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Survey Looks at 'Two-Body' Problem Among Physicists

Typical dual-career couple: Marie and Pierre Curie. (Photo courtesy of AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)
Typical dual-career couple: Marie and Pierre Curie. (Photo courtesy of AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)
Survey Stats
  • 89% had partners who were scientists, half of which were dual-career physics couples.
  • 57% of the respondents were women.
  • Average age female respondents was 37.2; the male respondents had an average age of 40.1.
  • When last searching for a job, 20% were searching for a postdoc, 64% for a faculty job, 25% for an industrial job and 20% for a government laboratory job; 15% answered "other".
  • 60% said that they or their partner had to take a lower-level position in science or a nonscience or no job due to dual-career issues.

Physicists are increasingly faced with the "two-body problem": the difficulty of finding two professional jobs (possibly two physics jobs) in the same geographic location. This problem has a particularly acute impact on women, in part because 45% of married female physicists are married to other physicists, whereas only 6% of married male physicists have a physicist spouse.

The two-body problem also poses a challenge for institutions that hire physicists, as it is increasingly likely that the top candidate in a search will have a spouse who is also seeking professional employment. Lack of suitable employment for the spouse can lead a candidate to reject a job offer, or to leave a job after a few years if the spouse can find a better situation elsewhere. The frustration of unemployment and underemployment can also cause some to leave physics altogether, representing a net loss to the profession. As these employment problems are more acute for women, lack of attention to dual-career issues can hamper efforts to increase the representation of qualified women in physics.

In order to assess the extent of the dual-career couple problem, to examine its effects on the scientific community and to learn about possible solutions that have proven successful, Laurie McNeil, University of North Carolina, and Marc Sher, College of William and Mary, conducted a Web-based survey in 1998. This was done under the auspices and funding of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. Laurie McNeil was chair of CSWP in 1997. Because the primary goal was to obtain information about approaches that institutions might take to the problem, they did not attempt to use rigorous statistical sampling techniques or sophisticated quantitative analysis of the responses.

The survey requested responses from couples in which one member was a physicist and the other was also a scientist (often another physicist). The core of the survey was a set of open-ended questions asking about the dual-career problems that respondents had faced, institutional responses to these problems, and possible solutions. A total of 620 responses were received, many with very detailed answers to some of the questions.

From these replies were called a collection of ways in which institutions respond to the dual-career situation faced by physicists whom they wish to hire. These responses fell into two categories: those that made the situation worse, or at least did nothing to improve it; and those that helped to make the situation better.

One very common form of problematic response was to give reduced consideration to candidates who are in a dual-career situation, perhaps with the justification that a candidate free of such encumbrances would be more likely to accept a potential offer. Another was to ignore the situation entirely. Many of the respondents to the survey replies reported that when they asked the institution that had offered them a job for assistance in finding employment for their spouse, the requests were met with astonishment, as if the possibility that a candidate might have a partner who was seeking a professional position were an entirely novel notion.

In locations where there are few employers of physicists, a job candidate may inquire about the possibility of a position for the partner at the same institution. Institutions often reject such possibilities on the basis of nepotism rules (which may no longer be in force or may be of questionable legal standing) or a general resistance to allocating two slots to one couple. Or, the institution may choose to hire the partner but into a position that is below her or his qualifications. Finally, many of the survey respondents reported outrageous remarks made by potential employers, including suggestions that the couple solve the dual-career problem by divorcing, or statements that the woman "should not be working anyway."

As a counterbalance to these problematic responses, McNeil and Sher also received information about solutions that had been successful at various institutions. The first of these is the shared or split position, in which two scientists occupy a single (or possibly 1.5) position. This can be attractive to couples with small children. In other cases, institutions have been able to find other sorts of positions for the spouse, such as soft-money research positions, adjunct or part-time teaching positions, or employment in other technical areas such as computer systems management. Some large institutions have established Spousal Hiring Programs which are charged with aiding partners of new hires in finding suitable professional employment either within the institution or somewhere else in the area. Other institutions provide such assistance informally, by maintaining contact lists and setting up interviews with local companies that hire physicists.

From these negative and positive ways of addressing the dual-career situation, McNeil and Sher have formulated several recommendations to institutions. The first is to recognize the existence of the dual-career situation and choose to deal with it. This is obviously the key step, but many institutions have yet to take it. It must be taken before the institution is faced with a potential new hire with a spouse in need of employment; at that stage, there is not enough time to formulate an adequate response. In particular, institutions need to investigate and establish policies regarding nepotism, shared or split positions, and the like. They also need to investigate other hiring opportunities in the area, whether by establishing a formal Spousal Hiring office or by informal means. Once an offer has been made for which the acceptance by the candidate may depend on employment opportunities for the partner, it is too late to begin formulating policies and developing contacts.

In an effort to aid institutions in taking such action in a timely manner, the CSWP is establishing a Web site where information gathered on shared or split position policies, spousal hiring programs, and other successful approaches to the dual-career problem will be posted. The hope is that this will encourage institutions to face the issue and take positive action, which will benefit not only the job-seeker and the institution, but also the physics profession as a whole.

The full report on the surveycan be found online at http://www.physics.wm.edu/dualcareer.html. McNeil will be speaking on the survey results at the upcoming APS Centennial meeting, Session JB21.03, Tuesday, March 23, 10:30 a.m.



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