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.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

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.

Women were two times as likely to take leave to support their partner's career, the study said. "This explains why marriage accelerates a man's career," said Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University. "If men can continue to find wives who will abandon their professional aspirations to assist their husbands, well, that's it in a nutshell." Rockman, who is married Nummedal, called the statistics depressing. "The degree of backsliding in the current generation is stunning."

Perhaps the vaguest statement in the survey is the most illuminating: "Female faculty members are treated fairly at this institution." 55.4 percent of female professors agreed, as compared to 84.7 percent of male professors.

What is considered "fair treatment?" It could very well refer to better class times, larger offices, time allotted for research, maternity leave, and higher salaries, but to the professors I spoke to, the meaning was clear: the burden of service.

In addition to teaching, research, and publishing responsibilities, service constitutes a major part of a professor's career. Academics may be asked to advise to undergraduate and graduate students, teacher assistants, academic senates, and to provide private tutorials or additional class sections for honors students. In addition, there are committees on diversity, hiring, professionalization, and admissions. Many of these professional obligations occur on a weekly basis, meaning that professors spend more time spent sitting in conference room than teaching in lecture halls.

The gender breakdown within a department plays a significant role. Typically, there are more men than women within a discipline, and yet committees seek as much diversity as possible. Women, then, are often asked to do double the amount of service as men, a number that increases for women of color. While service is certainly considered when promoting, publications play a much larger role. Service takes time away from research, so women will have a harder time keeping up with the publishing output of their male counterparts.

Nummedal sees women called to committee work far more than men, but offers another reason. "Men are better at protecting their time," she said, further observing that women do recognize that they are called upon more often, but are compelled by a sense of community, not just professional obligation.

"This is one of those places where the ability to say 'no' and pick where you should devote yourself to the university may have very different consequences," said Rockman, which is not to say that men are trying to avoid service entirely. Professors of both sexes do care a great deal about furthering an institutions goals and enriching the community, but men assert greater control over exactly how that happens.

Nummedal and Rockman in no way represent the typical academic marriage. They met at the University of California, Davis, where they both received their doctoral degrees, but Nummedal was first hired at Brown, and first received tenure; after quite a bit of uncertainty involving cross-country moves and international appointments, Rockman secured a place at Brown. Sharing appointments in the same department has made gender inequities a frequent subject, no matter how subtle. Rockman is rarely addressed by his first name, yet Nummedal is with frequency. In addition, Nummedel's office is on the ground floor, where she is often mistaken for the department secretary.

"There are any number of little indignities that do befall female professors, particularly in their early 30s and 40s," Rockman explained. The age range he cites is, of course, a crucial time in the career of an academic seeking full professorships.

While there may be greater flexibility in the allocation of hours in the workday, which enables Nummedal to, for example, have dinner with her family at 6 pm, she immediately checks her email after the meal concludes. "I often find that there have been a flurry of emails during that time," she said, adding, "and these blocks of time are simply not available to me."

The flexibility of academe is often misunderstood: Time is still of the essence. Domestic duties take women away from committee duties, and domestic and committee duties detract from time spent on research that results in a paper or book, all of which puts female historians further and further away full professorship.

"If you don't have a family to take to distract you," Nummedal said, "I'm sure it makes a difference."

All of these obligations might seem like small additions to the workload, but over time it can become quite substantial. Male respondents took an average of 5.9 years from date of hire to promotion from to associate professor, while women took an average of 6.25. As the survey states, "The averages are slightly deceptive, however, as a larger proportion of female historians lingered at the associate rank."

When we look at these kinds of issues, whether it is the wage gap or child care, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a fundamental problem with the professional workplace, which is still best structured for single males, or males with wives who support their careers.

"When I first got to Brown, there was no model for me," Nummedal said, but she is determined to make a difference, which has at times led to uncomfortable conversations with colleagues. Still, the accommodations those conversations yield, like scheduling search meetings for noon instead of 4:30 pm, make a significant difference for working parents, which includes both sexes. "Things are better, but we need to actively advocate for change," Nummedal said, "especially for the next generation."