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

Posted on February 25, 2013

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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?