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Building Networks: How Higher Education Institutions Can Support Dual Career Couples

By Julika Funk and Elke Gramespacher

The phenomenon of dual career couples at higher education institutions has increased significantly in recent years. The extreme demands regarding timing flexibility and locational mobility, especially during the qualification phases, which often coincide with phases of starting a family, present both these couples and the higher education institutions with special challenges.

Building networks© Plainview - iStockphoto.com
The biggest problems for dual career couples are organising childcare and time management. 56 percent of mothers and 47 percent of fathers are dissatisfied with their own work-life balance (Walther/Lukoschat, 2008). What can higher education institutions and scientific organisations do to support dual career couples in the academic system?

In a survey performed in 2002, the administrative offices of higher education institutions were questioned on the relevance of this issue in their appointment procedures (Rusconi/Solga): "Are the career perspectives of a candidate's partner discussed?" Approximately 27 percent claimed to do so very often or occasionally; 35.4 percent said they asked about it in some individual cases. Approximately 33 percent of the equal opportunities officers who also participated in the survey stated that they discussed the subject very often or occasionally; the same amount did so occasionally. These data were confirmed in a recent survey of administrative offices of German higher education institutions (Detmer/Meurs, 2008).

32 of 81 university administrative offices (approx. 40 percent) replied in the affirmative to the question "Does your higher education institution offer tangible support for dual career couples?" But the available support has so far been mostly unsystematic and dependent on the personal commitment of the university's administration or equal opportunities officers. There is however a fundamental need for regulated and transparent support for dual career couples; this support should be systematically and equally available to all employees of a higher education institution, confidential and able to draw on reliable networks.

Some higher education institutions have meanwhile begun to offer such regular services; they set up service centres that are often integrated into equal opportunities offices, welcome centres or recruitment teams, taking up the idea of supporting dual career couples that originated in the Anglo-American area.

According to a recent study on scientist couples at leading American research universities, recruitment of couples, so-called dual hiring, has increased significantly in the United States since 2000 (Henderson et al., 2008). 36 percent of respondents have partners who are themselves employed in academia; of these, 63 percent are even pursuing a career in the same field. Even in the USA however these figures still show a clear gender bias: primary importance is generally attributed to the man's career.
Something that was previously left to chance, often considered a disadvantage to women in appointment procedures (family ties or a relationship with a husband already established in academia) or solved by means of opaque structures can today be an advantage for the institution of academia.

The activities of a dual career service are based on networks and developing co-operations with industry and public service institutions. Collaborations between higher education institutions can be of particular significance here. The international network project "Supporting Dual Careers" operates on this basis. The network (currently) consists of seven higher education institutions (University of Constance, Eberhard-Karls University Tübingen, Zurich University, Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Constance University of Technology, Economics and Design, Ravensburg-Weingarten University of Applied Sciences and the Weingarten University of Education).

Each of these higher education institutions has a dual career couples service centre where partners of newly arrived scientists are advised primarily in career matters. The main advantage of this association is that several regionally close higher education institutions collaborate with each other - and that means that employment options for couples where both partners work in academia are increased.

Forschung & Lehre :: October 2008