University Conference Turns Focus Toward Dual-Career Couples

November 12, 2008

November 12, 2008 — Dr. Kevin Lee wanted to hire a hair-cell neurologist. Alas, he did not need a double-bassist.

But in order to land the neurologist, Lee, chairman of the University of Virginia's Department of Neuroscience, needed to find a job for her musician husband.

Lee's colleagues across Grounds at the McIntire Department of Music had no openings for a double-bassist. Lee called every symphony in the region. No dice.

Searching high and low for music jobs wasn't something Lee had been prepared for when he took the chairmanship, he recounted Monday during a regional conference on dual-career couples, hosted by U.Va.'s Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement. The conference drew a few dozen participants from around the University and across Virginia.

Department chairs, Lee noted, are chosen on the basis of scholarship and professional achievement. They often have "zero" experience in personnel recruiting and fiscal management, he said.

Nonetheless, they often find themselves confronting the issue of dual-career couples when hiring faculty members. A recent survey of those who declined offers to join the U.Va. faculty found that the No. 1 reason was the lack of a job opportunity for a spouse or partner.

(Incidentally, human resources folks don't call them "trailing spouses" anymore. As one participant quipped, "It sounds like something you catch fish with.")

That problem is particularly pronounced for female faculty members. One study found that 40 percent of female faculty members have an academic spouse or partner, compared to 34 percent of male faculty members. And only 5 percent of female professors' spouses or partners are "stay at homes," compared to 20 percent of the spouses or partners of male professors.

Lee ended up losing his hair-cell neurologist to the University of Iowa, which has an office dedicated to dual-career searches. Iowa's hospital created a "director of music" position for the double-bassist; U.Va. sought to do the same but was too late.

Joan Murrin, the founder and director of the University of Iowa's Dual Career Network, addressed Monday's conference and described how her program works.

The Iowa program started in 1994 with a desk, no computer and 125 case files, Murrin said.

Not everyone appreciated the need, she noted. "Two of the deans said to me, 'Why do we need a program like this? I thought the little ladies just stayed home and took care of the kids,'" she recalled.

Now, her office serves 100 to 125 clients each year, partners of either faculty or staff job candidates. (In 2006, the office worked with more men than women for the first time.) She is able to find jobs for between 65 percent and 85 percent of them, inside and outside the university, she reported.

It's not enough to just "send a résumé around," she said. "It has to be more proactive than that."

Murrin spends half of her time working with job-seeking clients and the other half marketing her program. She tells internal audiences what services her office provides, and external audiences – including other academic institutions and non-academic employers — about the job candidates she is working with.

The Iowa office has two full-time employees and one part-timer, noted Dr. Sharon Hostler, currently serving as U.Va.'s interim vice provost for faculty advancement while Gertrude Fraser is on sabbatical.

"Gertrude is trying to do it as an add-on to her duties," Hostler said.

The conference, she said, was an attempt to bring together representatives of the 17 or 18 colleges and universities that lie within an 80-mile radius of Charlottesville, to explore how they might work together in dual-career hiring situations.

Already, the University has joined the Mid-Atlantic Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, a regional branch of a national network. The consortium supports a Web-based search engine that includes job listings from participating institutions; nearby members include George Mason University, the University of Richmond and Washington and Lee University.

Even when resources are in place, finding out when a dual-career situation is in play can be difficult. Equal opportunity rules prevent asking job candidates about their marital status and their families; unless the candidate volunteers the information earlier, the issue of finding employment for a partner might not come to light until an offer is made.

From a department chairman's perspective, it's best to find out sooner than later, Lee said. But Brian Nosek, an associate professor of psychology who is married to another psychology professor, said the decision about when to reveal that information is complicated. Given the choice between an unattached candidate and one with an academic spouse, he said, some employers may opt for the lower-hassle option.

At Iowa, Murrin said, a brochure on dual-career resources is included in the job application packet, which she found often sparks an applicant-initiated conversation early in the process.

Another chairman, Dr. Doug Bayliss from the Department of Pharmacology, said he attended the conference to learn. He has led the department for less than a year and has yet to encounter a dual-career situation.

"We're in the midst of hiring," he said. "I wanted to find out what resources are available, what mechanisms there were to support two-career hirings. It can be a make-or-break when you're going after somebody."

— By Dan Heuchert