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 http://benschmidt.org/profGender/). 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. http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2010/05/taken-granted-intimate-collaborators
2Schiebinger, L., A.D. Henderson, S.K. Gilmartin. 2008. Dual-career academic couples: What universities need to know. http://gender.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/DualCareerFinal_0.pdf
3Love in (and out of) academe. 2005. Shari Wilson. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/11/28/love-and-out-academe
4Barry, D. 2012. Shockingly, academic wives get short shrift. Gezebel. https://jezebel.com/5933181/shockingly-academic-wives-get-short-shrift
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 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00037/full
6Snyder, K. 2014. The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews. Fortune. http://fortune.com/2014/08/26/performance-review-gender-bias/
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 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122417739294?journalCode=asra
8Coe, A. 2013. Being married helps professors get ahead, but only if they’re male. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/being-married-helps-professors-get-ahead-but-only-if-theyre-male/267289/
9Waxman, S. and Ispa-Landa. 2016. Academia’s Baby Penalty. U.S. News. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2016-02-11/academia-must-correct-systemic-discrimination-and-bias-against-mothers
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. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/Women-Academic-Science.pdf?utm_campaig
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