Doubling down on dual career couples

Published on Friday, 22 July 2016

Published by Sunniya Durrani-Jamal on Friday, 22 July 2016

Social expectations of gender roles can inhibit careers for both men and women.
Social expectations of gender roles can inhibit careers for both men and women.

The nature of work is changing fast as new technology, changing attitudes to productivity, and better travel options make it possible to work from nearly anywhere. While these changed work requirements increase efficiencies, they also intensify pressures on dual-career couples trying to raise a family.

While some governments have advanced public policy to help such families, what can employers do to ease constraints for a growing number of such employees, particularly working mothers?

Work-related pressures are particularly acute for women from the start. Often the first hurdle a young woman faces is being valued for her abilities and skills. She often has to justify to family and friends (and in the process to herself) why she prioritizes a career over “settling down.”

Once she enters the workforce, her potential is assessed in ways different from men. In my experience, women are expected to either stop working or work less, especially after becoming a mother. Recent research in fact shows motherhood can subconsciously be associated with perceived lower competence and hence lower productivity. Men not only are not penalized, but in some cases actually benefit from parenthood.

Social expectations of gender roles can inhibit careers for both men and particularly women. A woman who stays at work late may be labeled as ambitious and a bad mother who exacts an emotional toll on families despite research that shows working women still do most chores and child rearing. A man’s career might similarly suffer if he takes time off for child care if this is viewed primarily as a woman’s role. In contrast, male workers who spend long hours at the office are often viewed as industrious.

Such biases can harm productivity and careers in various ways, such as being assigned to noncore and or back office jobs. On a recent visit to an electricity utility in South Asia, I discovered that while many female engineers had been hired, they were all assigned to desk jobs dealing with customer complaints – even if they wanted to work in the field. The manager said he instituted this policy out of fear the women would be harassed in public. But surely they could have been assigned to other engineering jobs contributing to higher organizational productivity?

Being productive in turn is also positively associated with mental peace, and a woman’s choice of a partner can have a strong bearing on both her physical and mental health. This is critical given the high stress faced by dual-career couples coping with social and workplace expectations. Stress on relationships is easier to deal with when couples value each other’s aspirations, provide support and invest in each other’s growth.

Since dual career couples support each other, this involves professional compromises. However, such couples’ understanding of 'success' is multidimensional and goes beyond the high income and high status of one individual. The dimensions can involve valuing the self-worth of both individuals, preference for financial independence, security from two incomes and or commitment to being role models for their children.

To illustrate, my husband and I set milestones for each other’s professional growth. Our approach is to both apply for jobs, see who gets the better opportunity first, then consider our options. Communication has been a challenge. Miscommunication can happen when working couples rely on others for support with children and chores. We’ve found that communication improves with time, maturity and as children grow up.

As a family working internationally we have also come to accept the fact that we are outliers, as in we do not conform to the traditional concept of a family that most schools and employers currently cater to. But we hope this situation improves in the future, as the number of working couples grows. According to the Harvard Business Review, 47.5% of all American married couples are double-career, while in Canada it’s roughly 70%. Anecdotal evidence for Asia suggests a rising number of such employees.

Enlightened human resources policies are becoming more important as the number of dual-career couples rises, and work requires international mobility. Organizations that understand the importance of work life balance, and flexibility for such employees will gain in terms of a highly engaged, productive and committed workforce. Simple actions by employers such as dual leadership roles can encourage teamwork and achieve a better balance of responsibilities for men and women. Developing collaborative cultures where colleagues back up and support each other as a norm, it turns out, is also good for creativity and innovation.

Dual-career couples can, in turn, be a great resource to drive such progressive work cultures where more accommodating paths to career progression can be offered for all employees, depending on life cycle needs such as raising young families, looking after aging parents, or dealing with health issues.

Young men and women entering into dual careers should speak to older couples. I am certain that such conversations would have helped my family. Better preparation at home and work can increase the likelihood of success; it might even change the definition of success itself.

This blog was first published on Devex.