The Atlantic magazine recently published an article proclaiming that married male professors get promoted the fastest. Do I believe that married men get promoted faster than everyone else in academia? Oh, wow, do I ever! I could tell stories, but never mind about that.

In this space, I like to make rigorous scientific evidence the touchstone for my conclusions. So in the spirit of high scientific standards, I want to cast a critical glance at the conclusions offered by the research. I want to share even more skepticism about the way the results were discussed in the Atlantic article, and also castigate a bit of gratuitous singles-bashing the Huffington Post added to their repackaging of the Atlantic piece.

The Atlantic article summarized research published in Perspectives on History. I always read original research reports when they are available, but to get to the report in question, I would have to join the American Historical Association, which would cost a minimum of $47. So I’ll have to go by what the Atlantic had to say.

The author of the original research, Robert B. Townsend, “surveyed 2,240 associate and full professors of history” in 2010. From those survey results, he calculated the average time it took for associate professors to get promoted to full professors.

Years to Get Promoted (so, smaller numbers are better)

5.9  married men

6.4  single men

6.7  single women

7.8  married women

The Atlantic summarizes the results like this: “A new study of history professors shows that married men get promoted faster than their single colleagues, while the opposite is true for women.”

I would rephrase that a bit: Men always get promoted faster than women, but the difference is especially great among those who are married.

But should we take the numbers that were reported at face value? My biggest reservation about the results of the study is that they were probably not generated in the most rigorous way. How do we know that any differences are in fact about marital status (and/or gender) and not something else related to those characteristics? (Social scientists call those other factors that mess things up “confounding factors.”)

If we could experimentally manipulate gender and marital status – meaning that we could randomly assign people to be male or female, married or single – then we could know with far more certainly how much those characteristics matter. But of course, we can’t do that, so we try to do the next best thing. That involves “controlling” for other possible confounding factors.

A very big potentially confounding factor is parental status. Being married is not the same as being a parent. Many married people do not have kids and many single people do. So far as I can tell, the study did not take that into account in analyzing the results.

If you read the entire Atlantic article, you will see how it quickly becomes a story about the family responsibilities of married women, and how the greater time and effort invested in child-rearing and domestic chores might account for the advantages of married men (who have their wives doing all that work for them while they pursue their careers).

But if we were to unconfound marital status and parental status, would the findings really be the same? Suppose, for instance, that in a separate analysis, we compared only those professors who were parents. Does anyone really think that single mothers would get promoted faster than married mothers? (Keeping my scientific hat pinned to my head, I have to say that again, the numbers rule – I want to see rigorous research results, even if they demolish my intuitions.)

There is also no indication that the analyses took productivity or quality of scholarship into account. That’s tricky, too, because if there are differences, they, too, could be a matter of differential reward structures for single and married people who are male or female. Subjective judgments of quality are especially susceptible to bias.

What would be compelling is if differences by marital status persisted even when the single and the married professors were similar in their quality and quantity of their scholarship. There are studies of pay discrimination that have been very carefully conducted, with controls for achievement and much more. I reviewed those in Singled Out and found that in fact, married men are paid substantially more than single men; differences for women are less clear. (For discussions of many other domains of discrimination against single people, check out Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It. Paperback is here; ebook is here.)

Stop to think for a moment, and you can probably generate even more factors that could have muddied the results of the study. Some factors raise the possibility that the actual implications of marital status are even greater than the history study suggests. For example, when a study looks only at those who have reached the rank of associate professor, lots of people have already been cast out of the pool. Many never get promoted to the rank of associate, and those who get fired may also differ by gender and/or marital status.

Imagine, hypothetically, that single men with the same accomplishments are more likely to get fired than married men. Then the single men who do make it to the next level are already better qualified than their married peers, and still, they get promoted more slowly to the next level.

Now about the Huffington Post. What a mess. Not a consistent mess. Recently, in fact, they hosted a HuffPost Live segment on the high price of being single with our friends Christina Campbell and Eleanore Wells. But they also publish a lot of stories of the “oh, poor me, I’m single” variety, with accompanying tips on how to fix yourself and become unsingle. (Spare me!) With regard to the findings about professors getting promoted, Huffington Post just summarized the Atlantic article. But I guess they wanted to add their own touch, so they started by proclaiming as true the myths about how marriage boosts women’s health and lengthens their lives. (I’m purposefully not including a link. No need to reward their bad behavior with extra clicks.) Hey, HuffPost, get a life!

[Note: My latest elsewhere includes The Advice Goddess talks singles and sanity, and Where are the single people in the Handbook of Social Psychology? I also haven’t mentioned in a while that you can find feeds from lots of enlightened singles bloggers at Single with Attitude.]

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