunch with faculty members, the chair, and the dean, I made harmless small talk. Harmless, that is, until, during a lull in the conversation, and female instructor asked: If you take the job, what would your poor husband do?

Everyone at the table turned to look at me. Lunch came to a screeching halt. “My poor husband,” I responded, “will just have to figure it out.”

Some folks chuckled; others looked away. The chair apologized profusely after lunch for such an inappropriate (and illegal) question. He informed me that the offending instructor did not represent the department, and he assured me that my marital status had no impact on my candidacy.

I didn’t get the job.

During the rejection phone call, the chair told me that I had impressed the department; they just wanted to go in a different direction. I couldn’t help but wonder if the mention of my husband had affected the search committee’s direction. Did the careless mention of my marriage plant doubts about whether I would take a position if offered? No, that discussion was just an anomaly, I told myself.

Yet my marital status kept popping up in preliminary interviews, campus visits, and even in discussions with my letter writers. “What would your poor husband do?” emerged as a refrain in my job search. One of my recommenders repeatedly asked whether I would take jobs if they were offered. Later, I wondered if married male colleagues had to endure similar conversations. Did their spouses figure so heavily in the calculations of recommenders and interviewers? Were their wedding rings analyzed? Were their poor wives influencing possible job offers?

Apparently not. Writing in The New York Times, English professor Caroline Bicks describes how her husband emerged as a “problem” in her job search, whereas no one ever asked him about his wife. “It felt as if my wedding ring was a hurdle I had to clear to prove my commitment to academia,” she writes, “while Brendon’s was a badge of stability and good-guy gravitas.”

Search committees seem far too preoccupied with the marital status of female candidates and often seek that information through indirect channels, as Female Science Professor notes in The Chronicle. Like me, “zero” was the number of times she was not asked about her husband. How, then, should women manage this “illegal” question? She advises answering and redirecting the conversation. Answering might plant doubts, but refusing to answer signals something more frightening for search committees: a two-body problem.

The two-body problem is, as Matt Reed nicely puts it, “an inelegant term” for “the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together.” Of course, the term and the issue aren’t exactly new. Academic couples have long faced an uncomfortable choice: Let both partners maximize their careers, at the expense of living separately, or compromising one partner’s position to stay together. What’s different now is that there are so few tenure-track academic jobs—many of them in remote locations—for so many academic couples. What’s more, women are more likely than men to have academic partners, according to a 2008 report by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. So we usually bear the brunt of the two-body problem.

It’s an achingly familiar problem in my house. My husband, Chris, is also an academic, a computational scientist, requiring us to navigate two careers and apply to academic jobs everywhere. Marriage affected our job searches differently: It was a liability for mine and a boon for his. Hiring committees imagined Chris as the male head of household, someone who needed a job to support his wife and child. Interviewers viewed my academic strivings as hobbies. We both went on the job market determined to do what was best for our family. And before long, I became a trailing spouse -- first an adjunct, then a lecturer, now outside of academia. It turns out it was easier to resist traditional gender norms before I was beset by the grim statistics of our situation and the outdated notions fueling them.

Unfortunately, my experiences coincide neatly with the data on married women and academic jobs. In Do Babies Matter?, Mary Ann Mason and her co-authors show that in general women are seven percent less likely to get a tenure-line job than are men. Married women fare even worse: They’re 17 percent less likely than their unmarried peers to end up on the tenure track. (And the deck is even more stacked against married academic women with children.)

On the two-body problem, Mason warns, “One body must defer to the other’s career and that body is far more likely to be the woman’s.” The Clayman Institute report found that women were far more likely than men to consider their partner’s employment prospects, often at the expense of their own. In fact, many women sacrificed professional mobility or refused jobs on account of their partner’s employment offers (or lack thereof), while at all ranks, men prioritized their own careers over those of their partners.

Not surprisingly, then, the survey found that most of the men surveyed got the plum appointments, while their wives got short shrift. When couples were recruited together, 58 percent of the “first hires” (the ones more likely to get the plum positions) were men, while 74 percent of the “second hires” were women. For those women, the consolation prize often was a non-tenure-track position and the stigma of the “trailing spouse,” the assumption that the second hire is not a “quality” candidate. Sadly, these figures correspond to the high proportion of women in contingent positions—and the lower proportion of women in tenure-track positions at research universities, too.

Which is pretty much how my academic story ends. Ironically, my spouse was willing to quit his post and follow me to the ends of the Earth—or as far as Oklahoma, at least—if I got a tenure-track offer. But that offer never came. Eventually Chris left the academy to take a job as principal engineer for a software company.

We “solved” our two-body problem just as many others like us have: not with a bang, but with a whimper. But more on that here.

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