Beki Grinter

The Trailing Spouse: a DBO post

In academia, academic management, research, women on September 12, 2010 at 9:46 am

Recently Female Science Professor posted an article on the trailing spouse. (The trailing spouse is the person who trails in a dual body opportunity…)

Dual Body Opportunities (DBO) are usually focused on hiring, but this was a post-hiring post. She’d received an email from someone who asked questions about what happens post hiring.

The email to FSP, explained,

After several years together in this department, I am realizing that there is another component to the two-body problem that I had not anticipated: although we have equal jobs, we are not treated as equals. I am not sure if this is the result of 1) difference in job performance; 2) gender; or 3) trailing vs. non-trailing spouse.

And then the author of that email to FSP went on to say that

In our situation, my husband was offered a position first. Our negotiations led to a second position (mine) in which I was provided similar resources in terms of space, start-up, salary etc.

Despite starting on nearly equal footing, several inequities have developed since we started our jobs. For example, despite equal teaching components of our job, our teaching loads are far from equal. Since we joined this department, my teaching assignments have involved more (different) courses, with more students per course, with courses that meet more often during the week.


A second example comes from service assignments. I have been asked to serve on numerous, sometimes time-consuming but largely inconsequential committees where as my husband has been asked and has served on every major decision-making committee we have (e.g., graduate admissions, finances).

Female Science Professor says that while she was the “trailing spouse” in her current position, i.e. her husband was hired first, that while she started out in a position of inequity, things have changed over time, as she’s demonstrated her ability, and also had a good mentor to help her.

Like the author of the letter to FSP, I think that my husband and I were treated equally. Like FSP I think a good mentor matters, and like FSP I think that careers over time vary and that’s crucial to understand. Career change, varying degrees of success or not, has been a feature over my entire career not just since I became part of a DBO. Some of it has been of my own making (poor problem selection, a decision to change jobs, directions etc) and some of it not of my own making. The rhythms of research have this consequence, and we would all advise our students not compare themselves to others. In one way this is true for DBOs also. If you are both trying to have a fulfilling career, then local variability may be just that.

On the other hand, the post to FSP raises quite fair questions. While research is uncontrollable, the types of service, the loads of teaching etc. should not, IMO, vary so much. Those are very reasonable to observe and ensure that equality is being managed. I’ve posted before about academic service loads, and gender imbalance. More general imbalances persist, like the fact that wome still earn 77cents on the male dollar, despite the promise of equality. It’s these structural and persistent inequities that I presume that the author of the email refers to when she asks FSP whether it’s gender thats led her to become the trailing spouse. I can’t answer the question she poses, but I have great empathy for her situation.

What I most agree with in FSP’s post is having a mentor, formal or informal, who is your champion. And of course not having the same mentor as your DBO. Trying to make as much of your individual identity. I’ve talked about having separate projects and so forth, establishing individual research identities that are clearly visible and easy to separate and articulate.

The letter to FSP raises some really important concerns. A DBO is not just a hiring concern, it’s something that has to be managed continuously (I’ve written about this with respect to tenure, but certainly I think it’s also a part of total career management). That may include deciding that there are gulfs between the partners that are not fair, nor of the partner’s own making/circumstances (the latter say being a difference in points in career) and taking actions to try to resolve this.

If I had a “making the most of this” comment to end with, I’d say that there’s a degree of intentionality and thought that being a DMO demands, and that’s probably no bad thing for a career.

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