College-educated young men and women expect to work for pay and expect the same of their spouses and romantic partners. These young people also expect to share household chores and childcare with their partners. Yet research shows that past cohorts of dual-career couples who say they want gender-egalitarian relationships often fall short of this ideal in practice: men’s careers are more likely to be prioritized while women trade off paid work to shoulder a heavier burden of unpaid domestic labor. The new book Equal Partners? How Dual-Professional Couples Make Career, Relationship, and Family Decisions follows the lives of twenty-one couples who were embarking on their working lives to see if dual-career couples today come closer to living out their values – and what barriers continue to prevent them from acting on their intentions.
The consistent compromisers experienced an egalitarian work-family ecosystem over time. These partners had consistent access to supportive workplace conditions, held fast to their egalitarian beliefs, and regularly coordinated their actions to share resources and navigate constraints together. In particular, consistent compromiser men used their workplace advantages (like greater access to lucrative job opportunities, autonomy over where and when to work, and policies for partner hiring and parental leave) to support women’s careers and enable their own participation in domestic activities. Over the six years of the study, the biggest threat to this ecosystem was workplace discrimination and harassment against women that made it harder for them to advance in their careers as quickly as their husbands did.
Like the consistent compromisers, autonomous actors had good access to workplace support to facilitate gender equality in work and family. However, they held unique attitudes about “gender egalitarianism” that prevented them from making the most of these resources. First, they expressed support for men’s and women’s equal right to pursue their best individual opportunities. Second, they believed men and women were equally responsible for preserving their partner’s autonomy by refraining from holding each other back in their pursuits. This gender-neutral logic was paired with a gender-unequal pattern of action in which men passively stated their support for whatever women wanted to do without seeking resources to empower them, but many women actively compromised their careers for the couple. Over time, men’s growing confidence in their professional security shifted their attitudes away from autonomy and toward collaboration, spurring better coordinated action to enact an equal division of labor with their partners.
Lastly, tending traditional couples fell into a gender-unequal work-family arrangement early on and got stuck there over time. These partners faced relatively greater work-related challenges (namely a lack of two professional jobs in the same city), were more open to temporarily having a gender-unequal division of labor, and took gender complementary actions to meet work and family responsibilities. Tending traditional men’s prolonged unemployment violated masculinity norms dictating that men should work, so partners mobilized to get men a job, no matter the cost to women’s careers. Despite expecting women to eventually take a turn as the career leader, couples found it difficult to change their work-family ecosystem over time as men became specialized as earners and women specialized as caregivers.
Equal Partners? shows that it takes three main ingredients for an equal dual-career partnership – but that these ingredients are currently in short supply and are not always easily combined. Structural support is necessary for egalitarian relationships. Consistent compromisers, autonomous actors, and tending traditional couples would benefit from spousal hiring and partner job placement services; formal remote, part-time, and other flexible work options; fully paid parental leave; and affordable high-quality childcare. Employers should also ensure that women specifically receive adequate mentorship and protection from workplace harassment. However, the existence of these sorts of workplace policies are not sufficient on their own to produce equal partnerships without widespread cultural support for using them. Expanding the cultural models available to professional men and women for their work and family lives can help them imagine better and additional possibilities for equality in their relationships. And finally, couples need to effectively take joint action to leverage their external resources to put their cultural beliefs into practice. Partners, especially men, can actively look for professional opportunities for each other; be mindful of whether they are acting too autonomously; and take caution when trying to “trade off” being career leaders.
Jaclyn S. Wong (@JaclynSWong) is the author of the book Equal Partners? How Dual-Professional Couples Make Career, Relationship, and Family Decisions and other relevant articles published in Gender & Society and Journal of Family Issues. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina who does multi-method research on gender inequality within and between couples and families over the life course.