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Why it’s so hard for you and your partner to both have successful careers

Companies may be introducing policies meant to support dual-career couples. But most aren’t tackling the systemic causes that make balancing two careers so hard.

Why it’s so hard for you and your partner to both have successful careers
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

Monique Valcour has an enviable life. A former management professor-turned-leadership development coach, she lives with her husband in the south of France and works from home. She and her husband, who works remotely for a U.S. company in a senior technology role, travel frequently.

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But achieving this level of flexibility in their lives hasn’t been easy. It required turning down jobs, a willingness to embrace the uncertainty of entrepreneurial life, and developing enough of a safety net to allow them to build two location-independent careers.

Though the end result isn’t always the same, many couples like the Valcours exist. Called “dual-career couples” by academics, both partners in these couples share an equal desire to pursue successful careers, rather than having one person’s career take priority. In non-dual-career couples, the other person—traditionally the woman in heterosexual relationships—assumes more of the domestic responsibilities.

As more women have begun working outside the home in the past century, dual-career couples have become more common. According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, 55% of U.S. mothers with children under the age of 18 are employed on a full-time basis. In 1968, this figure was 34%. If we look at the total percentage of mothers who work outside the home, that figure is even higher. In 1968, just half of mothers are employed either on a full-time or a part-time basis, but in 2018, 72% worked outside the home.

It’s important to note that this figure refers to “dual-income” (also often referred to as “dual-earner”) couples. Dual-income couples may not necessarily consider themselves “dual-career” couples if one partner’s career tends to take priority over the other’s.

Workplace challenges

A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company titled “How dual-career couples find fulfillment at work,” interviewed couples, the majority of whom identified as being part of a dual-career couples. The majority of respondents were heterosexual couples. The most common difficulty that dual-career couples faced, according to the study, was juggling what feels like conflicting priorities.

One person’s promotion, for example, might require them to put longer hours in the office, requiring their partner to shoulder a greater share of domestic obligations, which gives them less time to dedicate to their own career advancement. When one partner’s new role involves an international relocation, their significant other may lose out on the opportunity to grow their career in the same way.

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And as one person raises through the ranks, says McKinsey senior partner Jill Zucker, there may be an expectation that their partner plays a supporting role in their career progression. How do you balance that when you don’t have a partner who can dedicate 100% of their time to supporting the other person’s career because they want to develop their own? These are the challenges that all dual-career couples continue to face, says Zucker.

Zucker, who herself is part of a dual-career couple, felt like there was an unmet need at the consulting firm to have conversations about these sort of challenges. It’s something that she doesn’t hear companies, or even individuals, talk a lot about. However, she says, “When I talk to my contemporaries and clients, there is a lot of affirmation that yes, this is a topic we need to bring to the forefront.”

She also wanted to offer resources to these sorts of couples. In 2017, on the Friday before Thanksgiving, McKinsey sent an email asking employees whether they wanted to be part of a dual-career couples network. Despite sending the email right before a holiday weekend, they received more than 100 responses in less than 45 minutes, from business analysts to senior partners. “I was overwhelmed by the demand for it. It continues to be a topic that people don’t talk about and people want to talk about.”

Dual-career couples and gender inequality

It’s important to note that while there are challenges that are universal to anyone in a dual-career partnership, antiquated norms mean that there are issues that affect women more than men. Valcour says that many companies still unfairly penalize women who marry and/or become mothers, while rewarding men who marry and/or become fathers. “For a women who has been a high professional to get married, that signals a dual loyalty. [But] for a man who has been a high performing professional, getting married shows that he is more committed.” The employer is thinking, “This person is . . . moving into a period of greater stability.” 

Many companies expect all employees to have a “work-first” mindset, says Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of ThirdPath Institute, a not-for-profit that works with individuals, families, and organizations to design workplaces that supports success inside and outside of work. That means that companies tend to penalize workers who don’t always prioritize their work over their personal lives. According to Valcour, “Many modern companies are pretty progressive in terms of what they make available. [But the] more traditional set of norms in terms of who is a great professional still underlies how people think at work.”

Amy Nelson, cofounder and CEO of the women-centric coworking space the Riveter, experienced this stigma during her stint as a lawyer in Corporate America. She previously told Fast Company that when her and her husband became parents, the questions they received “were so startingly different.” Her husband is an active parent, but would be lauded whenever he took their child to a doctor’s appointment. When she was the one who had to leave work early to do that, she felt like her colleagues were questioning her dedication to her work.

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Valcour believes that one of the reasons why she’s been able to have the life and career she’s wanted is because she married a feminist. Valcour stresses that her husband has a strong career identity, yet happily supported her career by relocating based on Valcour’s previous appointments.

Of course, there were times when Valcour was the one who had to make adjustments in her career. After she burned out from her last faculty job, her husband wanted to stay in the south of France. That’s when Valcour decided to abandon the safety of tenured professorship and build a location-independent career. They’ve been fortunate to be able to craft an “out-of-the-box” solution that allowed them both to thrive, but Valcour acknowledged that their path isn’t necessarily ideal, or possible, for everyone.

Where companies fall short

Zucker, Valcour, and DeGroot all agree that companies need to do more when it comes to supporting dual-career couples.

At McKinsey, the dual-career initiatives have involved creating an affinity group, as well as support for spouses like LinkedIn training. In addition, they also provide logistical support such as concierge service and executive assistants to coordinate the schedules of partners, Zucker previously told Forbes. Of course, it’s important to note that these solutions won’t work for all dual-career couples. In addition, it only addresses the logistical—rather than systemic—challenges that many such couples run into today.

DeGroot believes that significant progress can only come from a company’s leaders. It’s up to them, she says, to “behave differently, showing that you can do work in a way where you have time for your life.” Until then, the “age-old struggle of trying to have time for work and time for family ends up becoming the roadblock” for a satisfactory life.

When things get too overwhelming, one partner will typically end up pulling back in their career. Traditionally, that role fell to women. DeGroot says that she’s seeing more and more men who are willing to take that role, but she wants to work toward an arrangement that doesn’t rely on any one partner’s sacrifice. Until company leaders are willing to do things differently, she doesn’t see that as a possibility. 

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What companies can do

In the report, McKinsey recommended a series of step that companies should take if they want to retain workers who are in dual-career relationships. The first is to train their managers to cultivate a supportive environment and provide opportunities for growth, particularly among lower-level workers.

Secondly, the report recommended that companies need to work on making top positions seem possible for those in dual-career couple arrangements. While the report found dual-career couples to be more ambitious than their single-career peers, it also discovered that many individuals in these partnerships stop short of aiming for top positions because they believe it would require too much for their families.

The report also recommended that companies take active steps to provide work-life balance, and “de-stigmatize” those who opt to take a nontraditional work arrangement. In addition, it urged companies to ensure that there are sponsorship opportunities available for employees at all levels.

Alisa Lessing, managing director and global head of marketing and distribution compliance at BlackRock, was quoted in the report as saying that she believed the key to her success was having a mentor and sponsor who showed her what it was like to juggle home responsibilities with the obligations of being a high-level executive. “She had older children and lived close by. I could watch her and ask her questions. I saw how she supported herself and her family, and I mirrored that.”

Valcour, DeGroot, and Zucker stress that companies who don’t take the initiative to do these things are going to miss out on talent. According to DeGroot, traditionally, that has manifested in companies losing women, but she’s also seeing that more and more men are choosing to leave companies for the same reason.

“I think what they don’t understand is they’re losing workers who are willing to help them try to be a different organization,” says DeGroot. These workers aren’t leaving companies to “stay at home.” They’re going off to start a business that will allow its workers to be excellent at work while still having a life, DeGroot says. 

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DeGroot is hopeful that more and more companies are starting to acknowledge that reality. But she admits that it’s going to be a long and slow process. “Some of our workplaces are just in reaction mode. . . . It is complicated to be a leader in a workplace that supports whole lives. It’s much easier to chronically overwork.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year that 34% of U.S. mothers with children under 18 worked full-time. The article has been updated with the correct year. 

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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