the stigma of the spousal hire

As a grad student, I never gave a moment of thought to being a spousal hire. Like so many grad students in top 20 departments, especially pre-recession, I thought that I had somehow earned a tenure-track position somewhere with a 2-2 because I had been a good student, graduate assistant, and department citizen. I had done everything that I was told to, checking off just about every box on a grad student’s to do list: collaborate with faculty – check, teach – check, present in an ASA session – check, publish a sole-authored, peer-reviewed piece – check, win a teaching and/or paper award – check and check, forge network connections – check. I realized at the time that I wasn’t going to be a superstar but, whether it stemmed from naivete or optimism, I was certain that I would get a job – and a good one – on my own merit.

Sure enough, I got a job – and a good one – but I’ll never know if it was on my own merit and I’m not sure it really matters. Regardless of how things really went down, I am still married to one of those superstars and, as long as we are in the same department, there are people who perceive me as a spousal hire, including me.

People have written posts about how to land (and negotiate) these elusive spousal hires. What I haven’t seen as much discussion of is what comes next. What is life like once you’re lucky enough to get a position with your partner?

  • You and your partner are constantly considered in tandem. She is less productive than he is. He’s the leading spouse, she’s the trailing one. If we want to hire him, we’d have to find a place for her.
  • You notice inequity. Regardless of whether it is attributable to one’s position as a spousal hire, any injustice is perceived as directly related to that position. Even though I was hired with a 2-2 load, I taught 5 days a week my first semester (a T/R class and a M/W/F class). It was supposedly a mix-up by the office staff. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it felt unfair and I assumed that if a department rockstar had suffered a similar mishap, something would have been done to address it.
  • Inequity begets inequality. Although course releases were relatively standard in my department, I didn’t get any (and, yes, I did ask for them). This was just one permutation of The Matthew Effect, helping widen the gap between my productivity and my that of my colleagues’.
  • People take you less seriously. Even worse, when people treat you as if you are incompetent, you begin to feel incompetent. Although colleagues generally know better, I have found that grad students are particularly attune to status differences and susceptible to status assumptions and expectations.
  • Impostorism sets in. You are plagued with a nagging sense that you are not really worthy of your position. You fear that at some point in the very near future someone will expose you for the fraud that you really are, they will say out loud that you could not have gotten the job without your spouse and that you took the job from someone more qualified. Stereotype threat kicks in, perhaps influencing actual performance. You over-prepare and over-analyze to ensure you don’t do anything to live down to the stereotype or to reveal yourself as the impostor that you might be.
  • You try to make up for your (perceived) inferiority. One of my friends from grad school was also a spousal hire. His response was to absolutely kick ass on research and prove that he might officially be a spousal hire, but that he was at his institution because he wanted to be, not because he had to be. My own response was more damaging – and perhaps gendered. I became the ultimate department (and university) citizen. I taught larger and larger classes. I volunteered for everything that no one else wanted to do. I showed up for every faculty meeting, every advising night, and just about every other department event. This not only negatively affected my productivity, but also affected my self-perception. As my identity became increasingly wrapped up in teaching and service, I felt more and more distanced from my research so didn’t devote as much attention to it. This simply exacerbated any inequity and inequality linked to productivity.
  • Even worse, you buy into that inferiority. For a long time after getting hired, I did the bulk of the household labor. I stayed home when the kid was sick, was on homework duty, planted and weeded the flower beds, shopped, planned meals, and cooked. It didn’t matter that I had the exact same job title as my partner or that our tenure expectations were the same. I convinced myself that he needed the time to work and that my work was less important.  Being a spousal hire became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many ways I had a more balanced life than my partner did, but I was making tenure a more elusive goal.    

So what can you do? How can you avoid the painful letdown that might emerge after the initial excitement of landing a position that allows you to live with your partner?

I wish I had a cure. I wish that I could tell you to just get over it. I wish that I could say that departments could do something by emphasizing that you are a valued member of the faculty, that they do not see you as a spousal hire, but my own department did this and it didn’t work. In fact, the above was my experience even though I had my own offer from my institution. My offer was not contingent on my partner accepting his. It came with no strings attached. From the moment I was called for an interview, the party line was that they wanted me too. Sure, my partner had interviews at most of the top programs that year, but I also had both attributes this school was looking for: teaching experience and accolades and an interesting research program. Yet simply being part of an academic couple – and with a growing understanding of how the academic world worked – I had a nagging feeling that the party line wasn’t the entire story. That nagging feeling was bad enough. I imagine that it is only worse for people who have full information, whose offers are contingent, who are not just assumed to be the spousal hire, but who have evidence of it.

I think that it is useful to think of being a spousal hire as similar to having another stigmatized identity (although localized, as everyone outside of academia just thinks it’s cool and/or normal that my partner and I work in the same place). Yes, being at the same institution as one’s partner is an undeniable privilege – and many discussions before this one have alluded to just how elusive and extraordinary it is – but it is also time to acknowledge that the experience of it can mirror that of other academics who are members of stigmatized groups. It could potentially help someone land a position, but the self-doubt and other disadvantages that might come with it do little to help them keep it.

As long as we continue to think about leading and trailing spouses, with the latter automatically deemed unqualified, we lose sight of individuals and their merits. As I said at the outset, this is not only true of spectators who are trying to explain who got hired and why. This is true of the spousal hires themselves. After all this, I guess my advice is to not be your own worst enemy.* Trust in yourself, trust in your worth, and show them that if they were smart, they would have hired you regardless.

* This is also why I am publishing this under a pseudonym. I have no illusions that people won’t realize who I am, but – in an olderwoman move – I prefer not to advertise my identity. I love my department and colleagues, my students, and my partner. I didn’t write this to hurt any of them, but to help others who might suffer after the reality of what it means to be a spousal hire sets in.

6 thoughts on “the stigma of the spousal hire”

  1. Great post with tons of important stuff to wade through. Thanks for being willing to write this. As you say, there are several axes: star/nonstar and the problem of exacerbated inequalities that shows up around all hires; spoiled identity (that might also adhere to people perceived as “diversity hires” or specific-area hires; the specifics of the spousal situation.

    We had department spouses who made it a rule NEVER to communicate privately about department business or students. You could never assume that telling one of them something meant the other one new it.

    I have seen what seemed to me to be unfair allocations of goodies like course releases and other benefits along a gender or star axis even with no spouse involved. And all the stuff that happens interpersonally if other people don’t see you as a star. These are really difficult and important issues to lift up.

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  2. Thanks for posting this. I’m part of a dual-academic couple, (both tenure-track from the get-go), as are many of my grad school friends and a number of my current colleagues (which is great that our department/college has been very supportive of spousal TT hires, when many schools still are not). Lots of your points are frequent topics of conversation. I think it’s also important to note the inequities set up by the one TT/one lecturer hiring of a couple, which is very common and I’ve seen really cause rifts in relationships, both personal and academic.

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  3. The text in the letter that Jessica found is worth typing in:

    “Mary Glenn [Wiley], his [John Wiley’s] wife, is also supposed to be very excellent. She is the only student who has received honors on all her exams at Vanderbilt. She has to date submitted 4 papers for publication. One has been published, another accepted, at Social Forces, and all, while they involved joint authorships, show her mark, which is very good. Even so, I am somewhat skittish about considering a husband and wife in one department. Hence I have made it clear from the beginning that we might not want to hire Mary Glenn, no matter how good she is, and I am in the process of finding openings for her in other universities and/or colleges in the area. Even so, I thought we should look at her before turning her down.”

    “PS. I have just received a letter from Phil Cutright indicating that the Wileys have both received offers from McGill and NYU at equal salaries, which means if we want them we will have to take both, I infer at least. Hence, bear this in mind as you visit with them today and tomorrow.”

    Robert L Hamblin, Chair, Washington University
    letter to Sociology faculty, Jan 23 1968.

    Good for McGill and NYU. As for Hamblin, well, I hope he had the good grace to be embarrassed by this letter later in his career.

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  4. Thanks for posting the section, @krippendorf.

    Looking at Google Scholar, the Wileys must have ended up at Washington University for a year. Mary Glenn Wiley published from there at least once before they both began publishing from UIC (where she remains, although emerita).

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