My husband gave me permission to come out tonight

During seminars, while noting figures I could use in my own talks, I keep a running list of Odd Things People Say. This spring I compiled them and found a series of comments made by academics, to academics, complaining about controlling behavior by the speaker’s husband. These were all said in front of multiple academic colleagues, some at group dinners and some to rooms bursting with over 100 listeners.

“My husband has trained me very well: he’s taught me I’m wrong all the time.”

“My husband gave me permission to come out tonight.”

“My husband finally stopped complaining about my travel when I brought home a large honorarium.”

“If I stay on this conference call any longer, my husband will divorce me.”

“My husband has limited my travel to two trips per month.”

“Sometimes my husband will drop me off at work but mostly he tells me to stop being lazy and take the bus.”

“My husband didn’t seem angry when he talked to you, did he?”

JUST KIDDING!  Take every instance of “husband” above and replace it with “wife”. Take every “he” and replace it with “she”. The original quotes were all made by men in academia about their wives.  In a professional context.  To a group of academics.

Apologies for the heteronormative nature of this post, but hearing these statements from my male colleagues really gets my goat. Why? Because I rarely discuss my family in a professional context…because I’m worried that then I will be viewed as a woman/wife/mom first, and viewed as an academic second.

I know having women openly discuss all aspects of their lives (professional and personal) would make academia a better place. But my fear is confirmed by titles like this : Being married helps professors get ahead, but only if they are male (Atlantic Monthly) And we’ve all read about studies that show men with children are more likely to be promoted in academia than women with children (pdf) and both sexes prefer male job applicants (based on name alone) in academic job hiring (pdf). I was recently in a mock grant review panel where a female assistant professor wanted to decline to state her gender on an NSF grant application to get reviewed fairly.

My husband and I work at the same academic institution and have overlapping research interests, so I am asked about my family in professional situations and I keep those exchanges positive and work-focused. I actively work at separating my home and the people in it from my work and the people there. I find I’m not alone: I have another female colleague who shares my predilection for sending social emails from a personal email account and emails scheduling work meetings from her .edu account. Sometimes this means we email each other from both accounts in the span of a few minutes.

This separation of the home from the office is probably heightened for women with children. At our fall department retreat last year, two faculty members who married to each other gave talks (which are informal and focus on what we did over the summer). The husband began his talk with a photo of their six-month old saying “This is what I did this summer.” The wife showed no family photos and spoke only about research; and, sadly, she told me she felt guilty for not talking about her new baby after seeing her husband’s talk. When I was pregnant, I taught students for an entire semester without mentioning my pregnancy. The baby was due two months after the semester ended, and I felt it would be a non-sequitur to mention the pregnancy amidst course material. I gave an invited seminar at another campus when I was very pregnant and, interestingly, multiple female students told me they appreciated that I “made being pregnant seem normal by not drawing attention to it.”

My male colleagues often talk about their kids and partners to explain cancelling a meeting or missing a work social event. I, on the other hand, give little information when I need to reschedule an appointment; I frankly think it doesn’t matter why I can no longer make a meeting, but I also don’t want to draw attention to the fact that I have personal appointments and obligations. Many of my male colleagues make comments like the ones listed at the beginning of this post, which would sound scary to me if the gender roles were reversed. I think of these comments as “comments about the little woman” or “stories about the ball and chain”. I blame Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew for popularizing this kind of talk. Somehow, it’s acceptable for men to portray their wives as shrill and controlling, whereas it would be somewhat frightening to hear a woman make similar comments.

Is the solution for women to make the same kinds of comments? Do most people think nothing of hearing a colleague make jokes at his/her partner’s expense? The way I see it men truly get to have it all. I don’t mean having a career and a family. I mean being able to gripe about having it all without being viewed as a shrew.

34 thoughts on “My husband gave me permission to come out tonight

  1. I agree that it’s no one’s business why you (or anyone) need to cancel a meeting, and I don’t give reasons, either. But I think there’s an additional point here to be made regarding men who give family/personal reasons for rescheduling, or who show family photos in talks: yes, one can look at that as them “having it all,” but I look at it as *absolutely necessary* if we hope to shift social norms toward a more gender-equal view of family responsibilities and work-life balance. I think we actually need MORE men to say “no, I can’t make 5pm meetings because I am picking my kids up from soccer,” because that means there are in fact more husbands picking their kids up from soccer, and fewer husbands saying “I can stay at work as long as I need to…no worries, because my wife will always pick them up!” Likewise, the man who showed a picture of his baby and said “this is what I did this summer” is one more man demonstrating that it’s not just moms who do parenting.

    Is the ultimate goal for women to feel as free talking about their personal lives as much (or as little, depending on personal preference) as their male colleagues do? Absolutely. But that can’t happen until society generally embraces a more balanced lifestyle (one in which an 80-hour work week is not held up as ideal), especially for men. In my eyes, every man saying no to evening meetings, every man taking paternity leave, and every man directly referring to his personal life is helping push us in that direction. Hopefully, when men make these comments/choices, there are other men listening who subconsciously internalize the message that “this is okay.” These are the same men who will serve (with women) on hiring and P&T committees, organize conferences, and set family-friendly policies. Large-scale change comes partly from top-down policy changes, but it also needs to come from bottom-up attitude shifts about gender roles, both at work and in the home.

    • I completely agree! Parenting nowadays is often a joint venture, and it is wonderful to see male colleagues owning those roles. What is less wonderful is seeing, as I have at my own and other institutions, a department move its faculty meeting time to noon from 4:30 only after male parents complain but not when female parents complain. We all need to push for family-friendly policies, but it is frustrating to feel like those policies are more likely to be enacted when men push for them. In the post I wanted to highlight the double standard I perceive, and I definitely agree with your comment.

      • Yeah, the double standard is brutal, and infuriating. Hopefully there is one bright side—perhaps in 40 years, when the faculty meetings have “always” been at noon for most of those in attendance, no one present will know/remember exactly who it was who got the time moved, but everyone will benefit equally from the shift.

      • While I think it’s rude that such concerns are given apparently different weight, you may want to consider who actually was advantaged, and disadvantaged by the decisions. You may find that the meeting was moved at the request of the men, because the department felt it was unacceptable to disrespect the men’s partners by assuming that they were free to play kid-taxi, while no such consideration was deemed appropriate for the partners of the women who asked.

        That, of course, may not be the cause of the results you’ve seen, but I can assure you that that’s /exactly/ the equation that would play out were the topic discussed in my department.

        • That is very interesting – the colleague who mentioned this to me felt the change really happened when a critical mass of faculty were young parents and also in two-career families. The senior men hadn’t complained and generally had non-working spouses, and junior hires were spread out for a while so the issue was about accommodating one or two people with the change. I agree it was likely more complex than is it seemed, but perhaps the decision process could have been communicated better?

          • Of course, I won’t pretend that there aren’t institutions and departments that would make such decisions for the entirely wrong reasons! I just thought it worth illustrating that not every apparently biased decision, originates in “good old boys club” thinking. Our department prioritizes fostering the advancement of women in the sciences to a fault, yet often makes decisions that if one’s expecting to see “old white guys” thinking, still looks like that’s what happened. Communication /always/ needs to be better!

            In a completely different comment, I think it’s sad that you, and many other people (myself included) find “being human” in a professional environment, uncomfortable – sad, and probably ultimately bad for us, and bad for our work. This “professionalism” business is an “old white guys” thing. Teams work better when the team members actually know, and like each other, and scientists can no-longer afford to pretend that success exists in a bunch of insular silos. To move forward in the world we need the support and engagement of our colleagues as team members, and that’s much easier to do, if we treat each other like human beings, rather than like professional robots.

        • Seriously, William Ray? The people in your dept. expect male partners to play kid-taxi but not female partners? I’m sorry, but I find that really hard to believe! Because in just about any place I can think of, the opposite is true.

          • Seriously. Or rather, the people in my department expect that there is likely to be an equal power dynamic between women on our faculty and their partners, and likely to be an unequal power dynamic between men on our faculty and their partners, and recognizing this we decline to facilitate the unequal power dynamic, by providing an excuse for the men to exercise it. So, it’s not that we “expect” male partners to play kid-taxi, but that we refuse to obligate female partners to do so.

          • @William Ray: Ok … if you say so. But … you do realize that this is messed up, no? If this thinking could lead you to deny a request to move a meeting from a woman but do so when a man asks, then this is just wrong and it should stop.

          • As I see it, pretty much all decision making processes are pretty messed up – vanishingly few people seem capable, or even wiling to attempt, rational discussion without either emotional coloration or a background agenda. Most agreement, or disagreement with policy has little to do with principles, and much more to do with whose bull is getting gored today. The best most of us can do is try to recognize this, and the signs of such behavior in ourselves, and try not to be too horribly big jerks about it.

            Regardless, no, we wouldn’t automatically deny a request from a woman, or grant one from a man. In general the decision would come down to who’s going to be inconvenienced if the request is not granted, and whether the rest of the faculty are willing to adopt additional inconvenience themselves, to prevent that.

    • You know, in response to Leslie and others who think like this: I would love to believe that men speaking out about family responsibilities will lead to a work culture where everyone is more tolerant and more accepting of the fact that people have obligations — family or otherwise — outside of work. But I am skeptical. Instead, what I think will happen is that certain reasons for not prioritizing work — inevitably those that apply to the majority — become enshrined as acceptable. And people whose lives don’t fit that pattern still find themselves on the outside having to justify their life choices to others. Think I’m wrong? It’s already happening. Where I work it’s no secret that certain people cannot remain in the building one minute after 5 pm, because they have children at daycare to pick up. They will tell you this openly and go. The ones that want to leave to make a basketball game or yoga class, however, would never dare cite this as a reason for leaving on time.

      I really think that the only possible solution is for it to become OK to say, “I have to go,” without proffering a justification. But it is so much easier to provide a socially acceptable reason, isn’t it? Except that this comfort comes at the expense of those whose choices are different from the majority. I really wish that people would give some thought to that angle every once in a while.

      • I thought about that as I was writing my initial comment, because I agree with you 100%. The time and productivity expectations should be the same for everyone at the same level, regardless of lifestyle choice—there’s no reason people without children or partners or with different priorities for how they spend their free time should be held to a higher standard. I guess I think that there are two separate goals here, and they might be at odds:

        One is the general de-emphasis of a workaholic lifestyle, which could conceivably benefit from people not discussing personal lives at all so that no one lifestyle is seen as “more valid” than another. Then again, I personally agree with the commenter who mentioned that this austere separation of home/work is fine if you want it that way, but can make others feel like robots rather than multi-faceted humans with diverse interests, and can hinder relationship-building with colleagues.

        The second goal is more balanced expectations of men and women regarding household responsibilities, including (but not limited to) childcare and parenting. This latter ideal would benefit from men 1) taking advantage of family-friendly policies, be they unofficial (e.g., noontime faculty meetings) or official (e.g., paternity leave), and 2) being vocal and unapologetic about it, because I really think that is the ONLY way to change the norm on this issue.

        As you said, one solution to the first problem would be if everyone remained mum about their personal lives, and the home lives of colleagues remained one big mystery. But this approach would slow down progress toward more balanced gender expectations in the home, so perhaps these two goals are incongruous. Another solution would be if enough people gave different reasons that the judgment on the nature of those reasons eventually subsided, such that you could choose between “I need to get going” and “Well, this meeting has been good, but it’s now 5pm and I’m off to basketball!” without worrying about consequences. Sigh…add this to the list of things for America to work on (because this definitely isn’t limited to academia).

        • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Leslie. I guess what doesn’t make sense to me is the following: why is “more balanced expectations of men and women regarding household responsibilities” a workplace issue? If we did not have workaholic expectations, then couples who wanted to parent/take care of the home/relatives 50-50 could be accommodated, as well as others that have decided that one partner focused on home/family (not necessarily the woman) and one focused on work is best for them. Why should the workplace favor one lifestyle over another? Isn’t a workplace that accommodates a number of different lifestyle choices better for everyone? Why can’t we all get behind that?

          FWIW, I am a multi-faceted individual with diverse interests, and, having worked in the same environment for 10+ yrs, I find that my relationships with colleagues have benefited *because* I keep some distance between the personal and professional.

          • Those are great points, and I actually think we agree more than we disagree, and might just coming at it from different sides. If I’m understanding what you’ve said correctly, you’re saying that the solution is a deemphasis of workaholic expectations, in which case how people allocate household responsibilities is their business and doesn’t need to be related to work. I agree completely! But I don’t think something needs to apply to everyone for it to be considered a “workplace issue,” and I’m sure we can come up with lots of other things most would agree are “workplace issues” that don’t apply to everyone—from big things like racial discrimination and accommodations for disabilities, to small things like adequate parking (not a “workplace issue” for someone who takes the bus!). So for those who desire it, trying to achieve more balanced gender roles in the home can certainly be a workplace issue, purely because the workplace presents a serious hindrance to that goal.

            Of course I agree that we should all be able to get behind accommodating a number of different lifestyle choices, but I don’t think that everyone remaining silent about what those choices are is *necessarily* an effective way to enact that change. For example, a friend of mine works full-time at an engineering firm and has been trying to be more present in his family (home earlier in the evening, working less at night after he is home). He has found it extremely difficult to do this because the rest of the firm is made up of men who have different priorities and/or circumstances, so the culture at the firm is such that no one seems to have personal responsibilities (or they have them and don’t discuss them!). He has said that he’d feel a lot more comfortable talking to his supervisors about adjusting his responsibilities/hours if he had some precedent for others making similar choices, but right now, he feels like he is one of very few who are not thrilled about being expected to answer emails at 7pm. Perhaps there are others like him at the firm—and maybe they feel that way for equally valid reasons having nothing to do with partners, kids, or gender roles—but because no one talks about it, no change happens.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times yes!! I get so annoyed with men who make these kinds of comments, because it reminds me of what a sexist world we live in since women would sound pathetic if they made similar remarks about their husbands. (Because joke, joke, wink, wink, we all know that women don’t really control men so that’s why it’s funny when men pretend that their wives are the boss.)

    But I think that the answer is for both sexes to keep it professional and leave the personal out of it. It really doesn’t matter why you can’t make a meeting — you don’t deserve brownie points for having to rush off to pick up your kid from daycare. Leaving your personal life out of the workplace means that people in nontraditional arrangements don’t get penalized because they can’t rely on these socially acceptable excuses for not doing something.

    There is nothing stopping anyone from developing friendships at work — and pursuing those interests *outside* of work with those people. We don’t have to be 100% of what we are in every setting — it’s OK to be a mom at home, a scientist at work, a daughter with your parents, etc.

    • Your noting how such comments might make people in nontraditional arrangements feel really sang to me. I know my friends who are single academics sometimes struggle getting out of social work events because colleagues basically expect them to be free. If we all just said “Sorry, can’t make it” that double standard could get ameliorated, which would be wonderful.

  3. I’m not sure I follow – is the thing that bothers you, the fact that men consider this kind of treatment from their wives simply a matter to be shrugged off with a joke rather than considered an act of war?

    Or would it be scary to hear a woman say such things because obviously she’d be reporting on the horrible abuse she suffers at the hands of her partner, while the men saying these things are clearly just lying males?

    • Neither. What bothers me is that it’s socially acceptable for a man to make jokes at his female partner’s expense in a professional setting; he gets little to no backlash for doing so. I’ve never heard a colleague comment after hearing such a remark from a man. If a woman said something similar, I believe people would bring it up as an Odd Thing To Say In A Professional Setting.

      • Interesting. Around here, most of the same people would find the jokes humorous, regardless of whether a woman or man spoke them, and most of the people who found them humorless from a male would call them evidence of abuse from a female, with the backlash hitting the men considerably harder than the women, regardless of whether they were the speaker, or the partner.

  4. I’d regard these jokes as pretty tacky if I heard my colleagues make them, whether male or female. But that’s because I don’t think people should make underhanded digs in public settings.

    As far as referring to home life in professional settings, I’m with the commenters who want to see more of that and think that men doing it will help normalize it. I believe that sometimes the people who are not assumed to care about something have to take the initiative in mentioning it, to reassure folks who might be afraid of being stereotyped if they admit to their concerns. It’s the same reasoning that leads me to mention my church attendance occasionally in science courses I teach, so students don’t feel that I would not respect their religious opinions.

    • It’s true that being three-dimensional is good for everyone, and good for students. To me, you are giving a great example of the thought many of us put into what parts of our life beyond the office we share in the office. I envy those who seem to be able to talk about all aspects of life freely, without worrying about what other people think.

  5. Not only are those comments a bit tacky, some of them are also deliberately distancing. By which I mean, any desire for a home life / giving time to family commitments is displaced in the telling to the nagging wife. The man is trying to give his career its all, and would much rather carry on doing so, but has to compromise sometimes to keep the wife happy. It’s a way of stating what (hopefully) are shared decisions, but denying responsibility for them.

  6. I really liked this post from the points of view of the content and the way it was constructed in a literary way. Thanks. But I think there are two separate points here, and some commenters are talking about one, some the other and some mixing the two.

    the first point is the “putting down” of women in general and “the Little Wife” in particular. Brilliantly written and expressed and shows a totally unacceptable supposedly ‘jokey’ culture – but what can we do about it when we hear it? Whatever we, ourselves, say or do about our own lives won’t change that – the only thing I can think of is to call out friends and colleagues when we hear it, maybe saying something in private (I think it would be counterproductive to demean them in public) what hasb8ng has said, “what if your wife said XYZ about you at her workplace?”

    The second point is something that I actually see as positive. I am SOOOO pleased that men are more generally citing family reasons for needing to leave. I note Leslie’s anecdote about a husband who would like to get away from meetings, but for reasons of human and professional interactions (that I don’t claim to understand, but I observe), he doesn’t feel he can. This certainly happened to us, a generation ago. It was acceptable for me to cut off a conversation or leave a meeting to pick up kids, but it was not acceptable for my husband to do so. (The advent of the first mobile phones in cars saved us, he could phone me if he actually had got away and was in the car, and then I could stay – couldn’t do the reverse as he was the one who was supplied with the expensive car phone. Imagine that). (I note it was changing in academia, even at that time, and both men and women would openly discuss why they were late, or needed to go soon, or could not take a class on a particular day).

    On this second point, everyone’s experience is different. Surely it is just up to us as individuals whether to talk about personal issues. It depends on the personalities and the situation. For example, when I started teaching I was of the opinion I shouldn’t mention my private life at work. Then one time I was teaching an evening class of mature age students (about half of them women, and since I was younger than any of them I was trying to be oh-so professional. But one evening, I felt so deadengly tired that felt I had to justify my lack of enthusiasm, so I just said casually “I’m sorry if I’m a bit slow answering your questions tonight, I had a really bad night with the baby last night”. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to say, and the whole class started being very nice to me and the dynamics were better for the whole semester. After that, I learnt to judge when i could be a bit more open with sharing family anecdotes or stating when I couldn’t do office hours or meetings etc. BUT I found it didn’t work when I had classes of young school-leavers – they just did NOT want to know. With colleagues, sometimes it is appropriate and sometimes not, to mention family matters. Or medical appointments. Generally, i found it more comfortable (except with close friends over coffee) to say something general but not spell out the details; eg “a medical appointment” or “family responsibility” and nothing more.

    But if it were a culture where it was normal for men (and women?) to say why they were leaving early, then i would do so too. If they just said ‘gotta go’ and that was accepted, then I would do the same. If it was frowned upon that people left “on time” or early for any reason, then I would sit down with whomever was the boss-person and make some arrangements with them (as I have done in the past when i was part-time and literally couldn’t always come to meetings so needed some way of being informed in writing of decisions, or of adding my view).

    I don’t think both the situations mentioned in the original post are necessarily connected in any way. But the first point echoes of Acclimatrix’s recent post, w.r.t. when it is perceived that men are joking about women. this is not acceptable, and difficult for an individual to address.

    • It seems to me, that there’s an implicit assumption here, that the “joked about” behaviors didn’t occur.

      Honestly, I find that hard to believe – at least in an absolute sense. Some, certainly, is going to be fabricated from whole cloth in a tacky (at best) attempt at humor, but, it seems much more likely that “minor abuse” of this nature is happening in _both_ directions, and that the difference in reporting is due to men (generally) blowing off steam about it as a joke, while women (generally) either silently internalize, or treat it as something more sinister.

      If the behaviors _do_ occur, in both directions, then it seems a more interesting discussion is what’s the appropriate response? I’d offer that it’d be completely inappropriate to suggest that a woman, badgered by a husband who doesn’t think she should be attending so many conferences, should “just put up with it”. That being the case, it’s hard to seriously fault the man who voices his frustration with the situation, though the “you’ve all been here, right?” joke seems inappropriate. Assuming that humans will continue being selfish asses to each other, “we must make the behavior stop” seems like a grand, but impossible goal – so what’s the right, gender-neutral solution?

  7. Let’s call a spade a f*ing shovel: Tongue-in-cheek propagation of sexism is still sexism. That’s what those jokes are, and that’s what I see in the recent fuss around Pepsi CEO Nooyi’s story about her mother putting her in her place by making her go get the milk after she got home late. They are tongue-in-cheek statements, ostensibly made for the purpose of making the speaker seem humble or human, or in some cases not taking responsibility for one’s own decisions (to not travel more, for instance).

    But they do so at the cost of passing along the same deeply sexist stereotypes, and that is not ok. It needs called-out, and it needs to stop.

    On the other hand, I do find it acceptable to (seriously, honestly) discuss and share personal responsibilities at work, especially in that it gives men cover to share their end of the responsibilities.

    • Plus one to everything Susan said. William Ray, whether the ‘jokes’ are a description of an actual situation or not is totally irrelevant. It is unacceptable to make the jokes, regardless.

      • I’ve thought long and hard about this, and, despite the reasonably clever way you’ve tried to imply a statement that I’ve not made (always nice to see that there are a few people who actually have a decent command of the language), I can’t decide whether I think it’s more disturbing that you think that domestic abuse is a joke, or that you think that domestic abuse is irrelevant so long as the victim doesn’t make jokes at the abuser’s expense.

        • I don’t think domestic abuse is a joke, and neither do any of the commenters, based on their commentary. I never said it was a joke in my post. I’m talking specifically about a culture that trivializes abuse and inequality by making jokes at the expense of spouses; this is a form of micro-aggression that contributes to inequality. I suggest that you step away from the conversation at this point, because you’re very close to violating our comment policy. Your comments about peoples’ inability to make rational decisions (both on this post and a previous post by Acclimatrix) are very invalidating, whether you realize that or not. Please stop.

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  9. Some of those example statements are rather… off. But some of them I’ve said before (or said something similar) and I am a woman in a heterosexual marriage. I am not really sure what to think about this. Why do I do it? Well, some of them are exaggerations of true statements – when I have a proposal deadline and I pull long days in the office for extended periods of time my husband does get rather annoyed (as any reasonable s.o. would), so I use him as an excuse to bug off for dinner at home. My husband and I have also explicitly stated we are allowed to use each other as excuses to get out of social events with colleagues. Does this hurt me professionally? I don’t know. While I’m married, I don’t have children, so that might help. I also use these statements to try ingratiate myself to the old boys club – I’m a pretty tough person and am not stereotypically feminine so the additional sympathy of having a “ball and chain” (bleh – I’ve definitely never said that) makes me an “honorary dude” to a certain extent (which is still less valued than full dude, but I tend to be pragmatic until I get where I want to be). This is definitely problematic, and maybe propagates sexism… but I am not sure on the latter.

    I guess these days I try and make less excuses for my behavior in general, partially out of fear for being taken less seriously for having a life and also not to undermine my authority by looking like some sort of supplicant.

    Anyways, since it sounds like women making these sorts of comments are rare, I figured I would add my experience to the list for discussion. Maybe it will help me suss out my feelings and change my behavior.

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