Spousal Hiring and Gender

Over at Prawfsblawg, Howard Wasserman has started an interesting discussion about spousal hiring in the legal academy. Responding to comments by Jeffrey Harrison on Class Bias in Higher Education, he discusses the pros and cons and whether the practice deserves the epithet “cronyism”—or, as Professor Harrison calls it, “the new cronyism.” Commenters have suggested that spousal hiring is class biased because two-academic couples are more likely to come from a privileged background and that spousal hiring may interfere with diversity goals.

I agree with Professor Wasserman that spousal hiring can be a useful recruiting tool and that some help for the spouse is a near-necessity for schools in remote locations.  I would be interested in statistics about the demographic characteristics of two-academic and one-academic couples. But as long as we’re sticking to anecdote, my experience is the opposite of Professor Wasserman’s that “a heterosexual male faculty member is just as likely these days to have a wife with a career as the converse.” A surprisingly large number of my male colleagues (at my institution and elsewhere) are married to women who work part-time or not at all outside the home. Yet I know only two women in the legal academy whose partners are at home with their children—and one of the partners is a woman, too.

If my experience is typical, it follows that resistance to hiring spouses—or even helping out with the spouse’s job search by networking with local firms, which Professor Harrison also objects to—is a barrier to hiring women. By my count, in the last six years, the lack of opportunities for a spouse or partner has caused my institution to lose four candidates to whom we offered jobs—one man and three women. In their stead, we hired one woman and three men.

Traditionally, women have been the “trailing spouses,” accepting lectureships and the like in order to follow their husbands, often at the expense of their own career prospects elsewhere. The only thing “new” about spousal hiring in academia is that it now goes both ways.

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4 Responses

  1. PrometheeFeu says:

    My wife has started her path towards entering academia and I would tend to agree with your analysis. While I would not expect her to give up her career for mine, I would not expect to give up mine for hers. As a result, the dean being willing to make some calls around town to get me some interviews or at least to make sure my resume gets looked at could change a “No” to a “Yes”. Is it cronyism? Maybe. But I think it is justified because a hiring arrangement has to work for both sides. The real question is not: Would you hire the candidate’s spouse or recommend them if it wasn’t for wanting the candidate. The real question is: Are you willing to give that person the incentives they want/need to bring them to your school? If those incentives include hiring their spouse or having the dean call up some friends in the business community, that’s part of the compensation package you need to offer. If not, the price is too high and it’s no different than not having offered good enough health benefits or pay.

  2. Ken Rhodes says:

    A true first-person story from another world (neither legal nor academe):

    I was a programmer working for a Washington-area consulting company on an important Navy contract. I was designing software for a Navy activity in Norfolk, and the constant travel back and forth to Norfolk was wearing me down.

    My wife, who was a programmer working for a government agency in Washington, suggested that if my company could hire her as a programmer on the Norfolk project, then we could move to Norfolk. I suggested it to my boss. He checked with the Navy client to make sure they would not object to having spouses working on the same project. Everything was cleared, and we did it.

    It was a positive result in every way. The Navy project got my full attention by eliminating the travel problem. My company *and* the Navy project got one more really good programmer, and nobody paid the cost of a head-hunter. My wife got a job she enjoyed.

    The key to the success shared by the Navy, my company and my family was that she was highly capable, and available at a reasonable price. It seems to me that the same would apply to the legal academy, and that second-spouse hiring is particularly cost-effective.
    BTW, I wonder about the last sentence of the first paragraph, beginning “Commentaters have suggested …” It seems to me that hiring for law teaching positions is inherently biased towards folks with “privileged backgrounds” irrespective of their spousal connection.

  3. JR says:

    I was surprised at how blithely the earliest entry in this discussion (Jeffrey Harrison) completely blew past the issue of gender equity that you raise here, which is the elephant in the room in any discussion of spousal hiring. Howard Wasserman seemed in his initial post to completely ignore it as well.

    At the end of the day, when we are talking about dual-academic-career couples, universities have correctly come to recognize that sometimes they come in pairs, as a package deal. This does not mean that a university has to decide to hire the pair. Obviously, the university must decide if it is worth it, on balance, overall, to hire slightly-weaker or slightly-less-good-fit candidate B, if that is the only way they have a chance to get great candidate A. Sometimes this means allocating resources slightly differently, i.e. giving an extra tenure slot to Department B that would otherwise have gone to some other part of the university, if Candidate B is worth hiring and the problem is simply that their department has no slots. Many university presidents and provosts have determined that it is important for their school to be able to make competitive offers to couples, and I am aware of a number of cases in which there are even formal programs for this, with central administration funds, to help make this happen (i.e. part of Candidate B’s salary is paid not by B’s department but by a special central administration fund whose entire purpose is to make it possible to recruit targets of opportunity who can only be obtained by offering both A and B jobs).

    Part of the reason universities are doing this, even to the point of committing resources to the project, is that otherwise it is hard to get many of the best female faculty members, in particular. That is because of exactly the demographic issue you cite in this post. Somewhat more male candidates than female candidates have spouses whose work is completely mobile, marginal, or nonexistent. That makes it easy for them to move. More female professors are, for better and worse, part of a package deal. Given the state of gender relations in this country/world, their husbands are not willing to give up their careers. If universities want to recruit these people, they need to be able to do spousal hiring.

    Now, of course, there is the countervailing force: just as Clarence Thomas and others argue that affirmative action stigmatizes its recipients, it is possible that spousal hiring, especially in the cases where candidate A is male and candidate B is female, tends to stigmatize candidate B. If colleagues think of candidate B as a spousal hire who would not really have met their bar for hiring otherwise, that may negatively affect their evaluation of candidate B’s work going forward, and so on. I think this is a real concern. I think it provides a reason why it is probably not a good idea to hire a couple where one of the two is really weak — even if in that case candidate A is so fantastic that it might seem “worth it” on balance. It is not a good dynamic for anyone involved if someone is perceived to fall far short of a university’s usual bar. But the more typical case, in my limited experience of watching this dynamic play out, is that the problem with Candidate B has more to do with resource allocation and “fit” (i.e. this candidate is good, but absent the spousal issue, their department would rather use their one hiring slot to get a specialist in something else). In cases like that, I think the case for spousal hiring is very strong and it makes sense to devote university-wide resources to achieving it. In addition to making it possible to attract great candidates, and great female candidates, it also makes it more likely that your hires will stick around rather than move.

  4. Jeff harrison says:

    Since I wrote the original post, I have response to many comments that were found on prawfsblawg. My comments are on class bias. I have couple of other thoughts. I agree with jb that there is often a stigmatizing effect on the trailer. Who wants to think he or was hired because the hiring entity really wanted someone else? On the other hand, while I think women maybe still the predominate trailer, it seems like gender equality should start at home with the preferred partner accommodating the career of the less preferred. Finally, let’s face it, partner cronyism is just a way of rigging the system typically in favor of the privileged.