Response to an important question for women in science
I have something to ask the feminists.
What do they think about those female PIs that are married to bigshot PIs ? I have seen many, many times where a professor was signed up be faculty only on the condition that his wife is given a professorship as well. I have also seen politics at Harvard, where a big shot professor, upon learning that his wife would not get tenure, threatened to move to another university. Then the wifey got tenure, and he stayed.
Is that merit? I have seen this happen 10+ times already.
This is a very timely question. There are two sides to the answer.
A Side: We need women role models, and we just want them to get a foot in the door. Then these women can make the most of the opportunity to move up and help bring other women through the pipeline.
There are three important aspects to this first interpretation.
Assumption 1: Women are just as smart and hard-working as men, but we unfairly face a lot of prejudice, both overt and covert, that ultimately adds up to our looking worse on paper than we really are.
True! It has been well documented in many biological, physical and mathematical systems that even minor discrepancies will add up to huge differences over time, especially where there are positive feedback loops. In this case, even slight and unconscious bias against women adds up to huge advantages for men in terms of publishing and ultimately interviews and job offers.
Assumption 2: So really, women deserve more credit than we get, and it's perfectly okay for women to take advantage of whatever chances we might have - whether it is leveraging our husband's support of our careers, or affirmative action, how is that any different from membership in the Old Boys' Club? Anything that gets us ahead should be fair game. Because after all, men will step on anyone to get where they're going, why shouldn't we take whatever we can get?
Questionable! Is this ever okay for anyone? Should we do what the bad guys have done, even if we don't respect it? Where does anyone get off complaining about hiring spouses while continuing with practices that are totally unethical, reward back-room deals and discourage integrity?
Assumption 3: Having women as role models will, by the mere fact of their success, help remove prejudice. Once these women get a foot in the door, they will excel in their new positions, proving to the doubters that women are just as smart and hard-working as men. This will help reduce prejudice over time.
Questionable! In some sense, just working around women and learning that we're not all idiots can be educational. I have witnessed this myself.
I have also seen women succeed, and seeing that has helped me see it as possible for me. So in that sense, yes, I believe it helps to have role models.
This can help reduce prejudice, but no, it's not enough. The Superwoman Exception phenomenon can be misleading in this regard. Essentially it supports continuing sexist stereotypes by implying that only a handful of women could ever be good enough.
B Side: Women who are hired as spouses may not deserve it. Even if they did, they will face even more prejudice than women who are hired on their own merits. They lack the understanding of how to get hired, so they are unable and often unwilling to effectively mentor younger women who are trying to follow along in the tenure-track. Ultimately, hiring women as spouses actually undermines women's efforts at being seen as equally qualified and does nothing to further the cause of women in science.
Assumption 1: Women who are hired as spouses never could have gotten a job on their own merits.
True and false. Sometimes in dual-career couples, each partner has an offer in one place but not in the another. I don't know if anyone has done a statistical analysis of how often women follow their spouse vs. the other way around. Anecdotally, I know of several examples where the husband turned down an offer at a place that deemed his wife under-qualified, and went somewhere that seemed to value her abilities as much as his own.
Depending on your point of view, you could say that
a) The place that only wanted the husband had "higher standards"
b) The place that offered both partners positions was more open to the possibility that I mentioned above, that women are often much more accomplished and talented than we look on paper. They may have even been grateful to have found such a wonderful candidate, whom they might have otherwise overlooked without even offering her an interview.
c) The place that offered both partners positions just really wanted the husband and figured it was no big deal to hire the wife and let her sink or swim either way if that's what the husband demanded, because he was a big shot and he was worth it.
Now personally, among these I find option (c) to be the least plausible, at least in the current economic climate. But that's not to say it hasn't ever happened. I'm sure it probably has. But how recently? I can't answer that.
Assumption 2: Women who get hired as the "trailing spouse" will be treated badly and regret it, so they might as well not take the job.
Who knows? I think being a trailing spouse probably exacerbates the common phenomenon among junior faculty known as Impostor Syndrome. Are trailing spouses really treated worse than other junior women faculty? I don't know that anyone has statistics on this, either. Do many trailing spouses still manage to succeed in their own right? Hell yes.
Assumption 3: Women who are hired as the "trailing spouse" don't know how to mentor women who are trying to get hired on our own merits.
Probably true?. Based on my own, again, anecdotal investigations, I'd say yes. Having said that, though, I'd argue that MOST PIs don't know how to mentor women who are trying to get hired on our own merits.
What works for men does not always work for women, and often backfires on us. We have to be assertive while being careful to be nice and not come across as too aggressive. We have to be enthusiastic without coming across as lacking sufficient independence. We have to be independent without coming across as too ambitious. While many of these pitfalls also apply to men, I would argue that for women the margins are even more narrow. We have to walk a very fine line of fulfilling cultural gender expectations as well as conforming to academic and discipline-specific expectations, which is even more difficult if your research is, god forbid, interdisciplinary or very novel.
In fact, I would wager that most PIs who aren't trailing spouses don't know how they got their jobs. If they are really being honest with themselves and with you, they will say it was luck, and politics.
Assumption 4: Women hired as "trailing spouses" really don't help the cause of trying to get women hired as equals on our own merits.
Maybe so! But does that mean it should stop? I don't know if I can answer that. I've been advocating for a long time that science hiring needs to be made centralized and should be done by something more like the medical residency match system. Current academic hiring is way too haphazard, and, well, for lack of a better way of saying it, it's just really unscientific.
The way it is now, decisions can be made behind closed doors and based on rapidly changing variables that no one can predict ahead of time, and no one has to explain or defend afterwards. It's completely subject to all kinds of personal biases and politics. For a really vivid view of what that means, watch these videos.