The Key to Being a Couple with Equitable, Dual Careers
Despite the recent, global wave of popular feminist movements, the status quo remains deeply unhelpful to women’s careers. Both cultural and political forces conspire to stymie women’s careers. When a couple gets married, it’s the woman who moves and changes jobs (or quits working) to join her husband; when a family expands, it’s the woman who takes time off from work to care for the new child. With no paternity leave mandate, a father often cannot, even if he wants to. Little wonder, then, that a recent World Bank report found women’s participation in the labour force actually declines beyond a certain point of education. Faced with these obstacles, which translate into a consistent message that women are most valuable at home, many women choose to give up their careers; at best, they can look forward to a trajectory that looks very dismal compared to a male counterpart’s.
Women have been told for decades they can ‘have it all’ — maintain a flourishing career and happy family life. But for most women, these models simply aren’t working. Which is why dual career couples are exploring new models of partnership and career management, ones that allow both people to flourish in their work. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox shares the story of Kate and Matthew, now in their 60s. Early in their marriage, both had full-time, demanding corporate jobs. But once they started planning their family, the dual career couple realized they would need to plan their careers together, too:
“Matthew and Kate started with designing a life, and retrofitted to identify careers that might deliver it. They devised a single vision for their couple — and the family they had just started. They thought of it as a team vision, like they might at work. What were their respective strengths, and their respective dreams? How could they use each other to guarantee the success of their broader vision, while minimizing some of the risks they might bump into along their road? It wasn’t so much the plan that helped them, they found. It was the conversation and the search for complementarity. They were each agreeing to contribute to building something to fit them both, over a lifespan.”
The process led them to decide, in their 30s, that the person with the least direct route to the top of their respective organizations would take time off to prioritize child care, while the other continued working, moving up the ladder and financially supporting the family. The person who quit would become an entrepreneur — identify a viable business opportunity, test it during their children’s early years, and, if successful, later on the other person could quit their job to help scale and sell the family business.
The gist of their story, and Wittenberg-Cox’s article, is that planning out long-term career arcs together — regardless of what those arcs look like — ensures both spouses get the most out of their careers, that neither becomes an afterthought to the other’s or to sheer financial logic.
“…for too many dual career couples, even in an era of supposed equality, two individuals can end up competing for short-term trade-offs rather than cooperating for longer term, mutually beneficial gains. Couples end up negotiating, based on current realities, rather than pacing themselves for the long (and lengthening) haul. This translates into decisions based on who has the higher income, the assignment abroad, or the babies.”
Alongside Kate’s and Mathew’s experience, Wittenberg-Cox outlines a few other, classic models of dual career families: the single career, wherein one spouse works and one stays home with the family; the lead career, wherein one spouse has the dominant career arc, while the other seeks freelance, part-time or online work; alternators, wherein two working spouses have “first dibs on the next promotion or geographic move”; parallelograms, which are your classic power couples; and finally, complementors, or, couples whose fields have pressure points at different times in life, or whose working hours complement each other for equal family care. It’s this last group that Wittenberg-Cox subtly recommends, pointing out that all of the earlier, more familiar models come with trade-offs: alternators are often trapped in a cycle of the first person to take the next opportunity having more opportunities and more quickly than the other; power couples might find their home life suffers.
In the end, Wittenberg-Cox stresses, all choices come with trade-offs and what model works for one dual career couple may not work for another. What matters is the discussion and long-term planning — together. She takes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to the next level, suggesting that the most important career decision is not just whether and whom you marry (or commit to), but also whether that person is willing to plan their career with yours, as a team.