Being Married Helps Professors Get Ahead, but Only If They're Male

A new study of history professors shows that married men get promoted faster than their single colleagues, while the opposite is true for women.


When I was a graduate student in history, I loved to read the acknowledgements sections of books. If you looked carefully, all the trade secrets kept within the small, competitive field were revealed, from who was the most helpful specialist in an archive to creative means of financing research.

Inadvertently, I also learned quite a bit about historian's marriages. Consider For Cause and Comrades, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson writes, "The person most instrumental in helping me produce this volume has also been the most important person in my life for the past forty years, my wife Patricia. In addition to enriching my life every day, she has been a superb research assistant, having read almost as many soldiers' letters and diaries as I have."

Ostensibly, McPherson, a professor at Princeton since 1962, is giving credit where it is most certainly due. To an aspiring female historian, this rather typical acknowledgement represents a looming threat. It can be found at faculty dinners, when wives outside the academy explain they, too, once pursued a higher degree. Without fail, they look at you a little sadly and say, "best of luck" or, far worse, "stick with it." During office hours, when advisors described the paths of female colleagues, it sounds more like the summary of a horror film than a professional trajectory: few survived.

Despite all this, my cohorts and I believed that we were entering a radically different kind of history department, one where women could forge their own careers, rather than merely supporting their husbands'. Surely, the changing of the guard in progressive institutions had already occurred. A new study from the American Historical Association suggests, however, that many of the field's problems remain unresolved.

For historians, marriage can accelerate the path towards full professorship - but only for males. For female historians, marriage can slow down a woman's career.

Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the AHA, surveyed 2,240 associate and full professors of history and released the findings in this month's Perspectives on History. Female historians who were either married or had been married at the time of the 2010 survey took an average of 7.8 years to move from associate to full professor. Women who had never married were promoted in an average of 6.7 years. Almost two times as many of the female full professors listed their status as divorced or separated, which suggests their professional obligations were somehow less compatible with marriage than their male colleagues. They were also more likely than their male colleagues to have never wed at all.

Conversely, male historians who were or had been married advanced in 5.9 years. The unmarried man took 6.4 years, a bit longer.

Female professors were more likely to have a spouse or partner with a doctoral degree, 54.7 percent to men's 30.9 percent. Their partners were also more likely to work in academe, 49.6 percent to 36.3 percent.

"I have a theory about this," said Tara Nummedal, an associate professor of history at Brown University. "It seems pretty clear that smart women are going to find men who are engaged, but I just don't see that it works the other way." She added that a female professor with a stay-at-home spouse is quite rare, but often sees men with stay-at-home wives, allowing them to fully commit themselves to their professions.

Nummedal is tenured and serves on search committees for new hires, where she has noticed a frequent occurrence: When a woman is the first choice, she will often turn down the position because her husband cannot or will not leave his job.

When one considers the overarching concerns of historians seeking positions within a university -- the school's status and geographical location - turning down a position at Brown, an Ivy League school located in Providence, Rhode Island, seems like an extraordinary choice. The fact that it has happened on more than one occasion would certainly contribute to the assertion that marriage does not help a female professor progress in their field.

"The person who ends up getting the job," Nummedal continued, "is a man who has a woman who is willing to follow him, or is single."

That was the case for Paul Cheney, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. He and his wife received concurrent doctorates in their respective fields, but he was offered a position first. "That meant the area she could look in shrank quite a bit," he said, "and by then we had kids." At the time, she was an adjunct professor without maternity leave, and so she stayed at home to raise their children. When she eventually returned to teaching, it was at the high school level.

Most departments offering maternity and/or paternity leave state that professors may only do so if they are the child's primary caretaker. Male professors who are not primary caretakers have taken paternity leave - sometimes to take advantage of the time off not to care for a child, but to research, several of the professors I spoke to suspect - without penalty, but only 3.4 percent. A much higher 33.6 percent of women, on the other hand, took time off after the birth of a child.

Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, took paternity leave following the birth of his first child in 2007, a year after he received tenure, and then again in 2011. He says paternity leave was a recent addition thanks to progressive leadership from retiring President Shirley Tilghman and then-provost Amy Gutman, but it was not without consequence. "Those two paternity leaves surely delayed my promotion to full professorship a little bit," he wrote in an email. Kruse asserted, however, that his efforts paled in comparison to his wife's, who experienced very different demands as a mother.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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