CSWA Logo AAS Logo

The Two-Body Problem: Seeking Employment for Dual-Science-Career Couples

By Laurie McNeil and Marc Sher

Dual-Career Couples:

Laurie McNeil and Pat Wallace

Marc and Beverly Sher

June 2000

Laurie McNeil is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Curriculum in Applied and Materials Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1997 she was Chair of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. Both Laurie and her husband, Pat Wallace are condensed matter physicists.

Marc Sher is a professor of Physics at the College of William and Mary, specializing in particle theory. He is currently news editor and electronics communication editor of “Physics and Society,” and a member of the APS Panel on Public Affairs. His wife, Beverly Sher is a Visiting Assistant Professor/Health Careers Advisor at William and Mary.

THE “TWO-BODY PROBLEM,” as the difficulties faced by dual-science career couples
is jocularly known, is an increasing problem in physics as well as in other areas of science. The increase in recent decades in the number of dual-career couples has meant that more professionals
of all kinds are facing the problem of finding two suitable jobs in the same geographic area. The situation
has a particularly acute effect on women in physics, because 79% of married women
physicists have a physicist or other scientist as spouse (compared to 18% of married male physicists).

Another difficulty that physicists share with some other sciences is the small size of the field.
With the exception of a few “meccas” such as the Bay area, the number of physics (or physicsrelated)
jobs available in a particular place at a given time is likely to be very low. Further difficulties
arise when the two members of a couple are not at the same point in their careers (receipt of Ph.D.,
end of post-doc, etc.) at the same time, meaning that the two are seeking positions at different levels
or at different times. This difficulty increases as the couple's careers advance, because higher-level positions
are scarcer than entry-level ones. If the geographic location of the job search is based on the
opportunities available to the more senior partner, the junior partner may not be able to find a
position appropriate to obtain the credentials necessary for advancement later. If the junior
partner's opportunities are the determining factor, it is difficult for the senior partner to find a
suitable position as entry-level positions are always more numerous than senior ones.

In order to get a sense of the nature of the problems faced by dual-science-career couples,
and the institutional responses (helpful and detrimental) that they invoked, we conducted a
web-based survey under the auspices of the American Physical Society's Committee on the
Status of Women in Physics. The survey was launched in January 1998, and eventually received 632 replies. A complete account of the survey responses, and the recommendations we developed from them, can be found at http://www.physics.wm.edu/ dualcareer.html. Here we present a brief discussion of the kind of
difficulties dual-science-career couples face, and a sampling of comments from the survey
respondents. These include the kind of unhelpful responses that a distressingly large fraction of
institutions have given when faced with such situations.

The ideal, of course, is to find two jobs at the same time, in the same (desirable) location, with
each job well suited to the qualifications of its holder. Most couples find this ideal to be unobtainable
at some point in their careers. They may choose to have one member of the couple play the
role of “leading partner” and take the best job available, thereby determining the location in which they will settle. The “trailing partner” then tries to find a suitable job in that location. The choice of which partner will play which role can be influenced by professional seniority, research specialty (often the specialist in the more arcane area will have more limited choices of location), preference in employment
type (academic, industrial, national lab), or personal dynamics. The traditional pattern is for the
man to lead and the woman to trail, but this is not the case for all couples, especially younger
couples and those in which both members are at roughly the same stage in their careers.
Regardless of which member leads, the trailing partner is often hard-pressed to find suitable
employment. If no job commensurate with the trailing partner’s qualifications can be found,
s/he may end up underemployed or unemployed. This situation has led many people, and especially
many women, to leave physics altogether.

While to a degree these problems are personal ones that individual physicists must solve
for themselves, it is within the power of institutions to help ease the situation or to make it
worse. In the responses to our survey, we have collected many examples of the ways in which
potential employers can contribute to, or at least fail to cope with, the problems of dual-career
couples. In this section, we will discuss the different ways in which institutions can make the
problems worse. Here we discuss the different ways in which institutions can make the problems
worse. The happier story of how some institutions have solved the problem in particular
cases, and the description of effective strategies for both job seekers and institutions, can be
found in the final report on the Web.

Reduced consideration for members of dual-career couples

One form of problematic response is 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. If the candidate does not volunteer the
information that she or he has a spouse who is a scientist, obtaining that information requires
asking questions which are forbidden by Equal Employment Opportunity laws and guidelines.
This may render such a response legally actionable. According to the experience of our respondents,
during the screening and interview process, potential employers often ask questions
that are not permitted under EEO laws. Members of academic search committees, in
particular, are often unaware of the rules governing personal inquiries, or may be aware of
them but choose to ignore them.

“The department chair called me at home and asked me several questions about my marital status. He said that he knew these were illegal questions but that he was going to ask them anyway and I could decline to answer them if I wanted. When he found out I was married to a physicist, he said there would be no opportunities for him to be employed in the area. He also said they now screen all candidates because
they have offered jobs many times only to be turned down in the end because a spouse could not find a job. A week later I called and found out I was totally off the list. I reported this to the dean and the search was cancelled.”

“Though the potential employer is not supposed to ask personal questions pertaining to [pregnancy], I found in my experience that questions of this sort do come up, and the interviewee is forced to state her position.”

Once a potential employer finds a candidate to be desirable and contemplates making an offer to one member of a dual-career couple, often the employer makes assumptions about what the candidate’s response will be rather than allowing the couple to make their own decision. In particular, potential employers often assume that a woman (far more often than a man) will refuse an offer if a suitable position is not available for the partner.

“I was told that they had already decided not to pursue my application because they ‘knew’ that I wouldn’t be interested in moving since my husband wasn’t moving to a position in the area.”

“Interview was cut short when it was discovered that the spouse was also a scientist.”

“I was asked where my husband would be working. It was made clear to me that if my husband did not have a job nearby, I would not be considered for the job.”

Nepotism and resistance to hiring the spouse

In many cases, particularly in geographic areas where there are few employers of scientists, the potential employer may be asked if a position for the candidate’s partner could be found in the same institution. Such a position may be difficult to produce, depending on the partner’s field and qualifications, and on the availability of openings at the institution. However, additional barriers may be raised even when such a position is potentially available. Members of the institution may feel such hires are inappropriate in principle, regardless of the partner’s qualifications.

“I remember in particular one senior male faculty member telling me how hard it is to get new professors, because so many of them had spouses who were scientists. This faculty member said he was not about to ‘burn’ a tenure slot just for somebody’s spouse.”

Or, the institution may generalize inappropriately from a single experience (or even rumor) involving the hiring of both members of a couple.

“At my institution a manager stated that he would not consider dual career couples in his section because it ‘always leads to trouble”

Or, nepotism rules may be invoked to reject such a possibility. This may occur even if the institution does not have such rules any longer, or if they are simply matters of administrative policy (which could potentially be changed) rather than legal restrictions. Whether or not they exist, nepotism rules are invoked far more frequently to forbid the hiring of the woman rather than the man.

“One cited anti-nepotism rules as making it impossible to consider both of us (the rules hadn't existed for years, but apparently the department chair was unaware of this fact.)”

Particularly when the trailing partner is female, potential employers may assume that she is less qualified, or that her ambitions are limited enough that she will accept a position that is beneath her qualifications (or no position at all).

“Most of them assumed that since I am a woman, I should be satisfied with a lesser job. They almost did not take his concerns too seriously. (We both have Ph.D.s from the same university with very comparable credentials.) One of them was interviewing him for a Asst. Prof. position and tried to set up a Post-Doc position for me.”

“‘They suggested that I might consider giving up my career.”

“One department chair said that trying to find two jobs was a bad strategy and that
things worked best if one partner took the best job available and the other stopped working.”

“We both made the short lists for several faculty searches. In every case, we told the committee about our situation before we agreed to visit. In two cases, with respect to the male being the candidate, the search committee seemed to indicate that the twobody problem was too complicated for them to solve. In two cases, with respect to the female being the candidate, the search committee said that they were interested in solving
the issue, if needed.”

Captive spouses and insulting offers

If an institution chooses to offer positions to both members of a couple, often one offer may be for a permanent position and the other for a part-time or “soft money” position. Our survey results and APS statistics indicate that the lowerlevel offer goes more commonly to the female member of the couple. A promise may be made that a full-time or tenure-track position will become available later, but many times the woman is not given full consideration for the subsequent position because she is perceived to be “captive.”

“Two extremely talented scientists. The husband, a little ahead chronologically in his career, has tenure at a large university. The wife is teaching and doing research at the same university on soft money. Despite her glowing teaching and publication record, she has been constantly passed over on recent job searches. Documents secretly released to her seem to indicate the search committee hopes she will just stay, on her soft money: ‘after all, her husband has tenure. Why waste a real job on her?’”

Or, she may simply be taken advantage of:

“They gave her a desk, and ultimately a title, though no salary (although the university takes overhead on her grants). She is forbidden to use the department secretaries for grant preparation, however.”

“She has been an instructor for 15 years now, with low pay and a heavy teaching load, and despite this she has been successful at attracting grants and publishing papers. She recently led a successful fight at our university to win the right to submit grant proposals under her own name rather than having the chair of her department as P.I.”

“My institution has a long history of hiring the wives of professors into soft-money positions with no possibility of independent research or of consideration for hiring as tenure track faculty. Every woman who has tenure here has either sued or threatened to sue the institution.”

Even if offers of permanent positions are made to both members of a couple, the salary or start-up funds that are offered may be colored by the perception that the couple is in a weak bargaining position due to the dual-career situation. While this perception may be accurate, taking advantage of it is not a way to produce a happy and productive pair of employees.

“Employer made an insulting and degrading offer to my partner, which she was forced to take eventually because there were no other options.”

“It is a very bad idea to raise this issue BEFORE an offer is made, since all negotiating leverage for salary and benefits would be lost. At [three prominent universities], jobs offered to us both as a ‘package deal’ had miserable salaries as a result of their knowing we wanted to stay together.”

“I was offered a lower position that I am qualified mainly because they know that it is difficult for a couple to get tenured positions at other universities. In the same manner, I believe that my salary is arbitrarily held low because they know I won’t accept other job offers.”

Egregious remarks

The picture of institutional response to the dual-career situation would not be complete without including some of egregiously inappropriate exchanges reported by the survey’s respondents. Even more astonishing is the recent vintage of these remarks, which one might have thought belonged to an earlier era in our society.

“One professor suggested to my husband at his interview that one way to solve the two-body problem was to divorce me — not a very sensitive suggestion.”

“[Potential employer] told the candidate’s spouse that they shouldn’t be working anyway.”

“One suggested that I should be available to do ‘volunteer’ scientific work, because it was my partner’s role to support the family.”

“I was told that I should be able to find a lab to work in, as long as I was willing to change fields and didn’t expect to be paid; if I ‘needed to be paid’ I might be able to teach introductory calculus.”

“Her last request for a raise was met with the response that she didn’t need a raise because her partner was well-paid as a full professor.”


We have given dozens of specific quotes from our survey respondents. A reader of these comments might imagine that they occurred decades ago, and are not likely to be repeated today. However, we have analyzed the ages of these respondents, and found that virtually all of them are in their 30's or early 40's — these quotes are current, and represent current institutional practices.

How can one respond to these attitudes and practices? To some degree, one is dealing with
societal prejudices, which will not easily be changed. However, there were a number of positive
responses and suggestions discussed by survey respondents, and they give some hope. As
the number of women in physics grows, these prejudices should fade. We argue in our full
report on the survey that it is in the best interests of institutions to change these attitudes and
practices in order to attract and retain the best scientists. The report offers a number of suggestions
of how institutions and individuals can respond to the situation in a positive way.
Transformations of this kind are necessary if the number of women in physical science fields is to
increase in this century.

Back to June 2000 Contents

Back to STATUS Table of Contents