We Have a Partner Hire Situation: The Personal and Professional Lives of Dual-Career Academic Couples

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Institutions have a well-established set of strategies from which they can draw to support the recruitment of dual-career academic couples, or faculty who are married/partnered to other faculty members. Thus, some might expect that the “two-body problem” is solved, or at the very least, improving. However, there is mixed evidence when it comes to evaluating whether dual-career support policies have in fact eased the challenges dual-career academic couples face during the recruitment process. Many dual-career academic couples do not use the formal policies available or do not find them to be helpful, which suggests that, even with dual-career support programs in place, the challenges facing dual-career academic couples remain similar to those observed 20 years ago. As such, dual-career academic couples not only continue to live apart or make career trade-offs to live together but are at risk for opting out of academia altogether, thereby contributing to the lack of women faculty members in American higher education institutions. Evaluations of the efficacy of dual-career support programs likewise show mixed evidence in whether universities that implemented policies have actually moved the needle on the number of women in faculty roles. Some institutions have experienced success in recruiting dual-career academic couples and thus increased the number of women faculty in certain fields. Yet, men faculty in different gender relationships are more likely to negotiate for dual-career accommodations compared to women faculty and more likely to be the “initial hire,” or more likely to be the partner who is recruited by the institution. In other words, although dual-career support programs were intended to facilitate the recruitment of women faculty as the “initial hire,” there is some evidence that men in different gender dual-career academic couples may be the partners who benefit from such policies. This study examines how dual-career academic couples who work at the same institution navigate their personal and professional lives. Drawing from 53 interviews with individual faculty members and academic leaders, I use a multiple, embedded case study of couples (N=16) at three research universities to examine the challenges dual-career academic couples encounter and the strategies they use to navigate these challenges. I consider how aspects of identity and status (i.e., gender, race, rank/employment type, and partner hire status), organizations, and field and society shape their experiences. Using the guiding theories of agency and intersectionality, I explored the challenges they encountered and the strategies that they used to adapt to those challenges. I also described the ways that work-life policies, practices, norms, and culture influenced couples’ personal and professional lives, as well as aspects of identity and status. The challenges and strategies couples encountered were nested within the context of interactive individual/shared, organizational, and field and societal influences. The key challenges couples experienced were finding two, professional satisfying jobs at the same institution or in the same locale; negotiating whose career was considered the “lead,” navigating the dual-career hiring process and the consequences of being the second hire; working together (as collaborators and/or department colleagues); and managing work-life demands, particularly in the context of the pandemic. Couples acted with agency and used agentic perspectives to navigate these challenges, including prioritizing staying together; internally adjusting and recalibrating career and personal priorities; aligning their expectations about what constitutes “work-life integration”; exchanging capital; and having empathy and understanding for one another. Couples engaged in small and large acts of agentic resistance, for example, resisting traditional gender norms or expectations related to being a “good academic.” On the other hand, aspects of organizational policies and culture, and field and societal norms and expectations also constrained the actions and perspectives available to couples.