The two body problem: balancing your career and relationships

We were joined by Dr Penny Maher, a post-doc at the University of Exeter and one of the co-founders of WiC, and Dr. Hannah Susorney, a scientist at the Met Office, to discuss the two-body problem. They shared their experiences navigating the challenges of balancing a career and maintaining their relationships. Their partners Steve and Will, who are both scientists as well, also joined the discussion to share their perspectives.

The presentation and discussion was focused on heterosexual relationships as that is the experience of both Hannah and Penny but we wish to acknowledge that there are many different relationships types and sexualities.

Hannah shared some of the key points about the two body problem and how it disproportionately impacts women.

  • Why is it a problem in science?

    • We are in formal education until late 20’s or later, and by this time many people are in committed relationships.

    • Often the expectation that you will move (often more than once)

    • Short term contracts make it harder for partners to relocate (if wanted).

    • In many fields living in a big city will get both partners meaningful jobs. But in science jobs are often in locations which make it difficult for the trailing partner.

  • Why are women more affected (assumes heterosexual relationships):

    • Women scientists are more likely to have a male partner who is also a scientist, compared to men which are more likely to have non-scientist partners.

    • It is common for the male partner to be a little older, which puts them further along in their careers.

    • The female partner is more likely to have career gaps, due to caring responsibilities, which means their male partner is even further along in their career.

  • What are some potential solutions?
    • Dual hires (it is difficult but sometimes possible)

    • Remote working (works for some science jobs, roles, but not permanent university jobs)

    • Patience and luck (waiting for the right opportunities to come up and may require you both to move).

For Hannah and Will, they decided that living together was the highest priority, as they found long distance was not working for them. So each career choice they make, was centred on the idea of maximising the potential for them to live in the same location. This required a lot of planning and trying to finding opportunities (both formal and informal) in locations what would work for them both. Remote working was a big part of how they made it work, and their move from the US to the UK was motivated by the desire to maximise their chance of getting jobs in the same location. They have made Exeter work, as Will is at the Uni and Hannah is at the Met Office, but this move for Hannah has required her to change field from planetary science to meteorology (which has its own challenges and rewards).

For Penny and Steve, they had long stretches where they chose to have a long distance relationship. For two years they lived separately in Berlin and Exeter, and then another two years  living separately in Lancaster and Exeter. This was a period in their lives when a long distance relationship was possible, but since having children, they reflected that a long distance relationship is no longer an option. Steve is now in a remote working industry job, which has allowed Penny to look for broader opportunities then would have been possible if Steve was still in academia.

Clare Rodgers and Wendy Brookes- Championing gender equality, diversity and inclusion

Just before the Easter bank holiday, we met as a network to hear from guest speakers Clare Rodgers and Wendy Brooks, who joined us from the Environment Agency. We shared a space to pause and reflect on how to champion gender equality, diversity and inclusion. Often these terms can become buzz words and this session was a chance to rediscover and discuss practical ways to reach these intentions.

Clare, our guest speaker, was one of the 2022 winners of the Women in FCERM’s Inspiring Individual Award, and was recognised for championing gender equality, diversity and inclusion across the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) sector. Clare talked about why she was recognised and her activities and experiences. Wendy spoke to us as the strategic lead for Women in FCERM, the network which awarded Clare, and told us about the group. Women in FCERM is a network and mentoring group that aims to provide networking and support to women working in the flood and coastal erosion risk management sector. You can find out more about their work on their website.

Thank you to everyone who attended and shared in our discussion. Below we highlight some of the points raised:

  • We talked about experiencing a lack of gender equality, diversity and inclusion and the challenges this can bring. Then we discussed being inspired to strive for a solution to this challenge. We highlighted that solutions can be through mentoring and coaching others to enable to change. It can also be important to raise awareness, for example by telling others and highlighting the issue via articles or blog posts.
  • We discussed how important it is to be visible in doing things differently as it can support and inspire others to do the same. For example, working part time in senior positions and occupying spaces that we might not think we should. Equally, even if we don’t see others visibly using different approaches, it is still possible to change our approach. Having the courage to be what you can’t see is important!
  • We reflected on the importance of knowing our places of support – who supports us? Where can we find support? This reflection is often intertwined with who we support and we discussed our own role in other’s circles of support.
  • Being an introvert or feeling less confident can sometimes challenge us, such as not feeling able to approach senior colleagues to encourage or ask for change. We discussed how often feelings of shyness or imposter syndrome are universal, affecting those we perceive as self-assertive and self-assured. We can all have influence.
  • Upcoming training sessions were shared as well as resources that may be of interest to you too; a podcast available on Planet Possible, and information from Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper about ‘Confidence Gremlins’, which we all possess! Read about the gremlins here.

Special thanks to Clare and Wendy for joining us for an informative and supportive discussion. The session was guest-hosted by Hannah Hayes, who is a PhD student at the University of Exeter’s geography department and previously worked at the Environment Agency.