The XX Factor

That Sexist Job-Search Advice About Engagement Rings? Female Academics Have Heard It for Years.

“Lose the rock, ladies.”

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Last week, executive recruiter Bruce Hurwitz dropped in from 1973 to offer some real talk to the networkers of LinkedIn: If you’re a woman interviewing for a job, “Lose the rock!” You heard the man, gals: If you’re engaged to be married, and have chosen to symbolize that agreement via a chunk of compressed carbon, for the love of all that is holy, pry that Taylor-Burton off your finger before you walk in the door! Why? Well, “When a man sees that ring he immediately assumes you are high maintenance,” Hurwitz explains. Because obviously all men in important hiring positions are heterosexuals with shrew wives at home whose $19,000-a-month Oxy-and-Botox habit hoovers away their bonuses, amirite?

But don’t think it’s just the men: “When the woman at the office who has the largest diamond on her finger, sees that ring (sic), she will realize that if you are hired she will fall to second place and will, therefore, not like you,” writes Hurwitz with astonishing insight. You see, all women in the workplace are materialistic marriage-fiends who determine one another’s worth by the estimated dollar figure of the jewel affixed to their penultimate left digit!* Duh.

Unsurprisingly, a blogosphere full of working women (some of whom even managed to land that work whilst in varying states of matrimony not personally endorsed by Bruce Hurwitz) took umbrage, and the replies were swift and merciless. However, as a recovering academic whose obtrusively bare left ring finger accompanied her to four years’ worth of conference interviews for tenure-track professor positions, I couldn’t help but chuckle. At least Bruce Hurwitz is an unrepentant chauvinist. In the hallowed halls of academe—where currently everyone has to affix their preferred pronouns to email signatures, so gender-sensitive are the environs—the removal of all female applicants’ marital jewelry during the interview process has been a given for years. For (cisgender, non-queer-identifying) women on the tenure-track job market, not only is a big honkin’ diamond a fatal offense—even a simple, cheap wedding band, like the $60 titanium one I wear, is a finger-hugging kiss of death.

The reasons female academics are routinely advised to remove engagement and wedding rings for interviews are, of course, totally sexist. If committee members see a ring on a woman’s finger, they will surely fret—as they finalize the pages from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble on their syllabus—that she’s going to try to finagle an expensive spousal hire for her husband. Wives of male academics, on the other hand, are never assumed to need a career as a condition of relocation, or they’re assumed to be content with courtesy title and a few shitty adjunct courses per year. (A man, on the other hand, would of course be far too emasculated, if everyone in the department knew him as “the spousal hire” adjunct. Not even worth considering!)

Ach, worse, the committee members will worry—as they donate another $25 to the historic Clinton presidential campaign—does this young lady think she’s going to pop out a litter and take fifty maternity leaves as soon as she gets a steady job, and throw her tenure case down the drain? Of course, with (cisgendered, hetero) male applicants this isn’t an issue. For, lo, there is no marriage or baby “penalty” for them—indeed, a family is a career booster for them—so search committees rarely worry that a man’s family will impede his productivity.

And no, I’m not talking about some high-pressure STEM field where people are in a race against time to invent a sentient robot that has more empathy than the current, prevailing sentient robot. I understand that the pressure on scientists of all genders to “be in the lab Sunday or don’t show up Monday” is real. What makes me so pissed is that this utterly irrelevant sexism happens in the humanities and lab-free social sciences, a.k.a. literally the family-friendliest workplaces the world has ever known.

The flexibility of a full-time academic’s schedule is enough to make your average office drone spontaneously combust with jealousy. First of all, provided that the scheduling managers don’t hate them for some reason, professors can often choose the days they teach—and sometimes even the times. Moreover, outside the classroom, academia is a goals-based and not time-based profession. That means that aside from a few odious meetings and office hours (that can be cancelled without consequence if you don’t do it too much, since students rarely go), as long as courses are going smoothly and grades are in on time, a professor can spend literally every second not in the classroom away from campus. Kid has a sniffle and got sent home from daycare? Snow day? Set ’em up with a coloring book or a video in the corner of the classroom and nobody complains.

There is seriously not a nominally middle-class profession that better accommodates a young family than being an academic. Any worry about the alleged minefield of a female hire in her prime childbearing years is utterly unfounded. And that includes worries about their ability to produce research, because academics with children carve out time to write. Kid asleep? Write. Kid watching Sparkabilities for the 900th time? Write. Kid temporarily lodged inside the Gymboree tunnel you purchased on what turned out to be an ill-thought-out whim? Check breathing, then write.

Academics who are parents produce top-notch work every single day—and they present at conferences, too, even when those conferences don’t provide child care. Sure, perhaps a new mom doesn’t have the luxury of adhering to the classic humanities research schedule (procrastinate 10 hours; drink 3, write 1, complain across all media of how busy and stressed-out you are)—but they find a way.

Most people in academia know this, by the way. They know full well how patently unfair and ultimately self-perpetuating these prejudices against married women are, but they counsel their graduate students to take off that ring nevertheless. But what do you expect, in a workplace culture ruled equally by inertia and cowardice? (If you are a female academic whose personal experience happens to contradict what I’ve detailed here, mazel tov. You are the exception that proves the rule. Pay it the hell forward to every single person you interview and hire.) We can laugh at the Bruce Hurwitzes of LinkedIn all we want—but let’s not assume for a second that professions full of smart, socially conscious people behave any better.

Correction, Aug. 25, 2016: This post originally misidentified the left ring finger as the “second-to-penultimate left digit.” It is, of course, the penultimate left digit.