Sunday, July 27, 2014

 

Two Bodies, Revisited


If you haven’t seen Kelly Baker’s articles on the “two body problem” and academic hiring, check them out.  They’re thoughtful, honest, necessary, and depressing.  What I’m writing here is intended to supplement her pieces, rather than to rebut them.  

Baker tells stories of married women, including herself, who found themselves judged by hiring committees based on their marital status and presumed ability to focus on the job.  Some of them wondered whether they should have removed their wedding rings before going to the interviews.  Baker quotes one woman mentioning that she has never not been asked about her spouse’s situation in an interview.  

Married men, on the other hand, get a free pass.  If anything, the presence of a wedding ring may actually count somewhat in their favor, to the extent that it suggests conformity with social norms and/or a willingness to suck it up to keep the job needed to support a family.  

I don’t dispute Baker’s observations, but at the same time, I’ve been on dozens of hiring committees over the past six years and I haven’t seen or heard of women being questioned that way, even once.  We’re pretty vigilant about not doing that.  We even require every member of every search committee to go through training that specifically covers the kinds of questions not to ask.  So I’m left to wonder at the perceptual gap.  (Judging by our hiring record, women candidates have done quite well here.  The gap isn’t just perceptual.)  A few thoughts:

- Maybe HCC is uniquely progressive.  As flattering as that theory is, I tend to doubt it.  We have good people, but we don’t have a monopoly on good people.

- Maybe I’m just not privy to it.  In our structure, I’m in on the final round, as opposed to the first round.  Not being present for the first round, I can’t say with certainty what does or does not get said there.  Even so, though, we have some conscientious people who would send up a signal flare if something as inappropriate as that were to happen.  I can’t prove a negative, but based on the signal flares I’ve received on other issues, I’m confident that someone would say something, at least in most cases.

- Maybe it’s because we have a majority-female faculty, as many community colleges do.  In that context, default assumptions about gender and family roles are quite different.  (That’s true of this area generally.  Northampton is about ten minutes north of campus, and a popular place for faculty to live.  Its municipal parking garage has a sign at the entrance: “Northampton.  Where the coffee is strong, and so are the women.”  It’s hard to imagine that in many other parts of the country.)  Once you hit a certain critical mass, the culture shifts.

Nationally, women are far better represented among full-time faculty at community colleges than at four-year colleges and universities.  After a while, that may become self-perpetuating; women who are unfairly rejected by, or driven away from, bastions of old-school sexism may find a more welcoming clime here.  

Exceptions aside, I wonder if part of the issue is the fact that in higher ed, as opposed to many other industries, the people responsible for making hiring recommendations are often relatively untrained in how to do that.  (Technically, hiring is usually delegated to the Board of Trustees or a similar body, but the recommendations they approve come from within the college.)  If a college doesn’t put its search committees through some sort of HR training, and the members of those committees only get to hire once every several years or so, then while they may be experts in their subject matter, they aren’t experts in hiring.  They don’t do it often enough to get good at it.  

From a department’s perspective, a hire who leaves quickly is essentially a failed hire.  (That’s especially true in a context in which getting a replacement position isn’t automatic.) People from with a department who haven’t been trained in the protocols around hiring, and who may not be terribly gender-conscious generally, may be coming from a place of “let’s not blow this opportunity” rather than anything else.  They’re looking for signs that the candidate wouldn’t stay.  A spouse in a faraway location might be that clue.  Committees are terrible at mind-reading, though, so they can easily misread the significance of personal information.  

In other words, for my fellow admins out there, one major lesson of Baker’s piece may be that if search committees aren’t getting trained, they’d better be.  And if you don’t have a climate in which people are comfortable sending distress signals, you need to establish one.  The alternative -- beyond lawsuits -- is losing terrific people for all the wrong reasons.  I’ve lost great people for fair and valid reasons, and that’s painful enough.  Losing them this way would just add insult to injury.

In some ways, of course, these represent a kind of nibbling around the edges.  The combination of sexism and a lack of funding for enough full-time faculty jobs create the conditions in which moments of stupidity actually matter.  But there may still be something to be learned from contrasting hiring practices at colleges with majority-female faculty to hiring practices elsewhere.  

In the meantime, check out Baker’s articles for yourself.  The kind of thoughtful truth-telling she does won’t guarantee anything, but it will make positive change more likely.  I’ll take that.

Comments:
At my CC, none of the full time faculty (including myself) in my somewhat large division have spouses who are academics. While the assumption that all married faculty have spouses who are also academics has some merit, it is still an assumption and not a given.
 
I blogged about this as well here:

http://stevendkrause.com/2014/07/26/myowntwobodyexperiences/

There are ways my own experiences in an academic couple connected with Baker, ways that they didn't. My experiences on search committees definitely don't connect with Baker's experiences though.

As I blog about in more detail, every committee I've been on knows "the rules" about illegal questions (though those questions do sometimes slip in, usually from people not on the committee); every committee I've been on tries to figure out if candidates have a trailing spouse; I've never been on a committee where an offer was or wasn't made based on the possibility of a trailing spouse. I've just never seen nor heard of the "poor husband" scenario Baker describes.
 
DD:

"The people responsible for making hiring recommendations are often relatively untrained in how to do that."

In my (relatively narrow but fairly extended) experience, at universities both within and beyond the boutique category, this is *precisely* the reason that the wrong questions get asked. Particularly as the sheer volume of service-hours per faculty member has risen, the ability of individual search committee members to have *time* for proper HR schooling has gone down.

At my university, attempts to compensate for this focus around mandating even more paperwork, form-filling, and categorized/weighted spreadsheet "matrices", required of the search chair, which allegedly "prove" the absence of bias and the correctness of procedures. It's substituting form-filling for any kind of substantive HR training.

Mostly it works out OK for us because we're a fairly dedicated and conscientious Fine Arts faculty. But it's cumbersome, prone to error, and takes some jeezly amount of time.
 
We have mandatory HR training. In fact, the (electronic) folders are not released to us until everyone on the committee has completed the training. As you know, this is at a CC. I'll also add that the search chair is usually quite experienced and IME repeats the important rules.

Informal situations, like the dinner and/or reception that is common at universities, are the biggest risk. Open receptions seem most dangerous, and I wonder why HR allows them. In the case of dinner, I'm now wondering if HR needs to be sure everyone invited knows the rules. That does open them up to lawsuits.

BTW, we have a structure where the committee provides an unranked "short list" of best qualified candidates with comments, not one where the committee provides a ranked list or even a single name to those making the official hire. Errors at our search level will not contaminate a decision at the hiring level, but there is still a need to be sure people are free to blow the whistle if that information kept someone off of the short list.

Some places have an outside observer, either from HR or from a different department or college, to monitor the process and report on same. That strikes me as a very good idea.
 
As a woman married to a well-known scholar in my field, I certainly had these experiences -- even, I gather, getting negative votes at one campus because someone was concerned about a potential spousal hire, though my husband was then retired! While I never got the "poor husband" line, I was asked what my husband would do if I got a particular job.

Over the past few years, I've been involved in many searches, and people are very careful about the questions, but particularly at dinner, some people volunteer more than others. And sometimes that information is inevitable, as with the woman who has lactation breaks in her schedule. While we are very careful, we are also recruiting: we're in an isolated location, with relatively few options for spouses, and we want to figure out how to make things work, and to make candidates feel as if this is a place they could live and be happy. So at dinner people with children may mention schools; a colleague involved with community theatre will mention that; hiking, fishing, and other enthusiasts will mention activities they engage in. On the candidate end, I've seen everything from an applicant who asked for a library job for his wife in his letter of application (!) to people who were comfortable saying why their spouse was portable -- whether because they worked remotely or because they were a nurse, doctor or some such that could be employed locally.

When I was chair, I always gave someone an opportunity to tell me about a trailing spouse;but the question was sufficiently vague as to not require an answer about a spouse: "Are there any things that would help make an appointment here work for you?" -- and that could be research support or lab space as much as spousal accommodation. It does help us to know about these things, because the negotiations with dean and provost are always complicated.
 
"...I wonder if part of the issue is the fact that in higher ed, as opposed to many other industries, the people responsible for making hiring recommendations are often relatively untrained in how to do that. (Technically, hiring is usually delegated to the Board of Trustees or a similar body, but the recommendations they approve come from within the college.) If a college doesn’t put its search committees through some sort of HR training, and the members of those committees only get to hire once every several years or so, then while they may be experts in their subject matter, they aren’t experts in hiring. They don’t do it often enough to get good at it...if search committees aren’t getting trained, they’d better be..."

All of this is exactly right. I will add that, in my experience, there are disciplinary differences in awareness of the legal issues involved. In particular, I have never heard someone who teaches business law or human resource management mess these things up. I have heard economists (my discipline) get it wrong.
 
It's been a few years since I was on the job market, but I definitely heard the sorts of questions that Baker refers to. Always from senior male faculty, but never (I think) from anyone on the search committee. Judging from that experience as well as my own experience on search committees since, I'm not sure that the sorts of individuals asking inappropriate questions are likely to respond to HR training regardless of whether it's required.
 
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