Married and partnered female researchers may be less likely than their male counterparts to land a junior-faculty position at US universities, finds a study.
By Paul Smaglik
Female candidates’ – but not male candidates’ — relationship status was a primary consideration in hiring committees’ discussions and decisions, according to study co-author Lauren Rivera, an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She found that committee members assumed that heterosexual female candidates whose partners or husbands held academic or high-status jobs could not relocate for the job, and excluded them from offers when the committee had viable male or unpartnered female options. Yet, she says, committees — whose members included women — rarely discussed male applicants’ relationship status and assumed that those candidates’ partners or wives would be able to move for the position if an offer were made.
Rivera studied three hiring committees – in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities – at one large US research university during an academic year. She sat in on multiple meetings of each committee, including those held by phone and in person, during stages of the hiring process, from discussions about candidates through final interviews and offers. Each committee was simultaneously conducting junior-faculty searches.
Her observations emphasize the “two-body problem” in academic research—difficulties that married or partnered female scientists encounter in landing jobs because they are perceived as ‘trailing’ their husband or boyfriend, says Rivera. She says that she didn’t initially seek to unearth such trends when she sat in on the search-committee meetings. But conversations about factors that might impact female candidates’ abilities to relocate for a job came up repeatedly, she says.
The disparity was “striking” between how male and female candidates were treated, says Rivera, who adds that the differences underscore another problem in university hiring—inconsistencies in how academic recruits are evaluated. She says that none of the committees she observed had initial conversations about the criteria on which to rate candidates, nor on the metrics that they would use to judge any candidate. In several instances, she says, some committee members used a numerical scale while others rated candidates based on their ‘gut’ feelings.
She says that she found the academic hiring practices much less formal than those she studies in the US financial, legal and management sectors, including within law practices, investment banks and management-consulting firms. Academics, she says, are much less likely to rely on human-resources (HR) offices, unlike in these other sectors. In this study, HR primarily played an administrative role, she says.
Rivera concedes that her study involved a single university and that her findings may not apply to all academic institutions. Still, she suggests, it’s possible that discriminatory hiring practices at some institutions bar women from gaining access to top academic-research positions, even when their CVs are superior and they are viewed as an excellent fit within the department. “Even if women do ‘everything right’— pick the correct major, excel in school, pursue desirable and demanding work, and find a supportive, accommodating partner—this may not be enough,” she says. “Hiring committees may still treat them as if their careers are secondary and exclude them from top jobs.”
Rivera calls committees’ concerns about a candidate’s ability to move for a job based on their relationship status a form of “organizational paternalism”. She says that such considerations—a candidate’s ability to relocate for a job—should be left to the candidate. Universities can step in and help with relocation and finding jobs for spouses or partners if they prefer—after an offer has been made. She calls for hiring committees to formalize their evaluation processes and offer their members clear guidance on how to rate candidates.
Hiring-committee members, she says, need to be trained to leave out the issue of relationship status for both male and female candidates. In some nations and in some US states such questions – and use of such information — are illegal, and in all cases can make candidates feel awkward. “Part of the hiring process,” she says, “should be about creating a welcoming potential work environment.”
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.