A trailing spouse? Has being partnered affected your museum career choices?

When I was a mere kitten of five years old, my family relocated to Papua New Guinea. My dad had received an interesting job opportunity, so he, my mum and I all moved to the tropics and spent several years negotiating life in another culture.

This was one of a few moves that we made when I was growing up; all of them for my father’s work. Although both my parents became high-achievers in their respective fields, it was my father’s opportunities that drove us around the country and overseas. His career was more established, and we followed on. It was not until my dad retired that my mother really had opportunities to pursue her own career ambitions, but once she did, her career soared.

Within the museum sector, cross-institutional (or even cross-country) relocation for work appears to be strongly tied to advancement, particularly at the upper echelons. While it might just be a skip from institution to institution (if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with multiple cultural institutions), oftentimes progress seems to require more significant jumps than just across town. Indeed, the first two commenters on a 2011 Center for the Future of Museums post about landing a job in the museum of the future both observe how important it is to be willing to move in order to find work in the sector.

Why is this? Is it just that so many employers within the sector are small museums that might have only a handful of staff positions? In my home town, I would guess that there are less than 30 full time positions within the scattering of museums, so the opportunities for growth are fairly few and far between. Moving town to find a full time position makes sense, because openings are rare and are highly fought over. I’ve often seen internal applicants for those scarce jobs passed over for those with experience at outside institutions. This is an understandable choice; external applicants will bring with them different experiences and knowledge from those already contained in-house within the institution, but one that can be challenging for people located where there are few other opportunities for growth.

If moving to find work isn’t absolutely imperative, it seems particularly common in high achievers. Victoria Turner, in a 2002 paper on The Factors Affecting Women’s Success in Museum Careers, writes that:

The career paths of high profile men and women in museums and related fields show much variety: some have worked their way through one institution; others have moved between many high profile organizations; others started in small museums and moved on to larger ones; others began their careers in different sectors (Who’s Who 2001).

But what happens when the choice to move for work isn’t yours to make alone? In the same paper, Turner explicates that (emphasis mine):

with limited jobs available, and no clear career progression, museum employees often find it necessary to move around the country in order to advance their career. This is clearly complicated where a family is involved, for employees of either sex (Carmichael 2001), but as women are still often considered as secondary earners, it will often be more difficult for them to institute a move, a major factor inhibiting women’s career progression (Kolb in Taylor 1984).

Is this one reason (amongst many) why there remains significant disparity between high female employment in the arts and comparatively low representation at the top? As an older post on psychologytoday.com indicates that (emphasis mine):

Of those people who moved for work in 1993, a scant 17 percent were women–and only 10 percent of them were married… A recent poll of unemployed executives showed that men are three times as likely to pick up and move for a new position than women.

These statistics are old, and not specific to the sector, but a clear gap still seems present between men and women on the question of moving for career advancement. We work in a sector filled with women where progression, or even getting a job to begin with, can be tied strongly to the possibility of going elsewhere, a situation that seems – on the surface at least – disadvantageous to those same women. So what’s a girl to do? Is it possible to progress, to make an impact, to grow without acquiescing to pressures to go elsewhere? Does living in a highly connected world change the playing field at all, or will cross-institutional advancement still trump? And what is our obsession with hiring those with reputations and experiences gained elsewhere? Do such practices ensure better hires, or just ones that sell better to boards and funders?

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a women’s problem however. Even if they’re in the minority of those who initiate moves, women are not the only ones who become ‘trailing spouses’, and partner dissatisfaction on the part of either sex can have a major impact upon the success of a relocation for work. In a NYTimes article on the question of trailing spouses and dual career couples, it is noted that:

According to the 1999 Global Relocation Trends Survey conducted by Windham International GMAC and the National Foreign Trade Council, almost half of all spouses accompanying expatriates had jobs before moving abroad. Of that number, only 11 percent were employed during the assignment. The same survey lists partner dissatisfaction as the most common reason for an assignment to fail, although the exact cause of that dissatisfaction is not spelled out.

A 1999/2000 survey by the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers of 270 European employers found that almost two thirds listed the spouse or partner’s career as a barrier to mobility. The authors of the study also noted that “factors rated least highly by companies when selecting people for assignments such as partner adaptability and dual career management are the most likely to be the cause of failed assignments.”

I’m really interested in how this attachment to movement impacts our sector, and those who work within it. What have your experiences been?

Have you moved for work, or conversely, been prevented from progression (directly or indirectly) because you haven’t done so? What impact has your choice made upon your career, or your family? Why did you make that choice? And if you haven’t been able to move, have you found other tactics to enable career progression?

19 thoughts on “A trailing spouse? Has being partnered affected your museum career choices?

  1. Hi Suse,
    You should talk with Madeleine Grynsztejn and her husband Tom Shapiro about this. They have a completely fascinating setup whereby they trade off whose job prospect will guide them to their next city of residence. I was amazed to hear this and how sensible it seemed.

    I am personally, happily constrained to Santa Cruz, in no small part to my husband’s insistence that he will never leave these mountains. When opportunities to move appear, I am comforted by the fact that I just won’t really entertain them because of our love of this place and his rootedness. It makes me think of Barry Schwartz and the tyranny of choice. Sometimes, being forced to limit your options increases happiness.

    1. Nina, thanks so much for this reply. It is actually very heartening to hear how you have negotiated your constraints, and simultaneously been able to achieve so much within those limitations of locality. Did it take you time to come to peace with those limitations, and to see the beauty in them?

      Like your husband, mine is happily rooted in our hometown, and has a thriving small business here. But as the end of my PhD looms larger on the horizon, I’m starting to think about what comes next and how to make things work for both of us. Prior to starting my PhD, I struggled to find rewarding work in the cultural sector in my hometown, and I fear ending up in the same position again; underemployed and under-utilised. But of course, much has changed in the two+ years since that time, and I cannot assume that my experiences will be what they were. Hearing about how you’ve made your limitations work is actually very useful.

      1. For me, it didn’t take time to come to peace – our moving here was a mutual decision. At the time, neither of us had jobs in Santa Cruz; he ran a business that was based in New York, and I was a traveling consultant. Like Regan, I eventually tired of spending all my time on the road and started looking for a way to work locally. It was a strange and wonderful piece of luck that the local museum started seeking a new director at about the same time I made that decision… but even if I hadn’t gotten this job, I suspect I would have started my own project of some kind here (I had been thinking about a belgian beer and frites/social interaction exhibit incubator).

        Both my husband and I are entrepreneurial people who moved here because we felt it was the most beautiful place on earth and a good place from which to pursue our dreams. For us, that’s not particularly geographically-defined. Honestly, when opportunities have come up in other places, it is very, very hard to imagine they might measure up to Santa Cruz.

  2. Having a partner and/or family do put a different spin on career progression. But sometimes such “constraints” – actually, I’d rather call them “parameters” as it’s a more neutral term – lead you to different and interesting places.

    I’m very much the second wage earner in our relationship, but it hasn’t always been that way. When we first moved in together my partner was still in the final year of university and I paid most of the bills. But his career has significantly higher earning potential than mine, and the wage disparity between us has been magnified as he’s reached the senior ranks of his career and I’ve left full time work to pursue a PhD. The latter is only really possible in the context of the former, I might add, and I consider myself in a very fortunate position because I have the financial freedom to pursue such a goal without having to make any significant lifestyle sacrifices.

    The flip side is that this obviously puts a pretty specific set of parameters around my career choices post PhD. Unless I go the FIFO route (an option I’d only become aware of thanks to @thesiswhisperer), a career in academia is unlikely as none of the universities in my city have departments that are closely aligned with my research interests (I’m doing my PhD as an external student). There are also not that many museums in the city who would be in the market for the type of skills that I could offer. Thus I’m assuming that my future will be in some kind of consultancy or establishing my own business, and travelling a lot (an option which is available to me as I don’t have children).

    On the face of it, I am potentially sacrificing plum positions that could lure me around the world and to the heights of my profession (assuming I have what it takes to achieve that, but that’s another story). But I don’t see it that way for two reasons: Firstly, my work in exhibition design saw me clocking up the international frequent flyer miles in my 20s. I loved it, but it holds no mystery to me and I can say I’ve “been there done that”. Secondly, as Barry Schwarz describes in the Paradox of Choice, sometimes having a world full of options open to you just makes you more anxious about the choices you *do* make. Limitations of your options can lead to a happier life. You are less likely to fret about the choices you *didn’t* make if they were never seriously options in the first place.

    1. Regan, totally agree about parameters. My whole career in museums, and my journey into research, started because I was stuck in Newcastle and wasn’t sure how else I could make a career in an area that I cared about happen. I didn’t have particularly grand plans. I just knew I needed to be working in something that mattered to me, and using my brain (my job in admin just wasn’t cutting it on either front), and so kept pushing to find new solutions until I ended up here. And it’s turned out to be wonderful. But who would have imagined it in advance? My career path might have skewed down side roads, but they’ve been interesting ones.

      I really love that both you and Nina, as my first commenters, have spoken about the limitations as positives.

  3. Thanks for writing about this Suse. I think things are now changing with younger couples negotiating change on a more equal footing. I think one option is an increase in exchange programs for mid-career professionals. Our museum used to have an arrangement with the V & A many years ago – I think it was a six-month exchange. This is long enough to get real experience elsewhere and hopefully to make a meaningful contribution to the hosting institutions. It is also long enough to place children in a local school temporarily.

    1. We definitely need more exchange programmes. It seems that most of these have dried up at a time when museums need them the most. The flow of new ideas and different ways of working is so valuable to the sector.

      The late Paul Reynolds was very generous in establishing his No Numpties Scholarship for a lucky New Zealand GLAM worker.

      Similarly the Kress Foundation’s fellowships, and of course, the Churchill Fellowships.

      We need more of these.

    2. I’d like to add that exchanges in both directions between big and small institutions seem like they would be useful. Museums and Galleries NSW run mentorships that allow people from remote and regional institutions to have a couple of weeks at a metropolitan or regional institution, but I don’t know of any programs that go the other way. But there’s no reason to think that those at larger institutions couldn’t similarly benefit from insight into the approaches and solutions of smaller institutions (particularly if the major museum partners with smaller ones).

  4. This isn’t just a museum issue.

    I get the sense that every career these days will face this problem.

    It might be more acute in niche sectors like museums, but it is also part of the global economy. It is also, as you point out, gendered.

    It is going to get worse.

    At the end of the day it all boils down to what your ideal life looks like – and that changes over time.

    Children, ageing parents, close friends, chronic illnesses – these are just some of the things that tie you to particular places, and there is no bravery in trying to escape these. It is foolish to think that you can outrun age and all that comes with it, even though in your 20s it seems possible. All the heroic narratives that litter the aspirational airport biography section often mask deeply unhappy shallow lives.

    Opportunities come and go. Not every one of them can, or should be seized. Buddhists have a useful saying along the lines of “all suffering is craving”.

    But there are moments when mobility is possible – for me, it was fortuitous that my children were still at a relocatable-age and my partner was already keen to leave her job. And we count ourselves very lucky that there was a confluence of events. Having relocated, we also know that the time will come for another relocation (either home or elsewhere) – and when that time comes it will be much harder to do.

    I get the sense that Americans are more accustomed to chasing work over their country – and that this comes deeply ingrained from the college system. Back in the 1970s pop-futurist Alvin Toffler was writing (in Future Shock) about the coming ‘American mobility’ where everyone would have to uproot and move to chase jobs wherever they were. It didn’t seem attractive then, and now we’re living it.

    Relationships change, and adjust. Compromises are made, agreements are struck. That’s life.

    More broadly, though, I’d wager none of us are doing what some of our forebears, recent or far had to do. Or that which most migrants from the developing world have to do right now. We aren’t leaving our homelands to eek out a meagre existence in a new country just so that our children have better lives than we did.

  5. I just recently relocated for my museum career. It wasn’t easy. I knew that to make the right next step I needed to look all over the country. While in theory my partner agreed with that, there were some difficult discussions. The types of museums I wanted to work in weren’t necessarily close to the things that made life worth living for him – when I was considering applying for a position in Kentucky, he vetoed it because it wasn’t close enough to a major sports franchise. Luckily, we were both agreed that moving to follow my career when I left grad school was the right decision. Even more luckily, the job I found was in somewhere we were both thrilled to live, and not too far from family.

    Colleges and universities will often place spouses or partners in jobs to secure a candidate they really want. It’s not as common in the private sector. Maybe it should be for museums. While we were waiting for my partner to find a job nearby my new museum so he could move up, our board president offered to start making calls for me, which was extremely generous. (We didn’t have to take her up on that, thankfully.) In part, it comes down to valuing and hiring the right person on the part of the museum.

    1. Amanda, it’s great that you were able to find somewhere that suited both you and your partner. One of the things that seems apparent from everyone’s comments is how important those other lifestyle factors are for both people, those other things that make life worth living, For Nina and Erica, that’s been a beautiful place (and in so choosing such a place, seems to have opened up unexpected opportunities), and finding something that suited your partner and his interests has impacted you. And of course, as Seb mentioned, timing is probably crucial in finding and making the right opportunities.

  6. A few comments I’d make in this regard.

    In terms of the social and economic situations many of us fund ourselves in (regardless of facebook relationship status), I recall a work that really made a strong impact on me during my studies. Zygmunt Bauman’s book Liquid Modernity I think captures that (over) value our societies now place on concepts of fluidity, flexibility and the ability to change ourselves to again and again. I think we live in a moment in human history that has brought profound change to all aspects of the human condition. I think it is not surprising that this world we have created makes fulfillment of both interpersonal relationships and work a difficult one. Particularly when our society sees true value found it the individuals ability to move, be fluid and adapt.

    In terms of actually negotiating this world as some form of union… I’d say that all good adult relationships are built of negotiation and compromise. And it’s not really about IF you are going to do something, the negotiation is about when you will. Life should actually be easier with someone else in your life. And yes the balance will never be perfect, it maybe it is a dance where someone leads for a while, then the music changes and someone else leads. But the point is your equals from beginning to end. I can accept it is an ideal too, gender imbalance is still a significant issue in all industries. The structures do not seem to fully exist yet to support most relationships to be equal in negotiation of opportunities. I am positive this will continue to change. I’m hesitant to say any more on that interpersonal aspect, I think it comes down to the couple in question. There is a significant diversity in the type of relationships people create. Some great examples of how to make it work have been mentioned above and I’ve seen some life affirming examples in my own time.

    1. Nico, this is a really interesting perspective on the issue. I’d like to read the Bauman book, because it sounds like it offers a different way of perceiving ideas around change. It’s quite novel to me this idea that the emphasis on fluidity and flexibility is new or unique to the modern condition. I’ve certainly grown up valuing it, but I think that’s part and parcel from moving around often in my formative years. Do you think most people do value it so highly?

      This actually raises an interesting question. Museums are at least on some level about permanence and stability, but museum careers often seem to emphasise movement. I wonder if there is an inherent tension between these ideas of fluidity and stability, in terms of whom the sector attracts and into which positions?

  7. Interesting post for me.

    I did the opposite and left a highly sought after, high paying job, permanent position, in an area perfectly suited to my educational background, to move to a place of almost zero job prospects. Like Nina, me and my partner wanted to live somewhere beautiful, and prioritized that over many other things. Every one said it would be a huge mistake and I was crazy.

    With that in mind i went out of my way to create new opportunities for myself, and found a museum job that is fulfilling me in ways i didn’t think possible, and excites me every day i have to go to work. By doing this i have also created a new professional future for myself that i would have never had the opportunity to do if I had stayed in the city. It has also given the the opportunity to do some consulting, which i love, and would never has gotten to do in my old job.

    But my work in this particular job has a self imposed time limit…. the next step is unclear but i work towards building the next opportunity for myself here.

    I don’t really have the desire to reach the top position in my field. I just want to live somewhere great, be able to walk my dog on the beach everyday, find work that engages me and that I enjoy. I wont sacrifice those things for a bigger better job. Neither will my partner.

    Me and my partner regularly discuss our work and life priorities, and how we can fit our individual goals into the ‘plan’. I’m lucky that he is happy running his own small business and could do this anywhere.

  8. Reblogged this on What is Talent? Musings on Art and Gender and commented:
    When the only way to advance in the museum field is to move, are women being left behind? One of the contributing factors to the disparity between the high number of women working in the arts and the relatively few women working in the upper echelons is a lingering view of women as secondary earners. If a wife’s job is considered less valuable than a husband’s, her family is unlikely to move to advance her career. And with the current landscape, relocating is often a necessity if you’re looking for a better position.
    Hop over to Museum Geek to read more. And check out the comments! Museum professionals weigh in on how a spouse has affected their career choices.

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