Couples in all fields, and particularly those in academe. face struggles over career priorities. For women scientists, the issue is especially acute since, as the Clayman Institute report documented, 83 percent of women scientists are partnered with other scientists, compared to 54 percent of men scientists. The following interviews with academic women scientists (presented here with pseudonyms) illustrate various issues raised by the dual career opportunity.
Geologist Jean Jones
Jean Jones began her interview by stating that her career differed from that of most women scientists. Instead of placing her career first, she put her husband and family first.
She taught to help her husband finish his degree, she took five years to complete her Ph.D., and she followed her husband to his postdoc in Germany. She finished her Ph.D. there and obtained a postdoc in Berlin. Her experience in Berlin, plus her postdoc in Spain, actually determined her specialty (non-marine carbonates) and gave her a career-enhancing niche, because that specialty is relatively rare in the United States.
After five years in Europe, her husband took a position at a comprehensive Midwestern university. Jean followed her husband and worked at the same institution as an adjunct for about a decade. She observed that although many successful women geologists had no kids, she placed her family as her No. 1 priority.
Although I eventually obtained a half-time faculty position that allowed me to continue to spend time with my daughter, garnering respect proved difficult. I managed to hang on, publishing a book, getting money here and there, and using my husband’s library card. Many individuals, especially in the college dean’s office, helped me, but I didn’t really fit.
When I finally obtained a real position, my career blossomed. Although I had applied to NSF for years, my adjunct status made obtaining funding difficult. Right after getting my faculty position, I received the POWRE award, which allowed me not only to continue my research, but also to move to the next level. The award also raised my esteem in the eyes of my colleagues and the institution; the president of the university singled out me in his address on the State of the University.
I believe that since women are the “family instigators,” institutions should give women of childbearing age part-time positions. I wish that people would be more open to unusual job opportunities and that institutions would permit stopping the tenure clock and movement from part-time to full time work more easily. I also believe that funding agencies should be open to funding individuals in nontraditional positions, since money is the key to success.
In addition to the obvious problem of having difficulty in obtaining a desirable tenure-track position because of family constraints, Jean’s biographical sketch reveals other difficulties common for the trailing spouse: Circumstance, rather than interest, determined the area of her research focus. Fortunately, her rare specialty gave her a niche, but this might not have been the case, depending upon where her husband’s career had landed her. She also experienced difficulties in obtaining funding, because most institutions do not allow adjunct faculty to serve as a principal investigator (PI), even on her own grants. Initially, without a permanent appointment she had difficulty garnering respect for her work and herself as a scientist.
Although Jean clearly decided that her husband’s career and family would always come first, many women scientists think that they will defer their career only temporarily. They often believe that they and their husband/partner can alternate as to who takes the superior career opportunity. Sometimes the strategy of alternating career opportunities proves successful, as in Vinda’s case:
Engineer Vinda Patel
Vinda feels that the most significant influence on her decision to become an engineer came from her family. Because her parents both worked as researchers in national labs, it seemed that everyone she knew was a scientist with a Ph.D. When she started her undergraduate education, she naturally gravitated towards physics and materials science.
She attended graduate school at a major research institution in the Northwest, pursuing her degree in materials science and engineering. She got married right away, to another engineering student, after she received her M.S. degree. Her husband was very supportive of her work on a daily basis. Her excellent adviser, coupled with the predominance of outstanding role-model faculty who were very active in research, and the surrounding environment of a Research I institution began to attract her to considering a career in academe. Until she was working on her Ph.D., she had thought she would go into industry or follow her parents’ path to one of the national labs.
The receipt of the NSF POWRE award proved pivotal for my career. Not only did it permit a move in research focus from ceramics to biomaterials but it also helped me to obtain a tenure-track position at the same Midwestern institution where my husband held a faculty position. Since we have a child, employment at the same institution is a high priority. I believe that the preliminary research and graduate students I hired with the POWRE grant enabled me to produce papers that were instrumental in my receiving a very prestigious CAREER award from NSF.
Not only does the institution where I work have only two women faculty in engineering, the particular field that I am in also has a dearth of women. Although the absence of women in both my college and field gives me high visibility, I recognize that I must be certain to be perceived as an independent researcher, since my husband’s research area is close to mine and we collaborate on several projects.
Although sometimes the non-tenure-track position can eventually be converted to the tenure track, not beginning in the tenure track can slow the career. Unfortunately, many women do not experience the successful conversion Vinda did. Often, the first position sets the trajectory for future career opportunities. A good first job, when one performs well, often opens doors to new, better options; in contrast, a less favorable first position may limit and constrain options. The spouse/partner who took the less attractive position gets "tracked" into a series of problematic positions, while the other spouse’s initial career success translates into a positive upward career trajectory. Unfortunately, the difficulties Sharon Smoakes encountered when trying to stay near her husband, emerge for many women, although some have less happy outcomes.
Engineer Sharon Smoakes
Sharon Smoakes recognizes that many of her professional and career decisions emerged because of efforts to resolve the dual career-situation. After receiving her B.S. in chemical engineering from a technological institution and her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from a prestigious public university on the West Coast, she took a postdoc there because she was waiting for her husband to finish. Because her husband wanted to go to another institution on the West Coast, she took a second postdoc there, in cell and molecular biology in the medical school. She learned a tremendous amount from this postdoc, and she had four different advisers, all male, who were excellent and provided her with important perspectives.
I found my first faculty position at the state university because my husband was at the flagship institution in the neighboring state. I became pregnant almost immediately. Then my husband received a job offer in the Northeast. The administrative structure began to change at my institution, resulting in my having a bad departmental chair. I began thinking about trying to move to the technological institution near my husband.
After having the baby and experiencing some health problems, I thought more about leaving. I wrote a POWRE grant, which the chair at my institution refused to let me submit. The NSF program officer permitted me to submit it through another organization. I also received a CAREER award from NSF, but the dean and provost refused to let me take a leave and gave me a termination letter. Fortunately, the POWRE award allowed me to begin a collaboration with the State Department of Health that led to the offer of a faculty position near my husband.
Despite the best initial intentions of both partners to alternate positive career opportunities, the initial decision often determines, or at least circumscribes, the trajectory and its direction. The first position determines the options available for the second and subsequent opportunities. Ultimately, economic gaps between tracks may emerge. Differences in salaries and job security put pressure on couples to engage in family decision-making to benefit all; this often results in the person who took that initial, secondary position never catching up with the opportunities available to the spouse/partner. Desires to remain in close geographic proximity, especially when the couple has children, further complicate the situation.
Some Behaviors and Messages for Mentors to Avoid:
- Don't avoid taking both halves of couples in a single laboratory.
- Don't vote against hiring an individual because s/he is part of a "two-body problem."
Some Behaviors for Women Scientists and Engineers to Avoid
- Don't always put your spouse's or partner’s career first, if you expect to be taken seriously as a professional and scientist.
- Don't assume that you will find an equally good position to the one you currently have or to the one offered your spouse/partner, if you move because your spouse/partner has received an excellent offer.
- Don't assume that beginning as a lecturer or research scientist will mean that position can easily be converted to a tenure-track position.
Sue V. Rosser is provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University. Her most recent book is Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science (New York University Press).