Ethics, Jobs, and Real Life

Last year I received an email sent to a newsgroup advertising a lectureship, with the stipulation that only women should apply. My reaction was curious – initially I was slightly offended, as this was clear discrimination (yes, yes I am writing this as a white male). But the reasons for making such a stipulation were also clear: to improve the representation of women in academia, reducing the current disparity which is a result of past discrimination. I hope it’s clear that creating a position that only one sex can apply for is (viewed in isolation) is unethical. But the reason for doing this is to redress imbalances in gender equality, and allowing these imbalances to persist is surely not ethical either. A little ethical quandary: do the ends justify the means?


I was reminded of this dilemma by DrugMonkey’s recent blog post. He is upset that people are suggesting that spousal hirings – a university wanting to hire a good professor finding a faculty job for their spouse too – are unethical. I’m astonished by this, and DrugMonkey’s arguments do nothing to dispel this. My surprise is not that DrugMinkey thinks spousal hiring is a good idea, but that he can’t see the ethical problems.
If one is hiring a new faculty member, one tries to hire the best person for the job. But the spouse who get the job doesn’t do so because of their own qualities, but because of who they are married to. I find it difficult to see how this is ethical: it is nothing more than “jobs for the boys” (or girls).
DrugMonkey’s defence of spousal hiring is that it is a good thing for the university, because it helps to secure the long-term commitment of the person the university wants to hire. I would certainly agree that this is a valid reason for spousal hiring, but it’s valid for pragmatic reasons – the university gets who they want, at the ‘cost’ of hiring someone else, who may not be optimal. Pragmatic, yes, but unless one is a follower of Aleister Crowley, I think one would have a hard time arguing that this has an ethical basis. One might be able to create a sufficiently utopian society that hiring someone because of who they are married to doesn’t harm anyone else. But in our society, the money to hire someone has to be taken from somewhere, and that imposes a cost: someone loses out because the money is used to support nepotism.
Perhaps my underlying point is, to use Ben Goldacre’s catch-phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that”. In both cases, it is clear to me that both women-only job adverts and spousal hiring can be seen as unethical. But that might not mean they are the wrong thing to do. For women-only jobs, there are ethical arguments both ways, so that one could argue that it is either a good or a bad idea, depending on how it was implemented, and the social context.
For spousal hiring, I think there is no strong ethical case for it, but then again it is not the worst breach of ethics, and there are good practical reasons for it: it is a compromise between ethical and practical considerations.
There are many occasions where there is no black or white, it’s all grey (as I think Wilkins would agree). I think it’s more interesting to acknowledge them and explore why we come to the decisions we do. Ultimately I’m not sure where I stand on spausal hiring, because I can see both sides. On all-women positions, I think they are a one reasonable approach to the problem (I’m equivocating a bit because there can be better ways of achieving the same end). But I can see how a slightly different moral standpoint can lead to the opposite conclusion.
Shorter summary: damned blogosphere! It tries to turn everything into black and white.
JackBW.jpgThe Beast thinks he should get a blog too

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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17 Responses to Ethics, Jobs, and Real Life

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    Nice one Bob! I tend to get lost in the grey and it’s so much easier to force the black and wihte issues, although that’s not the world…
    One of my biggest concerns about spousal hireing is the thinking/notion that many look at the spouse as “s/he only got it because the spouse got a fellowship”*. I’m sure that some people who might not have gotten the fellowship on their own merits can snag a fellowship in this situation, but most of the times I really think that the “trailing” spouse has merits of their own and therefore is qualified for a position.
    I guess my time on a committee for hireing professors and assistant professors is making me wary on “how the process really goes” since as far as I remember there was a cut off for “being qualified” and after that it was a lot of discussion on who had the research the fit the most/most needed for the department and there was a lot of grey (and discussions about salary range, personalities, research area, likelyhood of moving etc. Not at all as ‘easy’ and clear cut as I once would have thought and liked… it’s all about weighing options against each other.)
    I guess my main concern is that the process isn’t as open and transparant as the ‘regular’ hireing and therefore undermining the views of the ‘trailing’ spouse as well as the university/department.
    The women-only fellowships might be easier to view as an ethical dilemma. Maybe partly because it is obvious that you choose not to see applications from men in there? (as oppose to all other single/non-marrie people who might be interested in the ‘trailing spouse’ position).
    *especially for the trailing female spouses who start with even more of a uphill battle since rumours will say “they weren’t deserving of it” etc.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    I’m with you Bob – but I really just wanted to say plz to post the link when The Beast starts its blog.

  3. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    I have known of a couple professor hirings in which their spouse also was hired while at graduate school, but both would either be in the same field or a related science field.
    Seems in these situations, the department takes on “the extra load” of the spousal hire. But do spousal hires every happen for a spouse that is in a completely different field from their partner? There, the ethical dilemma seems even greater, since you’re now asking a different department to hire and support someone for which they derive no benefit from the hiring of the first (desired) individual.

  4. Bob O'Hara says:

    Åsa – thanks for introducing more areas of greyness. I can only agree with you. I guess the problem with any hiring it that it’s impossible a priori to list all of the relevant considerations, so that makes it a bit obscure.
    Steffi – I’m not sure The Beast will tell me if he starts blogging. He does tweet (occasionally) as @MrSmugFace, but I’m not sure he has the attention span for a proper blog.
    Elizabeth – that’s a good point. I guess it means the spouse is more likely to be resented. Of course, the pot could be sweetened if the money for the spouse wasn’t taken from the department’s funds, i.e. they got the extra person ‘for free’. But the money still has to come from somewhere…

  5. Kristi Vogel says:

    Spousal hires into TT faculty positions seem pretty transparent and ultimately beneficial for the department and university, in my experience – the trailing spouse has to present a job seminar, and evaluations/opinions are sought from faculty and research staff in the department. Doesn’t necessarily make them “ethical”, though.
    But at least in the biomedical sciences, a second TT faculty position is not the most common type of “spousal hire”. The process for the more frequent spousal hire is considerably less transparent, and is likely a can of worms that some TT biomedical researchers don’t want opened.

  6. steffi suhr says:

    You know, thinking about it, I honestly don’t know how ‘widespread’ this problem is outside of biomedical research. Might be interesting to look into. The most I’ve experienced in oceanography was that the spouse got a bit of bench space in the lab – for everything else they were on their own.

  7. Brian Derby says:

    Gender specific job advertisements are illegal under employment law in the UK and even Newsgroup postings could lead to an organisation being sued. Spousal hirings are clearly unethical and tend to impose a cost on the unit which gets the spouse as (in my experience) any central funding of the compulsory hire vanishes pretty swiftly after the person in question is on the books.

  8. Bob O'Hara says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that Gender specific job ads are illegal. It does seem a particularly blunt instrument.
    I see the Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships say

    The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship … is aimed specifically at researchers who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances including parental/caring responsibilities and health issues. Female candidates are particularly invited to apply.

    Which seems a gentler approach. In 2009, 1 out of the 10 was a man, so it’s not women only in practice either.

  9. Eva Amsen says:

    In all the cases I can think of (N=4) where someone brought along their spouse to the same institute, person 1 was hired in their first assistant professor position, and person 2 was either still in grad school (and finishing bench work or writing at the new place) or moving into a postdoc at the new institute. When person 2 is done their training and gets around to applying for a “real job”, they have already decided “this is where we live now” and won’t apply all over the world and drag along person 1 who just got settled in.
    Does it really happen a lot that mid-career scientists both leave their TT job when one of them is hired elsewhere?

  10. Eva Amsen says:

    (And yes, person1 was male in all these examples, but I think that was just because they are often older, so a few years ahead in their career, and more likely to be the one who first starts tenure track. But combined with the dibs on choosing where to settle, that might itself be a factor in why women would eventually get fewer of these jobs. I don’t really know.)

  11. Eva Amsen says:

    P.S. Nice url for this post =)

  12. Bob O'Hara says:

    Ah, thanks for noticing, Eva!

  13. Brian Derby says:

    Cases I know of: 1) Female hot shot brings along spouse. 2) Male thinks he’s a hot shot, threatens to leave unless spouse given permanent job and authorities acquiesce. 3) Male hot-shot demands spouse gets job, authorities agree, divorce follows – MHS departs leaving spouse behind! I am sure there are other mid-life examples. These are all different cases in different Universities (and different countries).

  14. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “Does it really happen a lot that mid-career scientists both leave their TT job when one of them is hired elsewhere?”
    It depends if the one being hired away is a big hitter, Eva. It tends to be a sellers’ market when Unis are trying to hire big hitters, and creating a job for a spouse too is not necessarily seen as that high a price.
    If both are “solid but not stand-out”, it is less easy to swing. At least in the UK, what usually happens is that the spouse gets offered some kind of limited term job with vague reassurances, the idea being that they have to prove they are worthy. But it is not an easy sell – you often hear the argument “Well, but if Prof X fell under a bus, would we be happy being stuck with spouse?”
    Anyway, the answer is that it comes down, like many things in the world, to leverage.
    Ambitious young lawyer: “Are we negotiating?
    Head of Evil Law Firm (who is really the Devil): *”Always!”*
    (From the movie The Devil’s Advocate)

  15. Åsa Karlström says:

    Eva> I agree that the scenario you talk about, with one TT hire and the spouse in grad school/tech position, is maybe more common? (In my own experience I would say that I’ve seen that more too.)
    However, I’ve seen a few couples where both are “done with their training” as in one mid-level and one professor, or both mid-level and one gets a position and then the discussion started on “their spouse gets a lab of thier own” or “spouse can set up shop inside the other’s lab although being an independent PI”.
    I’m not sure on how common it is, but I know that it’s been some feeling of strangeness at least at one place where I was. I guess that is what I personally dislike, the feeling in the air of “something seems not proper”. Then again, maybe that’s more common work place envy and not nice-talking?
    BOB> You’re welcome ;) I further noticed that the trend can also shift into “more specific job adverts”. You know, tailored for the specific person^ which makes it easier to disregard other qualified people. I guess my cynical side wants to say “if people are interested in working the system, they will”
    ^ the Department is looking for a person who has proven expertise in A, B and G. Preferable in combination with X for at least 3 years. Teaching for 2 years and 3 prevously funded grants. Present research collaborations with country U is a merit. And since the Department throws a Christmas show, tap dancing skills are required.

  16. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. ^ the Department is looking for a person who has proven expertise in A, B and G. Preferable in combination with X for at least 3 years. Teaching for 2 years and 3 prevously funded grants. Present research collaborations with country U is a merit. And since the Department throws a Christmas show, tap dancing skills are required.
    I can’t complain too loudly about that – it’s how I got my present post. I had, however, interviewed for another position, which I didn’t get, but they still liked me.
    I did lie about the tap-dancing, though.

  17. Brian Clegg says:

    Nice post, Bob. As a one man band this doesn’t affect me directly, but the attitude to biased recruiting to level a perceived imbalance is a difficult one. Presumably it’s based on the hypothesis that the ratio of sexes in the population ‘good scientists’ is the same as the ratio of the sexes in the population as a whole. This may or may not be true – I don’t know if it has been tested.
    I suppose a way to turn the spouse recruiting thing round is if the person you are aiming to recruit is worth the cost of the whole package less the incremental benefit of the spouse it’s worthwhile.