Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A procrastination directory

-If you have time to kill, and want a YPIS extravaganza, follow the NYT article and comments, and then Jezebel thread on expensive-stroller theft in Park Slope and similar. And I so called this one! Remember my post title using "key words" that proved "key" indeed? Obvs something about Park Slope strollers was forthcoming. Thanks NYT!

-If you have still more time on your hands, check out the comments here. Seems some men are really peeved that women wear strange colors of nail polish these days. Peeved, that is, because, as they will explain, the look is not about pleasing men. And beauty rituals not aimed at snagging a man are not only a waste of time and money, but trashy, grotesque, and whorish. I'll be sure to remember that the next time I apply the mint-green Essie.

-If you have the time but want to use it more productively, consider Daniel Drezner and his wife's reflections on his tenure denial and week of unemployment five years ago. It does have a bit of Second After Sartre-ism to it - the academic/intellectual subset of First World Problems that I've just coined, in reference to Simone de Beauvoir's woes - but this is acknowledged. (Obviously, if you're even in a position to maybe be getting tenure from UChicago, and if your situation is "covered in the press," you're probably doing OK by the standards of academia, as compared with the adjuncts at Obscure U.) If there was a YPIS to be hurled, it was in Erika Drezner comparing the whole thing - a man who was all along going to be fine professionally, and professionally was all that was at stake - to a biopsy. Not really the same thing at all, sorry.

But what really struck me was the gender angle. Specifically, Erika Drezner referring to her husband as the "family breadwinner." Not that it's financially inconceivable for a prof at a place like Chicago to be the higher-earning of two working spouses, but just because I can't imagine a female academic being described in this way. This bit, too: "Once you have unpacked, settled in, found yourself a good book group, a gym, a place to get coffee, once the kids are back in school and have made friends, once the new place feels like home, you may think, 'This is better.'" Now, from the bio, it's clear that both Drezners work outside the home, and her job title also sounds quite impressive, but this just seemed very much in the old-school model of, the woman can drop everything and follow the man. The fact that getting settled in a new job isn't mentioned, but joining a book club is, stands out.

This interests me, obviously, not at the level of the seemingly thriving marriage of two people I don't know, but in terms of gender and academia more generally. The pattern (that I've seen anecdotally, with the rare exception - anyone care to challenge?) is that coupled straight female grad students are with equal-or-higher-earning (or, if still in school, equal-or-higher-earning-potential) men, while straight male grad students in couples are with same-or-lower-earning (-potential) women.

Now, typically situations like this are discussed in more or less misogynistic terms of, those entitled women/those maternally-focused women, who insist on men who are higher-earners than themselves. I look at it differently. (And FWIW, my husband was, until he graduated about five minutes ago, also in a doctoral program, and is still in academia.) While this breakdown might mean there's less disposable income in the male grad students' households, but it also means that grad school in a "fluffy" field (aka one you can't leave to make a ton in finance/industry, aka political science is, I'd think, not radically different from French in this respect) ends up getting Primary Career status for men, dabbler status for women.

This, in turn, impacts both how male vs. female grad students are perceived in their departments and by society at large, as well as self-perception, and extends beyond the straight and/or coupled. A man who chooses to focus on Great Books is assumed to have such important things to say about those books that he's forgone higher earning opportunities. (Remember "too brilliant to bathe"?) A woman who chooses to do the same is assumed to be keeping herself busy in some kind of glorified finishing school until the babies arrive. This is, of course, not a problem for the women who are in grad school with that attitude, but such women are, in my experience, unusual.

While this is very First World Problems-ish, if the end result is a bunch of women PhDs, married to hedge fund managers (the extreme case, and not that of anyone I know personally), and teaching high school or giving up work outside the home altogether, it's a problem all the same within academia. It's my sense - anecdotally! - that women virtually all enter top programs ambitious, and that once arrived, the dabbler/Serious Scholar gender dichotomy gets established. It gives women less incentive to stay in the field, and more to pair off with someone who will take the pressure off of turning academia into a "breadwinning" career.


Flavia said...

In re: the coupling patterns of grad students/academics: have I got anecdata!

Though I know plenty of equal-earner, equal-status pairs (I'm arguably in one), and I certainly don't think it's a rare beast, I know even more pairs where the woman is decidedly junior, whether it's because she chose to be the trailing spouse in an academic partnership or because she has a clearly less-high-status (or no) career.

In my department of approximately 20 tenured/tenure-track faculty: ALL the straight men are married to women who are stay-at-home spouses or work parttime/flexible jobs (in the local schools, with arts organizations, etc). 70% of the women are either single or in long-distance relationships with peers. (Of the others, one is married to a fellow academic, who teaches nearby; one has a husband who works from home and does the primary child-rearing; and the other just got engaged to someone I haven't met, so I can't factor her into this equation.) And I'm in a young department--everyone's under 50 and most are under 40, so this isn't about an older generation's marriage patterns.

And okay: that's not in any way a statistically valid sample. But it does seem an illuminating one, and it's problematic insofar as the lives of male and female faculty are so different. It's also problematic when those of us who don't have local partners or children are assumed to have "chosen" to live this way, and to prefer it--and probably also to have so much more time to get work done!

As to when/how this happens: I think it varies. The out-of-field, status-unequal pairings seem to happen in or before grad school (whether we're talking about a male academic with an eventual homemaker wife or a female one with a hedge fund manager husband--and yes, I actually do know a couple of the latter). But the academic couples in which one partner slow-tracks or redirects his or her career do seem to be, as you suggest, a later development, almost always related to the pressures of the job market: something's gotta give, in order for the couple to be together, and I'd say two times out of three (which isn't a good number, but which isn't a crazy high one, either) it's the woman's career.

But this doesn't always happen immediately. I see lots of couples who held long-distance relationships at equal status institutions together until they decided to have kids.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you describe strikes me - alas, we're still in anecdote-land, but with anecdotes from friends also not in my field/department - as representative. What this means, all told, is that couples/families in which one partner is at least setting out to become an academic are on average wealthier if it's the woman who's in academia than if it's the man. So there's this temptation to summon the tiny violins in response to a non-problem, or even to pity the families that must make do on a less glamorous version of the Drezners' household income.

But what this ends up doing (or really, resulting from - what's cause and what's effect?) is creating a situation in which men in academia get to kind of count by default, from grad school on. Women can, maybe, if they've made it very clear either that they're not getting married any time soon, or perhaps that they'd take long-distance over compromising their careers. But it's assumed that the men take the whole thing more seriously, and are going to stick with it because their families' livelihoods depend on it.

What results is that humanities/social sciences grad school ends up meaning different things depending on the gender of the student. For men, it's the not-super-high-paid, not-job-guaranteeing, but nevertheless highly respected pre-professional track it's always been. For women, meanwhile, grad school gets lumped in with the other low-paid/unthreatening/highbrow-sounding things one might do for a few years after college, like working in reception at an art gallery. A guy in grad school is on his way to being an authority on his topic, an expert in the field. A woman in grad school wonders about her job prospects and considers that maybe teaching in a high school is the way to go. Which certainly does end up being for the best for some women - of the people I've met (including well before grad school) who are so so so sure that they're going to be tenured professors one day, 99.99% have been male, which leads to a disappointment when those jobs don't come, or when they don't get into grad school in the first place. Whereas secondary-ed is a better deal, by all accounts, than perma-adjuncting. The problem is that men in academia, by feeling entitled to more, end up getting more.

Anyway, I think a lot of this well precedes anyone finding their future spouse. Throughout school, (some) boys have the option of being too brilliant to have to deal with rules, social niceties, etc. That, plus, in humanities classes, it's often miracle of miracles that a guy's signed up for one at all. That, and there's the really basic sense that feminism has yet to successfully eradicate that any activity being pursued by a woman is less important. While this has no doubt contributed to the reduced prestige of being a hum/soc academic overall, men are to some extent immune from this, because, like I said in the post, it's assumed that if a man has opted for academia, he must have really important thoughts to get out there, or else he'd have gone into some more lucrative man-profession.

Britta said...

There's also the classic "grad student marries professor" pairing, which in my experience is always female marrying male (with varying degrees of sketchiness). Sometimes if the woman is good enough/husband is famous and important enough she then gets hired through her husband (I know of 2 cases at the U of Chicago. One to a superstar whose apparently subpar wife got hired anyways because he's famous enough, and another one where a prof in our dept. left because we weren't willing to hire his apparently subpar wife, but they got matching tenured positions at an Ivy League university hoping to build their dept. This guy is up and coming, and def. we didn't want to lose him, but not at the expense of hiring his wife.) I do know, however, a female prof in our department who got her PhD husband a permanent lecturer position here, so it looks like it can go the other way (not that he was her grad student though). There's also another superstar power couple in my dept, and I think the wife was hired and/or granted tenure first.

Anyways, I'm kind of forgetting the point I was trying to make with all this anecdata, so I'll stop now.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The spousal-hire question relates to the grad student-prof one, but they're not quite the same. Obviously as someone in a two-academic marriage, I'm biased towards thinking that if one of us gets a tenure-track job, wouldn't it be great if we could, for example, live in the same home as each other? (I write this after having spent most of the semester apart.) Given that a doctor, lawyer, stay-at-home-parent, or (apparently!) social worker can relocate, there's something upsetting, I think, comprehensible even to those not in the situation, about meeting one's spouse in grad school, which is after all where one is spending the bulk of one's 20s, and then having to live apart. Of course, this probably doesn't come as much comfort to whoever doesn't get hired because a competent but not first-choice-hire spouse has taken their place. Anyway, my guess is that the stakes aren't the same at all universities, and that a whole bunch of people who are neither superstars nor hopelessly underqualified are involved.

As for the other scenario, my sense is, years ago it used to be a real thing - female grad students marrying male profs, that is - but that in this age of professionalism, it's not all that common. It could be that most spousal hires are in the predictable gender-direction, but this could still be same-age couples where the wife's accomplished less b/c of childrearing, pre-kids disparities in expectations of how seriously both are to take their professions.

Flavia said...

Continuing to wallow in anecdata:

I know/know of exactly one grad-student-married-her-professor situation that happened in the last decade or so (and a handful of at least rumored grad-student-slept-with-her-professor situations). On the other hand, I know a fair number of cases where an advanced grad student married a very junior professor--we're talking two people who are age-peers, and where neither is in a supervisory role over the other. And two of the pairings I can call to mind involved a female assistant professor and a male grad student.

So yeah, I don't think it's really that much of a thing anymore.

I do hear a lot of outrage over spousal hires, though, which I find troubling--the discourse seems to be that the spouse is getting something she (and it's usually she) hasn't earned or doesn't deserve, rather than that, hey! We want to hire or keep this awesome person, and as a bonus we can get this other talented person! Surely there are spouses out there who are intellectual deadweight or inappropriate for a given department. But these days, it's much more likely that two more or less equivalently smart academics are married to each other than that one is the obvious junior partner.

But the punitive structure of the job market really does work to reinforce traditional ideas about marriage and gender roles, even among supposed liberals: male academics who have stay-at-home spouses and allegedly feminist female academics (who believe that they sacrificed everything for their careers, and really earned their positions) can unite in believing that the wife of a male star must, necessarily, not be so great herself, if she's just the price for hiring the great man.

Britta said...

Wow, U of C must be a hotbed of atavism, because we had two cases of grad student marries senior professor in our department alone in the past 5 years. In one of the cases, two professors met in grad school and both got married and then managed to both get hired (we grad students don't know who was the spousal hire) and tenured here. After all that, the man cheated on his wife with a grad student, and now they're divorced and he remarried the grad student. I think she is still a student, so it's hard to say if she'll try to get hired here.
The other case, which I briefly touched on above, involved a tenured prof marrying a grad student in a different department, and now that she's finished he tried to get her hired here. He's very well-regarded but not a superstar, and no one is willing to hire the wife, so they've left for tenured positions elsewhere.

The truly scandalous case was of course, the one I mentioned in a different dept, where again a prof cheated on his wife with one of his grad students, they got divorced, he married his student and got her a job in the department against the wishes of everyone else in that department.

Tangentially related, the biggest recent scandal is that the president of U of C cheated on HIS wife with a young classics professor, and now he's moved out of the university president's house into an apartment with her, and his bitter ex wife still lives in the president's house.

Spousal hires is a big bone of contention here, in that they rarely happen. We've lost 2 midlevel up and coming profs (one male, one female) due to a lack of spousal hires in the past 2 years (that's one a year). Rumor was my advisor gave the university an ultimatum to hire her husband (who she met in grad school here, but HIS former advisor had been blocking his hiring) or she'd leave, and it worked, because they hired him on in a permanent capacity. He is a totally competent scholar and professor, and it seemed rather to be an ideological conflict rather than a qualification conflict. Interestingly as well, there are 2 professors who don't speak to each other, the the origin of their feud is they both tried to get their spouses hired as a permanent lecturer, and the husband of the female prof got hired over the wife of the male prof, though I don't know what, if anything, that would say about gender roles.

It sounds like from both of you that this is kind of an anomalous situation though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"a fair number of cases where an advanced grad student married a very junior professor--we're talking two people who are age-peers, and where neither is in a supervisory role over the other."

Yup. I agree, and think it's important not to slip into an OMG a freshman's dating a senior situation. Equal is great, but sooner or later, in every couple, one person will be more "senior," will make more money, whatever. There will always be disparities, and sometimes they will end up fitting with traditional gender roles. For this reason, I'm not losing sleep over the possibility that Erika Drezner (to refer back to something she herself referred to) may have to pick up her husband's socks.

Re: spousal hires... While I basically agree with you, I can see how, from the perspective of someone perhaps struggling to get a job and a romantic partner, spousal hires look like the rich getting richer, as it were. What this ignores, however, is, do we really want academia to be a profession that doesn't practically speaking allow couples to stay together, have kids, etc? Or, more accurately, do we want academia to be a place where, sure, men can have helpmate wives, but women who want to be taken seriously better not so much as hint at having a male partner?

Flavia said...

What bothers me, in the grousing about spousal hires, is the presumption that all other hires are perfectly rational and meritocratic, and that only the best and most talented person got the job (which winds up meaning: I myself was the best and most talented person for my job, which is why I got it).

When in fact, there's a lot of luck and randomness in all hiring (who was on the market in a given year, who got other offers, what internal department politics demanded), and a lot of us have advantages that, while not exactly unfair, aren't purely about "merit," either.

I don't work on an obviously hot topic (or one that has an obvious translation into undergraduate teaching), which may be why I got fewer interviews than some of my grad school peers. But then again, I have a name-brand degree and a famous advisor, which probably means I got interviews that equivalently or more talented candidates from other programs didn't. We all have stuff on our CVs that can work as false proxies for "merit" or "potential" or "desert," and if a spousal hire is otherwise a plausible candidate, I don't see his or her marriage to a famous person as being any more of an unfair advantage than my own arguably unfair advantages.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"What bothers me, in the grousing about spousal hires, is the presumption that all other hires are perfectly rational and meritocratic"

Heh - this is actually what bothers me about grousing about affirmative action in college admissions - with all the "holistic" assessment, with all the factors beyond grades/scores that enter into it, and with all the unfairness behind even those "objective" factors, why pick that of all things to complain about?

But yes, I see your point about this as well. All I was getting at with the possible counterargument was that there's a reason beyond a sense that meritocracy has failed to be annoyed at spousal hiring, namely annoyance at being single. Obviously not everyone who's tenure-track-age and single is upset about it, and not everyone complaining about spousal hiring is single. But some no doubt are a) single, and b) not thrilled about it, which would make the spousal hire different from the other unfair advantages you mention.