updated 8/8/2012 4:50:26 PM ET 2012-08-08T20:50:26

Wives in dual-career academic relationships — in which both partners work in academia — are more likely than husbands to downplay the importance of their careers, new research finds.

A survey of 30,000 professors and researchers at 13 major research universities finds that in academic couples, 50 percent of husbands say their career comes first compared with only 20 percent of wives.

Academic couples are actually more equitable in their career values than couples in which one person is not in academia, the survey found, but the tendency for men to put themselves first lingers, even when the female partner earns more money.

"[H]igher-earning men in academic couples more often privilege their careers whereas higher-earning women more often assign equal value to both careers," Stanford University researchers wrote in a new report on academic couples.

Two-body problem

For many university professors in relationships, it's a struggle to find two nearby jobs in academia, especially given stark competition for the most desirable and stable tenure-track positions. (Tenure-track professors are those who are eligible for tenure positions, from which they cannot be fired without just cause.) This struggle is dubbed the " two-body problem," a play on a concept in classical mechanics.

The new survey, conducted by Stanford's Clayman Institute for Research on Gender, found that 36 percent of tenure-track academics are married to another academic researcher. Another 36 percent have a spouse who is employed, but not in academia, while 13 percent have a stay-at-home partner and 14 percent are single.

Academic couples are "a deep pool of talent that universities cannot afford to overlook," study researcher Londa Schiebinger said in a Clayman Institute video about the results.

Many dual-career couples won't take a job if their spouse can't find employment nearby, so universities seeking to hire talented scientists or professors in other fields sometimes resort to what are called "dual hires," in which they negotiate a job for their prospective employee's spouse, as well.

Dual hires have risen from 3 percent of academic hires in the 1970s to 13 percent in the 2000s, Schiebinger and her colleagues found. But there are gender differences in who gets hired and how couples make career choices. These issues could shed light on the underrepresentation of women in some scientific fields.

Valuing careers

For example, 40 percent of female tenure-track professors surveyed were married to another academic, compared with 34 percent of men. That means that women will face the two-body problem more often than men, the researchers said. Then again, 21 percent of female academics are single compared with only 10 percent of male academics, and those single women may have more career flexibility. [ 6 Gender Myths, Busted ]

"The big difference in the academic workforce between men and women is that 20 percent of men have stay-at-home partners [compared with] only 5 percent of women, and the women tend to be single much more often than the men," Schiebinger said.

When asked whose career came first, 59 percent of female professors said they prioritized their career and their husband's equally. Only 45 percent of male professors said the same. These men were much more likely to put their career first, with 50 percent doing so, than women, only 20 percent of whom put the most value on their career.

Likewise, while only 5 percent of male professors put their academic wives' careers ahead of theirs, 21 percent of female professors said their husbands' careers mattered more.

Money was a common explanation for this gap, the researchers wrote, with men often explaining that they had higher salaries and thus had priority. But further analysis showed that salary explained only part of the picture.

Of researchers who made more than their partners, 61 percent of men said their job was more important compared with only 44 percent of women. Of this same group, 51 percent of women and only 37 percent of men placed both careers on equal footing. These value judgments can make a big difference in job choices, the researchers found.

"In our study, the number-one reason women refused an outside offer was because their academic partners were not offered appropriate employment at the new location." they wrote. "These findings have significant implications for institutions seeking to recruit top women."

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