Get Your Doom & Gloom From a Reputable Supplier

Like you, probably, I had seven or eight copies of a recent Atlantic article forwarded to me. Each time, the note accompanying the attachment said no more than “Duh” or “Sad but true.” The article, you’ll remember, was the one called “Being Married Helps Professors Get Ahead, But Only If They’re Male.”

I agree that this is worth an “aargh.” But worth an “AAAAARRRGGGHHH!”? Not so sure. And this is not because I have any doubts about the intellectual equality of men and women, or about the fact that the American university system is far from manifesting that equality in its practices. But because, c’mon people, it’s an article in the Atlantic, fergodssakes. 

The clever marketers at the Atlantic have been noticing that at the top of their “Most Read” list for the last year and more have been articles saying that women can’t “have it all” (i.e., career success, happy marriage, children, personal fulfillment) or that the number of single women is irreversibly on the rise. So prophecies of doom, gloom and despair, along with pronouncements of existential unfairness, are eagerly read and forwarded by the Atlantic‘s target audience. Why not go hunting for more of the same and keep those statistical bounces coming?

I suppose I have an interest in the topic of the article, as I am a male professor, tenured, and have been married for most of the time I’ve been teaching. If you like ad hominem arguments, knock yourself out, but do it behind my back, please.

I want to get at the message behind the Atlantic‘s series of “no hope for women” articles. Not by an ad hominem argument, but by an ad institutionem one (if that exists)– in other words, by reminding us of the commercial interest in circulating this kind of information, as I’ve just done, and by asking if there’s not a broader agenda discernible in the magazine’s editorial stance on this and related subjects.

I wouldn’t assume that, like the “Virginia” of the Santa Claus story, we should believe that if something appears in the Atlantic, it’s true. For fifteen or twenty years now, that magazine has specialized in the kind of article that makes a right-wing case with language drawn from the vocabulary of liberal politics. I used to think of it as the magazine that would help you live with yourself if all your friends were Democrats and you were going to vote Republican. This tendency took on a noticeable intensification after September 2011, when there were so many noble causes to be justified, such as torturing terrorism suspects or invading Iraq. Most of the people who sent me the “married professors” article would have applied a massive grain of salt to the Atlantic‘s coverage of international relations, war, spycraft or trade. Why the unqualified assent this time? When you log onto the Atlantic website, a sidebar crows: “The Pregnancy Penalty: How Working Women Pay for Having Kids.” One gets the impression that the purpose of publishing all these articles is to tell women to hang it up– to turn aside from the professional path unless they are absolutely ready to live and die alone, with their CV inscribed on their tombstone. I don’t see any mention of specific steps women can or should take to remove the roadblocks.

Beyond the question of “why listen to the Atlantic?” there are plenty of gaps in the argument this particular article makes, gaps that we disregard if we just jump to its conclusion and say “oh, so true.” I’m not, by the way, offering a rebuttal of the argument it makes, just pointing out that the conclusion offered in its headline doesn’t necessarily follow from the evidence given.

Naturally, there are as many stories as there are cases, and no two are alike. A piece of journalism based on a statistical study becomes deceptive when it substitutes a model story for the hundreds or thousands of stories from which it collects data points, and blocks out imagination of the other stories. That’s what happens in this piece. The author, Alexis Coe, cites a 1997 book by an American historian who has been teaching at Princeton since 1962, in which he thanks his wife for companionship and research assistance over the past forty years. That is, since 1957. Then follows a digest of remembered faculty dinner parties, at which professors’ wives issue dark warnings about the future to up-and-coming female scholars.

Thus, the archetype is set up before we’ve even begun looking at the American Historical Association’s 2010 survey of tenured professors, from which the unequal promotion rates for men and women are derived. The reader in a hurry concludes that the archetypal male professor of history got married in 1957, had a family life drawn from black-and-white TV, got moral support, free typing, and a hot dinner every night at 7 courtesy of the patriarchy, and generously said thank you in the acknowledgments of his book. Bastard!

I am sure there are more questions to be asked of a survey of 2,240 professors of history. For one thing, what is meant by “married”? Did the survey allow for the kinds of long-term, stable relationships that don’t necessarily (or for many people can’t) get recognition by the city hall marriage office? How do those households deal with the dual-career problem? How do same-sex couples’ responses to the academic job market differ, if at all, from male-female couples’ responses? Will the availability of same-sex marriage make a difference for them?

Another question: how does history stack up next to other academic fields? Nobody has shown me that the demographics are identical for Italian, oceanography or ethics. Just as “history professor teaching since 1962″ is not equivalent to “history professor,” “history professor” is not equivalent to “professor.”

Further: how much of the difference in mobility, a genuine problem mentioned in the article, is attributable to sex and how much to differences in age, rank and prestige between members of a couple? If one of the two has a higher salary or more opportunities than the other, it is economic rationality, not pure-and-simple sexism, that might drive the decision to follow that spouse’s career chances rather than the other’s. Of course the hundred subtle forms of sexism may be at play in the contributing factors behind the difference in opportunities. One anecdotal form: the spouse with  higher rank and distinction in the profession is likely, other things being equal, to be the older spouse, because these rewards usually come with time; and in our society, a man is likely to be the older partner in a marriage. Likely, but not certain: here too is an opportunity to slice things finer and get at the degree to which sex, isolated from relative age, is a factor.

A big omission in the article and the study is the fact that many professors, believe it or not, have found happiness with a person who is not a professor. All those doctors, lawyers, architects, musicians, bus drivers, lumberjacks– sorry, they don’t exist. But of course they do. Their thoughts are worth considering. How do they deal with the risks, benefits and complications of having one earner in the family subject to the curious customs of academia?

Finally (for now): are there institutions or subfields where the pattern is less unequal? What concrete things can we learn from them, and press to have made generally available?

The illustration heading the article shows a bearded middle-aged guy in a nubbly sweater chatting with a shorter, younger, woman with long blonde hair. Classic scenario alert! This is how it works. After complimenting her on her mind, he is going to drag her to his cave and make her type for him while he gets tenure and grows a beer belly at the Faculty Club. Fair warning, however, is given: he’s holding a volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, in which can be found the immortal lines, “The pure products of America / go crazy.”

They go crazy because they consult articles containing a high degree of immediate verisimilitude, but innocent of statistical method or wider questions, that offer conclusions of despair and suggest a misallocation of blame.

I say, let’s start asking questions like the ones listed above. What really goes on in an academic household (making room for the many mansions of age, sex, and profession), what is impeding people from having satisfactory careers, and what are the institutional changes that can relieve the pressure points? I’m not satisfied by the one concrete example given in Coe’s article (moving departmental meetings from 4:30 pm to 12 noon, in order to allow women colleagues to make the daycare pickup), because it so closely echoes a Mitt Romney piece of gender condescension.

If we can state the problem correctly, we can solve it. So say I, famous optimist.