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Trailing spouses, gendered norms and leaking pipelines of support

This is a post from a friend of mine who, for obvious, reasons need to remain anonymous. I respect them and their work and have been grateful to have their friendship for the past few years. While the details are theirs to share, I feel that the larger discussion is important and would welcome your comments.  With that….

 

#BitchBalls

 

By: Scientists XY and XX

We are a pair of scientists who work together on underappreciated, understudied areas of biology. We have suffered (and continue to suffer) through the perils of the “two body problem”–the two of us trying to find suitable jobs where we can be together as a family despite a tough market. But, we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to build a research program based on our distinct skills and training that is well-funded and on a great trajectory. We know that despite our own troubles, there are many more couples in similar positions who didn’t make it this far. Who had to give up their dreams to pursue a career in academic science. Or whose romantic interests painfully deteriorated as they made the difficult choice to pursue their career paths. As a couple pursuing scientific questions related to  gender – a couple who had children relatively early during the scientific pursuit – we are well aware of the many reasons why women often don’t make it to senior positions in science and why men may withdraw from roles supporting their partners in this pursuit. We are still junior scientists, whose careers remain vulnerable in many ways. But, recent events made us re-think our implicit decision to keep quiet about the situation in science as it currently exists. Things are hard enough, and the abusive attitudes of leadership make them unnecessarily painful.

Recently, while at a conference, XY met a powerful man and talked about the XY career path in support of XX. This prompted some genderized, insulting and emasculating comments, saying to the male trailing spouse, “so your wife has the balls,” and “so, you’re the bitch!” These comments forced us to look back on the past several years and remember a whole series of powerful people who have employed feminization or sexual overtones in insulting ways, hurling these comments at subordinates (whether directly within an organization or within a field), often in public situations to assert dominance and power.  Most often these comments are passed off as jokes, and surprising though it may seem, this is NOT a behavior that is exclusive to men. And so often we remain silent. Some witnesses may be silent out of apathy, but XX and XY close their mouths out of fear.

We feel these sort of comments underscore why there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ of women leaving academic science. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of talk about the ‘leaky pipeline’ of supportive men. We feel that some of the things XY has had to go through to be supportive of XX and our family are simply unacceptable. What we have accomplished together should be a source of pride, not humiliation. 

Aside:

At the home institution, XY has also had to listen to some awful shit directed at others. 

His boss offered to a collaborator “Hey, [grad student A] will have sex with you if you provide Z.” 

Boss thinks explicit jokes about homosexual anal sex with male trainees are super funny! Trainee G is so submissive! Haha!

More aside:

But, XY. He’s no angel. He doesn’t really do awesome research and write competitive grants and get kicked around in the process. XY deserves to be maltreated. If he doesn’t like it he should just leave. Bad XY! Bad! 

Tune in to the next episode, where XY discusses what it’s like to live with this kind of shit as a constant part of everyday life.


1 Comment

  1. Terrible this behaviour exists in academe. Terrible it exists in corporate world. Terrible it exists. In most cases, it is always someone who is, or thinks they are, superior and therefore can get away with it. Sadly they usually do. Why? The silence of those who have the power to stop it. It is difficult when your life’s work, your passions, and last but not least, your dreams can be reduced to ashes. When XX brings XY to a meet and greet, the assumption is XY is the new executive/professor, XX is arm candy (or vice-versa) and open to sexual advances/banter from higher-ups.

    We expect so much more from our academic institutions. Yet Dept. heads, VPs, and even The Board of Regents are reticent to take action. Often blaming the complainants, whether students or faculty. We must make it clear that no individual, regardless of their high profile or tenure, will be allowed to behave so egregiously. We think of Universities as proper and even a bit stuffy about bad behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know.

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