Dual Career Academic Couples


Historian Robert B. Townsend recently published data revealing, among other things, that marriage correlates with more rapid promotion for male compared to female historians.  Married female historians took, on average, 7.8 years to be promoted to full professor while married men took an average 5.9 years (never married women took an average of 6.7 years compared to an average of 6.4 years for never married men).

I am surprised that the study is getting so much publicity (see Huffington Post , The Atlantic).  After all, the male marriage premium for men in all occupations, not just academia, is something economists and sociologists have been talking about for a quite some time (see here, for example).  How the premium comes about is still debated, though.

Townsend’s article is important for reasons beyond just the identification of a marriage premium for male historians—he touches on a growing problem faced by men and, disproportionately by women in academia: being part of a dual career academic couple. Among historians responding to Townsend’s survey, roughly 50% of women have an academic spouse compared to only 36% of men who report having an academic spouse.  More female historians reported they took leave or left a position for their spouse/partner’s job than did male historian survey respondents.

Looking beyond historians, one of the most comprehensive studies of a sample of U.S. universities to date found that in 2006, 36% of academics were partnered with another academic.  The number is likely higher now given the increasing share of women earning doctorate degrees in the U.S.

Academics have a dual career problem, possibly a greater one than other dual career couples, because in many college towns, the university is the only gig in town.  The same may not be true of, say, those working in insurance, consulting, banking, etc.

Second, university departments often specialize; a sociologist with expertise in work, for example, will not find colleagues who share research interests in all sociology departments.  For this reason, while there may be a lot of universities, there may not be a lot of universities who would hire all PhDs, even exemplary ones.

Third, academics practice “disciplinary endogamy”  in that they tend to study similar disciplines (this endogamy is especially high in the natural sciences 83% of female scientists in an academic couple are partnered with another scientist compared to only 54% of male scientists).  Disciplinary endogamy is problematic when, as they usually do, departments can afford to hire 1 faculty member a year or when a department is looking to hire faculty who specialize in different sub-fields.  Finally, departments hire one time a year and the timing of this varies by discipline, thus complicating the situation when the spouses are in different fields.

On top of facing very low odds of there being multiple jobs in the specialty areas of the couple at the same university being advertised at the same time during the year, the “trailing” partner—the one who is not the primary recruit, but follows his or her spouse/partner often faces barriers.  Since the “trailing” academic is more often a female (in the 2006 Stanford study, women were 74% of “trailing” hires), these barriers fall disproportionately on women.  These barriers range from impressions that the “trialing” spouse could not get a job on her own, is not “good enough” to be hired, will fail to get tenure, to if her specialty area is not one her new department specializes in (the thought is her lack of fit will result in higher likelihood of turnover to a place with a better fit for both).

Recent research from my own institution, Washington State University, suggests that women hired into Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines between 1999-2010 through the university’s formal partner accommodation program (PAP) have annual publication rates similar to those of men not hired as part of a partner accommodation and roughly 32 percentage points more likely to obtain a grant during their career relative to non-PAP males. Men hired during this time period under the formal partner accommodation program have one additional publication per year and are about 22 percentage points more likely to get a grant relative to men not hired with a partner.  What is more, new couple hires are, on average, almost one-fifth more likely to earn tenure than their non-couple counterparts and dual-career couples stay at Washington State University longer than their counterparts who did not take advantage of the university’s partner accommodation policy; the relative probability of leaving for an accommodated academic is about 36% lower, on average, that the probability the non-accommodated hire will depart.

These data, although from one institution, dispel the myth that academic couples hired under formalized university partner accommodation policies are not, well, bad.

What does this all mean? A few things.

  • In Townsend’s study, married academic women fared worse than married men (As Adia pointed out recently on this blog, academic pressures can be tougher for women than they are for men). Part of that may be due to being a “trailing” academic and having to contend with the negative “trailing” spouse assumptions. Or maybe married female academics’ careers take a back seat to those of her husband’s, meaning female academics might be misplaced or making do in academic settings better suited to their male partners.  Studies that unpack exactly what marriage means for academic women will be useful.
  • Although we cannot tell from Townsend’s study which, if any, of the married men who moved so quickly from associate to full took advantage of a partner accommodation policy, it may be that promotion rates are faster (and more successful) for all academic couples in settings with formal policy regulating dual couple hiring.  Legitimizing the couple hiring process lessens some of the stigma associated with being part of a couple and likely has direct positive impacts on couple job security and feelings of support.
  • Findings from WSU suggest that female STEM hires are not “weak” candidates.  Thus, formal accommodations either attract high quality academic couples or improve their productivity, tenure prospects, and institutional loyalty.  It stands that one action universities hoping to close the promotion gap, especially in STEM disciplines, may want to consider is implementing formal dual hire policies.

The male marriage premium in academia is likely to remain or grow stronger as women increase their share of PhDs and universities do nothing to recognize the difficult reality of the dual-career couple.

  1. Thanks, Julie, for the wide-ranging and interesting post. I’ll be sharing some of this (like the chart on different arguments for marriage premium) with my classes and other links with administration.

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