Earlier this month, a new study about the relationship between gender and success in academia caused a firestorm of discussion online and off. The study found that women faculty pay a marriage penalty. Married women were promoted to full professor slower than their single counterparts, a pattern that was reversed for men. Single men took longer to reach the top ranks than married male faculty. And compared to men, female academics spent almost five more hours a week on family care than men and 10 per cent less time on research. The research looked specifically at women in history, but it was widely discussed as revealing of career prospects for women in many university fields.
I was reminded of my own experience as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. While I was working on my first post-grad degree I was single; but by the time I started working on my PhD, I was married, the only one out of our large cohort. Most of the graduate students were single. Many of my mentors recalled hearing from their male mentors that they had met their wives in graduate school and that their wives had typed up their dissertations. I remember thinking that this was an exaggeration. I soon realized that it was not the case.
When I began my dissertation research about women in higher education in the United States, I started to see a pattern of very successful male academics who had stay at home wives. Wives returned to finish their post-graduate work after their kids were older. Now, we could say it’s not too uncommon for middle-class or upper middle-class women to leave the work force for a time to care for children. One way to think of this is as a tax, historically, paid by women, for staying home or for having children – one that is levied even though women also perform “the second shift” at home.
For university women who are part of an academic couple, they are likely to be the “trailing spouse.” They relocate for ‘his’ job, ‘his’ career becomes the primary or more important one, especially if it is the higher paid one. I did not want to be the trailing spouse, so I did not move. What did this mean? It means that I have accrued a very small pension, since the majority of my career was spent as contingent faculty. It also means that in my cohort or the cohort ahead of me, many of the women who didn’t have children or had them only after they earned tenure are now full professors, deans or even a provost. Women in academe try to figure out how they will balance the need to publish or perish and negotiate having a family and many don’t balance the two. One simply wins.
A few of my close friends are outliers. Their male partners have opted to be the trailing spouse in their own ways. They have more flexible jobs, he can take care of the children during conferences or the really busy points of the term. The reasoning is the same: She has the higher paying job. Does this mean that change is in the air? Perhaps.
Yet from my position as Chair of the Academic Women’s Caucus at the University of Victoria, I find that most women faculty are still trying to have it all and do it all. Many of us are also exhausted. It is not uncommon to hear from my colleagues that they want to know from senior women about how they managed. While we try to think that the academy affords us flexible hours, we still need to demonstrate productivity and this usually means publishing and earning grant funds. If women faculty are less apt to have a stay at home spouse, they are at a disadvantage.
Since I began researching this area 18 years ago, the complaints have not changed. Women university graduates outnumber men and many more of us are in the ranks of faculty, but in so many other ways, the challenges continue. I’m reminded of the Talking Heads song: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife/You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” I don’t have the answer yet.
Janni Aragon is a Senior Instructor of Political Science at the University of Victoria.
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