Kelly J. Baker

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

On ‘Poor Husbands’ and Two-Body Problems


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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  • My wife is also an academic and has never encountered the poor husband question. I believe asking such a question is illegal, immoral and unethical. If someone in my dept would say such a thing they would be punished.......assigned a general survey course!

    S Arnulf S Arnulf
  • Sigh. How disheartening. And the sad truth about sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) is if one person says it, four more are thinking it.

    In prep for a tt interview at an R1 I was warned by a "well-meaning" connection in the department that my wedding registry shows up when I am googled. Less blatant. But still undermined my confidence. I also did not get that job.

    Nicolette  M Nicolette M
  • I've encountered this often enough. But I can honestly say that I'm not married. My partner and I have been grappling with long distance for the last 5.5 years. I'm an academic, he's not, but he's in an occupation that also has limited options geographically. We've discussed marriage a number of times, but with a very large ocean between us, neither of us consider it a realistic proposition at this point in time. I can't deny the fact that this question is raised with alarming regularity during interviews plays a part in me not wanting to commit.

    What about my husband? Well, I'm not married, am I?

    Rock Doc Rock Doc
  • I wish I had someone to blame when I didn't get a job.

    Thomas Impelluso Thomas Impelluso
  • This cleverly titled problem should be part of any career counseling discussion for a married person, regardless of the profession. Compromise is necessary. Either my husband or I have tried to stay close to home while the other had the option of a 90 minute commute by car one way. We opted to live in a suburban town on the highway near a commuter train station to make it easier. Over the years and several job changes we have switched back and forth as to who is near and who is far, who has primary responsibility for picking up the kids, and who is starting dinner. This is a modern family problem every couple seeking employment has to face.

    C Glover C Glover
  • I hope you understand that lunch is part of the interview. How you respond is as important as what your response is.

    C Glover C Glover
  • It doesn't stop with the hire. I came to my first tenure track job with my "poor husband" who was grudgingly given part time work in my department. At my first year review, realizing that in the eyes of my department chair, merit pay translated as my husband's part time course stipend, I insisted that my job was the only real means of support for all of us, including our five year old daughter. I emphasized that I intended to go the whole route through RPT and make a career in that university. The chair awarded me a merit raise several percentage points higher than I'd expected and slightly higher than any other member of the department (which, given our relative productivity that year, I probably deserved). However, over the next two years, my husband and I both paid a price -- I became even more alienated from my (male) departmental colleagues and my husband eventually separated from the university altogether. That was in the late 80's. As recently as 2009, a female colleague who would be considered a "star" by any other standards (huge grants, prolific publication record, outstanding student evaluations) was described by the chair in a formal evaluation as "having too many children" but to be fair, the same chair stated the same to a full professor male colleague's end of year review. So, I suspect there's more in addition to the "poor husband" phenomenon than bias against women. As Kelly Baker points out, children play a role too.

    Patricia Turrisi Patricia Turrisi
  • To the author and commenters: Do you folks know how ridiculous you appear to a military family, those who sacrifice and endure multiple long periods apart for the very purpose of securing your freedom and rights, including the right to freely express your opinion on this website?

    Jack Jackson Jack Jackson
  • At an interview during the AEA meetings in 2011, a potential employer went behind my back to ask a classmate from my phd program if i was married. During a campus visit earlier this year, I was asked the same question about what my husband will do if I get hired by a hiring committee member. I can't help but wonder if I had made a mistake by mentioning my husband. Luckily for me, both my husband and I ended up getting dual positions elsewhere. But this illegal question still bothers me. Its quite offensive.

    Latika Lagalo Latika Lagalo
  • It is illegal to ask directly. But on a job search (I did wear my ring) I was told - "if you have a spouse who would need a job we can help you, it's best if you tell us right away." I think this is technically OK to state, since the person is giving you info not asking. But it clearly requires some sort of response, and if you don't say "Oh no worries my spouse is not an academic" then the implied response is yes.

  • I don't mean this as criticism, but for the benefit of others, it seems as though part of the challenge with questions such as the one you encountered is sometimes knowing the "right" answer (legality of the question aside). While it may be true that more women than men might get this question, they would be looking for the same reassurance in either case; that the candidacy is realistic and that performance wouldn't be hampered by family issues arising from the move. If asked this question, I would think the required response would be (after stifling one's bristling at the question), to hastily and emphatically assure the inquisitors that the spouse is absolutely supportive, and then to say nothing more about it. The answer you report having given them, I fear, would convey exactly the opposite. It implies contention between the two of you (when, as you state, nothing could be further from the truth). Additionally, whether it was interpreted this way or a you simply taking exception to the question, it could easily be taken as evidence of a contentious personality. In any job interview, the sample the hiring team has to go on regarding how a candidate will work out is so limited that every minor interaction gets a great deal of weight and is seen a microcosmic of the candidates entire character. It's not at all clear to me that this couldn't have been laied to rest very easily by simply singing the right words to the song.

    Gregory Branch Gregory Branch
  • There is also discrimination against women who are not married and don't have children. When I tell an interviewer I'm single, they assume it's some sort of default status, and I'm just waiting for the right guy to come along. I'm not; in fact, I'm one of a growing population of both men and women who are choosing to stay single and not have kids. Some people still treat unmarried women as second class citizens for whom they should feel sorry. There is also the sense that the subject you're studying is a "consolation prize" and that you will walk away from it once you find that "special person." Why is it so hard to believe a single woman can be completely happy and fulfilled with her life?

    Laurel Kornfeld Laurel Kornfeld
  • Very good article.

    Mark Lennon Mark Lennon
  • Interesting article on the two-body problem and how it negatively impacts female academics. Here is a story from my own history:

    A female dean at the University of Arizona asked me "Did you take your husband's name because you didn't think you could make it on your own work?"

    I retorted that I hadn't "taken" his name, I had appended it to mine, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stow, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that I had publications under both my maiden name and married name, that I had been a professor at Yale University on my own and under my maiden name (when we commuted across country from our respective academic jobs), and (at that time) my husband and I had never published together (we have a few joint pubs now). (I also had a more distinguished vita than she had.)

    She just smirked knowingly. Her specialty was Women and Gender Studies and most of her cronies hated, just hated dual career hires because (as in this article) their default assumption was that the wife was a trailing spouse as hence was a "sellout" to "the cause". I have had a strong dislike for such programs every since.

    Denise Cummins Denise Cummins