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.