Guest post: Women and relationships in academia: a curious journey of self-reflection

Note from Meghan: This is a guest post by Merritt Turetsky (@queenofpeat on twitter)

It’s not the first time a survey caught me by surprise. There was that time I glanced through a Cosmo survey – a guilty pleasure on a long flight – and realized that I was now lumped into the oldest age category.

How did that happen?

I actually like being mature, so was able to brush this off fairly quickly. But this survey was different. It somehow felt more personal. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

This survey was part of a department-wide review of gender balance issues. For years, I talked glowingly about my department, with a sense of pride that came from being part of an environment with strong women. When I was hired, I negotiated with a female chair. There was a good balance of female professors across full and associate rankings. Plus, there were several couples in the department. In my mind, this was all evidence that my department supported women in STEM and work-life balance. And as my husband and I accepted separate advertised positions and joined the department in 2008, we became yet another couple in a family-friendly work place. As a group, we seemed like we were on the right track towards gender equity.


Over the past month, we’ve taken on some self-analysis and it has revealed a few surprising trends. Despite our feel-good aura, our gender balance has not budged in the past 20 years. Females comprise 20% of our faculty, and this has been more or less constant.

The percentage of female faculty is actually higher at the full professor level than at lower rankings. It doesn’t take a sophisticated demographic model to understand that our future equity picture doesn’t seem so bright. The goal of even maintaining our current female ratio might be a challenge.

The numbers themselves are not terribly surprising. A quick scan of our faculty meetings reveals how they play out. But here is the trend that really caught me by surprise. All of the female faculty hired in the past 15 years – all whopping four of us – are married to another faculty in the department. And I, obviously, am one of those four. A small sample size for sure, but again I found myself asking –

How did that happen?

And more important, what does this mean?

On a pragmatic level, it means that if my department had relied solely on traditional hiring practices, our gender balance likely would be a lot worse. By traditional hiring I mean advertising for and making a job offer to a single candidate. Without non-traditional hiring, such as spousal hires, special accommodation hires, or couple hires (having two positions open simultaneously), our department would have made no gains towards gender equity in at least a decade. None.

Female faculty are known to be affected more than men by these non-traditional hiring practices. And ultimately this is because female academics, more than male academics, tend to be married to other faculty1,2. It’s one thing to read about these trends. It’s another to ask – why? Is this just a numbers game? Are women faculty more often in academic relationships somehow because there are fewer women in academia? I’ve heard this argument before, but I don’t think it’s quite so simple.

I have been thinking about my own personal journey. As a graduate student mapping out a future career, I found love and partnership with a fellow academic who understood my career ambitions. I didn’t need to explain the odd hours, being consumed by tasks for weeks on end, or why I was applying for jobs in places I had never even heard of before. I was determined to move mountains to support my blossoming career in science, and I needed and luckily found a partner who not only supported but deeply understood my scientific hopes and dreams3. Having an academic partner was a wise choice for me, despite the challenges of finding two academic positions.

Now that I have reached Cosmo’s “mature” category and have an established career, it is hard to remember the difficulty and uncertainty of those early academic years. I landed an awesome postdoc position but it was definitely not the best years of my academic career. I found those uncertain times very stressful. I was glad to have a partner who not only understood that turmoil, but who also was experiencing it right alongside me.

Fast forward 15 years, I now share parenting and household duties equally with my husband. We are as egalitarian as they come. I cannot imagine it any other way.

Is my egalitarian relationship by choice? Or is it by necessity?

I started to wonder if my experience is typical for female faculty. Do women in STEM or perhaps any academic path tend to be in egalitarian relationships more so than their male colleagues? Scanning my academic circle of friends and acquaintances, egalitarian relationships seem to be common for both females and males. Dual careers, both pitching in more or less equally towards raising children, etc. all seem part of modern life. But I know several male academics with partners who are at home or work part-time, either because the partners are less career-oriented or because their primary focus is devoted to raising children. I don’t have any female faculty friends in a comparable situation. A 2008 survey found that 20% of male academics have stay-at-home partners compared with 5% of female academics2,4.

I applaud every family who works together to create the home and work environment that is right for them. Nothing is as important as this, and I am passing no judgement on anyone’s choices or lifestyle. I am mainly really curious about what is driving some of the trends observed in my very own department that also seem to be born out as broader women in STEM issues.

One hypothesis is that there are a more limited number of ways in which female scientists or female faculty can make a go of it relative to men. If a woman wants to have a successful academic career as well as a family, she needs a partner who contributes equally, if not more, at home. For female academics, choosing to be in an academic relationship might help ensure equity at home and thus manage the ‘rigid pathway’ that leads to an academic position5.

I posed a simple question on Twitter that I thought would address one component of relationship egalitarianism. Respondents answered separately as individuals identifying as males or females, and I asked whether they were making substantially more, less, or equal amounts of salary relative to their partners. I expected to find that relative to males, female academics would tend to be in salary equitable relationships regardless of who their partners were or what their partners did. I expected that male academics would show more diversity than women in terms of whether their partners made more or less than them. More than 300 people responded to the poll, with 66% of respondents identifying as female. Responses showed surprisingly little difference between males and females in terms of how their salaries compared to their partner’s. Most academics in relationships made more than their partners, and this was slightly higher in males than females. If anything, the poll suggested that female academics tend not to be in salary equitable relationships as often as male academics, which is opposite to what I predicted. Of course, this poll is limited and certainly does not start to crack the nut of what makes a relationship egalitarian or not.

There are a number of other hypotheses that could explain why female academics tend to be in academic relationships. Over the past several weeks I have been fortunate to discuss this issue with colleagues from across Canada. One recurring theme that arose during these discussions is the lens with which society views ambitious, smart women. The optimistic side of me wants to think that we might be viewed as ideal partners by male academics. But on the flip side of perhaps even the same coin, are we intimidating or unappealing to men outside of academia? After all, critical words like abrasive often are applied to women in leadership more than men6 (do me a favour and plug in the words ‘bossy’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘brilliant’ in the interactive and mesmerizing chart at How can these prevailing attitudes not affect aspects of our lives both professionally and personally?

There also are a number of well-documented, broader issues facing women in academia, and it would be naïve to think that these are somehow unrelated to the topic at hand. A candidate’s relationship status is more likely to be assessed by hiring committees if that candidate identifies as a she7. Female academics are more likely to experience “penalties” for being married8 or having children9 than academic males. Perhaps all of these issues need to be evaluated together, and we can do so without losing sight of the gains that have been made in recent decades10.

At the end of the day, I feel like I have learned a lot about what hiring practices in my department say about challenges facing women in STEM. But I am left feeling uneasy.

  • I feel uneasy because we felt good about ourselves as a department until we analyzed our own data. I feel uneasy that it took us so long to evaluate evidence and think about our own hiring practices.
  • I feel uneasy because not every university supports being proactive with tools that may help recruit women in academia and STEM.
  • I feel uneasy because sometimes these hiring tools can backfire and hurt the very people they are meant to help. For example, it is not easy to be a spousal hire under the best of circumstances, and this should be used as a recruitment tool only if universities can provide the support that the spouse needs to be successful (regardless of what gender the spousal hire identifies with). Spousal hires are not the only proactive hiring approach that universities could support, and a range of options should at least be explored and discussed.

This is a story of how self-analysis broke our unit’s bubble and revealed that a lot more work is needed to set us on a true path towards gender equity. Bursting any bubble is bound to cause some unease, but it also creates momentum and I feel strongly that we are better off as a group now than we were a month ago. This experience has started a lot of dialogue, not only hallway discussions and meetings over coffee, but also dialogue on social media where other academics have been able to join in. We are better off now because we are actively sorting through our practices and talking about formal policies. And we are better off because all of this is all being led primarily by male faculty in my department. To achieve gender equity, we all need to see its value and we need to be allies for each other. I am fiercely proud of my job, my employer, and my colleagues.

As is so often the case in science, one question about our own record on gender equity has led to deeper and more insightful questions. I still do not understand why women tend to be in academic relationships more than men. Is it by choice? Is it by necessity? In my personal situation, what started as choice now seems like necessity, as I could not picture my life any other way.

Being an academic is as awesome as I imagined it would be. Being a mom also is as awesome as I imagined. My own path to success depended on having an academic partner, and while I have never been a spousal hire, I would not be where I am today without hiring tools that can be used proactively to recruit women. That much I know. The rest is open for healthy conversation, which I welcome in the comments and at @queenofpeat.


References and Links

1Benderly, B.L. 2010. Taken for granted: Intimate Collaborators. Science.

2Schiebinger, L., A.D. Henderson, S.K. Gilmartin. 2008. Dual-career academic couples: What universities need to know.

3Love in (and out of) academe. 2005. Shari Wilson. Inside Higher Ed.

4Barry, D. 2012. Shockingly, academic wives get short shrift. Gezebel.

5Miller, D.I. and J. Wai. 2015. The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 6:37

6Snyder, K. 2014. The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews. Fortune.

7Rivera, L.A. 2017. When two bodies are (not) a problem: gender and relationship status discrimination in academic hiring. American Sociological Review 82: 1111-1138

8Coe, A. 2013. Being married helps professors get ahead, but only if they’re male. The Atlantic.

9Waxman, S. and Ispa-Landa. 2016. Academia’s Baby Penalty. U.S. News.

10Ceci S. J., Ginther D. K., Kahn S., Williams W. M. (2014). Women in academic science: a changing landscape. Psychol. Sci. Public Interest 15 75–141 10.1177/1529100614541236.

Author Information
Merritt R. Turetsky
Canada Research Chair in Integrative Ecology at the University of Guelph
Member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, Royal Society of Canada
Twitter: @queenofpeat

18 thoughts on “Guest post: Women and relationships in academia: a curious journey of self-reflection

  1. Merritt – thanks for the post. Lots to think about there.

    I’m curious how you’re department came to do a self-analysis? (it sounds like it was formal and not just a growing conversation in the hallways?). That is obviously an important part of change so I’m curious what can facilitate that.

    I wonder what the national trend is relative to what you found for the department about gender (im)balance being constant for 20 years (or did I miss it in your post). Unfortunately it wouldn’t shock me if that held nationally. (Although Jeremy’s recent data might suggest it has changed in the last few years, which matches my own department’s anecdata).

    Although you clearly raise some complexities about spousal hires, it still seems to me that they still have to be a net gain for gender equity (and family friendly workplaces), no? The frequency of spousal-hire-friendliness is something that I feel for sure has been stuck or even reversed over the last decade or two nationally.

    • Hi Brian,
      Like many universities and departments, we started to think about establishing a formal equity policy. As we/I evaluated our internal statistics, it was some of the more nuanced trends – the trends for which you need historical context – that really made an impression on me. I don’t think there is an easy way to evaluate these same dynamics at a national scale unless we look at trends by ranking, which might provide some of the same information. In general, my dept was on the low end of gender balance for comparable biology depts, and I honestly was quite surprised by that finding.

      I also started to think really carefully about the pros and cons of recruitment tools that might be used to achieve equity. Because there are some cons and they can be difficult/painful/challenging to discuss. As I was coming up through the academic ranks, there was a lot of stigma associated with recruiting women via spousal hires. And I saw the consequences of that in several cases. Women hired into positions for which it seemed to me they were likely to fail (higher than normal teaching, lower than normal start up packages). Yet clearly spousal hiring remains an important tool and if done right can be effective. So absolutely yes we need to be thinking about any tool that can achieve “net gains”, but we can’t lose the context of the quality of those positions. Otherwise the net gains will be very temporary.

      I also agree that support of spousal hiring seems to be on the decline. This does worry me! Best, Merritt

      • “I also agree that support of spousal hiring seems to be on the decline. This does worry me! ”

        Wait, I’m confused, I had interpreted Brian as saying that support for spousal hiring had *increased* over the last decade or two (which as an aside is my anecdotal impression as well). Brian, can you clarify? And Merritt, can you talk more about why you see support for spousal hiring as declining recently?

  2. Some Twitter comments. Click through if necessary to see the full threads associated with them.

    There are numerous other tweets praising today’s post; I decided not to copy all those in just because it would clutter up the thread without advancing the conversation. But I’m glad to see that the post has been well-received.

    Re: the concern about who normally comments on our posts on gender and equity issues, we’ve blocked the IP address of the one person who used to regularly troll the comment threads on those posts.

  3. Thanks Jeremy,
    I wanted to make an additional comment about Audrey’s post on single academic parents. Her comment made me realize that surveys tackle relationship status or issues relating to children, but rarely both. So I think some of the challenges faced by single parents in science or academic fall through the cracks. I think this would be a really interesting area for additional analysis, but below are three links that highlight several unique challenges faced by single parents. Again, the solution often seems to be about embracing family-friendly approaches:

    I love a quote from this last link: “Single parents in academia are a sign of progressive times.”. We can analyze the roadblocks in the system while still recognizing the amazing gains made of late for women in STEM. -Merritt

  4. Very nice post Merritt.

    Just to share my own admittedly-anecdotal experiences (I have little sense of just how common they are):

    Some of my Calgary colleagues and I have been mulling over similar issues. Our department is quite male skewed, and in contrast to a lot of places the gender balance hasn’t moved that much in the last 20 years or so. And insofar as it has moved, it’s mostly been because of teaching faculty hires. Our “instructor” faculty (meaning those with no research duties, only teaching and service), are mostly women, even if you restrict attention to recent hires. Our “professorial” faculty (those with research, teaching, and service duties) are mostly men, even if you restrict attention to recent hires. And one of the few women professor faculty we’ve hired during my time at Calgary was was hired as part of a program to hire women. (That program was a one-off; it no longer exists).

    That’s even though we have done a few spousal hires since I’ve been here (including one of a man). And even though the colleagues I know best (basically, the EEB group) are a quite family-friendly and work-life balance-friendly group. Several faculty with kids. Some of those kids are regulars at group social events like our annual EEB retreat. Years ago we moved the EEB seminars from 4 pm to noon so as to enable/encourage attendance by faculty and grad students with young children. Etc.

    And of course, the situation in my dept. is a more extreme version of the situation at N. American colleges and universities more generally. Woman are and have long been a larger proportion of the faculty at less research-intensive institutions. And the long-term steady increase in the proportion of women among faculty (which as an aside does make your department, and mine, atypical) has taken the form of parallel increases at more and less research-intensive institutions–the gap isn’t closing.

    Re: your poll results, I’m not surprised it came out as it did. As you say it’s just one question and not necessarily one that gets at the issue of interest very directly.

    • Most universities have some policy on spousal hires of faculty. They are a recognition of the fact that if you hire an academic there is a fairly non-trivial chance their spouse/partner is an academic and except for a few big cities, the only place that academic partner can work is at the same university/college as the original hire.

      In my opinion at least, a good version of a spousal hiring policy looks like the following. There is a standing pool of money allocated for this as it is a priority for the university. If one person is hired into a faculty position and they have an academic spouse, then the spouse goes through an abbreviated hiring process in their respective department (e.g. job talk and campus interview but usually not a competitively advertised).If the second department wishes to hire that person then two offers are made up front, so this can be incorporated into the decision processes of the offerees.

      The bad version of this looks like the spouse is encouraged to come as “we’ll work something out sooner rather than later”. And then four years later the best that can be pulled together is some sort of teaching focused or soft money or adjunct position but at that point they have little choice but to take it or leave.

      There was momentum towards the first in the 1990s and early 2000s. But I have seen them increasingly backslide towards the 2nd more recently.

      I guess opinions will vary on whether this is a good/fair practice or not. Personally I don’t have an academic spouse but I think it is a good idea. Being an academic is not like being a nurse or teacher or business person or almost any other job. There is usually only one employer in town. And it could be 15 years before there is a job opening under natural processes in the spouses department/field. The odds of two married academics both getting jobs in the same town within a year or two of each other without a spousal hire policy are close to zero – there’s just too much stochasticity involved. But very rarely do you hear complaints that spousal hires are “lower quality”. In fact its more often to hear it talked about as a 2-for-1 (its not really for the price of 1 but getting two good new hires). It would be a mistake to think undeserving people get hired because of spousal hires. But you could certainly make an argument that it is unfair for somebody to leapfrog the system because of who they are married to.

      I have seen spousal hires go roughly equally in both directions (i.e. where the so called trailing spouse is either male or female).

      When you get into trouble is when there is a predominance of one gender (i.e. women) getting the spousal hires and/or the spousal hires are lower grade positions.

      • I agree with Brian. I think spousal hiring can be a great approach, but it often involves challenges that become burdens primarily for the spouse and later serve as hurdle to their success. However, given that female academics tend to be married to academics at a greater percentage than males (point of my DE entry), spousal hiring is likely to continue to serve as a useful recruitment tool for improving gender equity. And it CAN be done well in a responsible way that gives the spouse an opportunity to achieve success.

        A related but separate issue is that some universities are moving entirely away from spousal hires, which might be a reflection of tightening budgets. Hiring for multiple “standard” positions at the same time provides another entry point opportunity for academic couples.

      • It looks like Lindsay is in Scotland — spousal hiring simply isn’t done in the UK (and Europe). I’m not sure if it would even be legal (perceived as nepotism)

      • I should have mentioned that as you say this is a largely North American phenomenon.

  5. My non-academia incliner partner and I are getting married next year and I’ll be starting my PHD. I often worry about how I will have an academic career and a family – all without disrupting his life and career. There is more support coming from universities in the form of maternity scholarships etc. and although your article is focusing more on future hiring than where I am at – I believe it starts around the PHD/post doc age, people want to start having families etc, that females really need the support in order to even get to that future stage. Support earlier on is needed to gain equality in academia.

    • I agree that being family and female friendly starts right at the beginning.

      Margaret Kosmala has several posts on maternity leave policies at universities. Google “dynamic ecology maternity policy”.

      On the practical side, there are advisers out there who will be very supportive of starting a family during a PhD or postdoc and ones who will be very adverse to it. Definitely do your homework in picking advisers.

      The craziness of academia, primarily the having to move several times before settling into tenure track (if that is what one is targeting) definitely disrupts everybody’s lives, but speaking from my own experience, it is definitely easier with a non-academic spouse. I just watched a postdoc whose husband was a manager in a large corporation manage to land a tenure track job while having a kid during her postdoc and a spouse with a career. Creativity was required. But it is definitely doable.

  6. I am married to a professor. I work in higher education(staff). We met in grad school. We have dealt with the two body problem as we relocated for jobs. I also have never been a spousal hire. I think the reason grad students hook up and get married is much more simple. We dated the available datepool. But with how difficult the two body problem is I would suggest that grad students date outside academia. We also are childfree but we share housework. Honestly when we met, we never intended to end up married. We just found each other attractive and hooked up one night after eating pizza together after class. Love and lust just happens.

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