The two body problem – the biggest issue for advancement of women in science and academia?

I discovered something today. The ‘two-body problem’ has its own page on Wikipedia. I’ve been thinking for a long time now that the two-body problem is the biggest issue I face in the advancement of my career and if it’s on Wikipedia, it must be big, right? Maybe it’s not just me.

Women in science and academia face a number of additional challenges in their day-to-day activities. First, science is sexist since both men and women are biased against female colleagues and students. This discrimination leads to inequalities in pay and less funding for women of equal competency. There is also evidence that papers with a female lead author are more likely to be rejected than those with a male first author. Women with children suffer the motherhood penalty while men benefit from the fatherhood bonus. Processes of appointment and advancement overwhelmingly favour men. All of these factors (and more) make science and academia a tough career choice for women. It’s no wonder the pipeline is leaky. These barriers pose a huge challenges but they can be overcome with enormous effort and a supportive network.

So why is the two-body problem the stand-out issue for women? Working couples managing career progression for both parties face a dilemma as each partner becomes more successful. In order to chase highly specialised positions, there will come a time when one of the pair is offered a position in another city, state or country. Traditionally the couple would move for the male’s job while a working partner follows, settling for whatever position they can find. In a progressive world, we would hope to see some balance in movement with some couples choosing to move for the female’s career. However, in all of my friends and acquaintances in science, I don’t know of any families who have moved for the woman’s career progression. I think it’s because of the motherhood penalty. For the best financial outcome for a family, it makes sense to favour the career of the more successful partner and as soon as children come into the picture, the woman has already taken a career hit that slows (and sometimes ends) her career. I’ve been offered several positions in different cities that I have turned down because of the negative impact a move would have on my husband’s career. I  wonder how many other women in science and academia have faced the same choice? Without being able to take the best opportunities, it is difficult for me to maintain career momentum.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my husband’s success but we’ve both worked hard for my career success too.

What’s the solution?

In an isolated part of the world such as New Zealand, academics moving from elsewhere are more likely to be men than women (personal observation but it would be great to know about any data on this) so the gender imbalance becomes more pronounced. It therefore becomes particularly important for selection committees to seek out good women who are available. There are two strategies that could and should be used in appointment processes; gender quotas and broadly defined areas of research in calls for applicants. Affirmative action attracts more highly qualified women while non-specific calls for applicants will have a larger talent pool, allowing more women the opportunity to apply and both strategies will enhance the quality of women applying for a given role. This approach is a win for women, a win for institutions with enhanced productivity and a win for students with more female role models.

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