The Challenges of the Trailing Spouse

Institutions have significant work to do when it comes to inclusive practices for dual-career couples, writes Annmarie Cano.

May 24, 2019
 
 

At a recent employee recognition event, not only did I enjoy congratulating my colleagues on their milestone anniversaries, but I also celebrated my own 20th year as a faculty member. Since then, I’ve found myself reflecting on the experiences that shaped me and the work I do. That means I’ve also been thinking about my rocky entry into faculty life as one half of a dual-career couple.

Much has been written about how dual-career couples can navigate this career stage, so I know I’m not the only one who had a challenging start. Still, my experiences highlight that we’ve got work to do when it comes to inclusive practices.

More than 20 years ago, after a season of both of us interviewing all over the United States, my husband was the first to secure a tenure-track job. His hosts did not think I wanted a tenure-track position, even though he and I reiterated that was the case. Without a job for me, we took a chance, and he accepted the position.

Soon after, I was hired into a two-year lecturer position in the same department to fill in for faculty sabbaticals. I am grateful that the administrators then gave me a moderate teaching load, so I had time to conduct my research, and visited my classroom to write well-informed letters for when I went on the job market again. My graduate mentor advised that I should make myself indispensable to increase the likelihood of getting a tenure-track offer at the institution, so I pursued a line of research that fit the department’s goals, knowing that it might still not work out in the end. I published my research and secured a National Institutes of Health grant as a principal investigator.

When I went on the job market two years later, I received five interviews and two offers from other institutions, but several members of my department said that there was no precedent for hiring somebody from lecturer to assistant professor. (I never received what I thought to be a satisfactory answer as to why this was an issue.) I happily accepted a tenure-track job at another university within a reasonable commuting distance.

Halfway into that year, I got a call. My old institution inquired as to whether I was interested in a tenure-track assistant professorship. Through a series of events, a colleague was able to advocate for my selection during a special hiring initiative.

I’ve since had many happy and productive years at my institution. I went on to be principal investigator on three more NIH grants, achieve tenure and promotion to professor, and obtain fellow status in my professional society. I now claim the title of “trailing spouse,” a term that suggests my value is diminished by not being hired first, with pride and a hint of sarcasm.

Still, I felt like a second-class citizen those first few years, and I wondered whether I should choose a different career. How many other trailing spouses spend their energies not only on their scholarship and teaching but also questioning their worth -- working hard to convince others that they can do the job they are already doing, that they add value? How many internalize the dual-career challenges -- interpreting others’ rejection as a lack of potential or deciding it is too stressful -- and opt out of academe altogether? And to what extent did my other identities (woman, Latina) factor into the way I was treated or how I interpreted the indirect and direct messages about my worth? I’ll never know the answer to this last question, but I do know that my husband, a white man in the same department, did not have similar challenges in his first three years as an academic.

Clearly developed dual-career policies, meaningful efforts to increase diversity and investment in the development of faculty and department chair leadership skills are needed to continue to improve the climate for dual-career couples and access to higher education careers for women and minorities. Here are just a few ideas for those hiring at institutions as to how they can help achieve these goals.

Offer dual-career policies and information. There’s no question that institutions must deal with a number of challenges when hiring one or both members of a dual-career couple. It’s not an easy process for them or the couples themselves. But the reality is that more than a third of faculty members at research universities have academic partners. You should consider the many flexible solutions that are within reach and signal that both partners are valued. My moderate teaching load as a lecturer was a small investment that showed us that someone valued our development as individuals and professionals. Even if I hadn’t been hired back, we appreciated that someone cared about my development so that I could prepare myself for other opportunities.

Be open to what couples can bring, including diversity. Rather than narrowing the conversation to whether the partner’s scholarly area is a good fit for the department, consider the total package. For instance, might either partner’s experiences or skills contribute to diversity, inclusion or other valued goals? A new volume shares several innovative ideas to improve and advance dual-career hiring practices that can improve representation of Latinas and other underrepresented women in STEM disciplines.

Be mindful that how you treat one, you treat the other. Dual-career couples are people, too. For instance, the department’s investment in my growth, including a reasonable teaching load and teaching observations, signaled to my partner that he was valued as well. How the department communicates with dual-career couples matters, too. Department chair training and search committee training that include conflict management, communication and interpersonal skills can also enhance efficacy in holding difficult conversations around dual-career issues.

Twenty years later, I bring these experiences with me as I engage in my current role to develop professional, mentoring and leadership programming for faculty and academic staff. But the thought sometimes crosses my mind that there was a good chance I might not be here doing what I do. It is my hope that the academy will continue to make strides in recognizing the importance of treating dual-career partners with respect through policies, professional development and open conversation.

Bio

Annmarie Cano is professor of psychology and associate provost for faculty development and faculty success at Wayne State University. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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