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01 October 2013

The Dual-Career Challenge

This week we bring you the second issue of a two-blog series focused on dual-career families from Franca Godenzi of the Boston College Centre for Work & Family.  Franca shares insights on how dual-career couples manage their conflicting occupational aspirations and the high demands of their careers.



Whose Career Matters More?

All of the participants in my study indicated that their careers were viewed as important in their marriages.  However, there were still disparities.  Out of the four couples in my study who moved due to employment opportunities or requirements of one spouse, three moved due to the work of their husbands while only one couple moved due to the wives’ work.  Out of the six couples that had commutes of different length, two of the husbands had longer commutes and four of the wives had longer commutes.  This seems to suggest that there are still some inequities in terms of whose job is made a priority, and who has to make greater sacrifices.  However, in terms of business travel, the wives in my study traveled more than the husbands.  In five of the seven couples where both spouses are required to travel for work, the wives travel more, which suggests that the husbands in my study were also making sacrifices in order for their wives to advance in their careers.  Half of the couples in my study have chosen to opt out of travel, knowing that this could have professional implications.


Addressing the Overwork Trend

Of the ten dual-career couples, six of the husbands work longer hours than their wives and three of the wives work longer hours than their husbands.  Heavy workload has become a standard among professionals in the United States.  In a 2010 survey, nine out of ten respondents reported that their workloads have increased in the last twelve months.  Work hours are being seen as a proxy for an employee’s commitment and competency.  Workload has increased due to factors such as inadequate staffing, information overload, technology, and job insecurity.  Overwork is correlated with absenteeism, turnover, decreasing job performance and engagement, and physical and mental health issues. Overwork can cause role blurring, which is associated with higher levels of work-to-family conflict, according to a 2012 study.


Overwork is a reality.  What can employers do to address it? Employers can offer stress and time management workshops for employees and encourage them to use their vacation time and sick days. Reducing low value work, effectively using e-mail, holding efficient meetings, and promoting flexible work options are other possible strategies.  In a 2010 study, IBM found that employees with high perceived job flexibility were willing to put in about eight extra hours weekly before reporting significant increases in work-family conflict compared to those individuals without perceived flexibility.  Companies such as Marriott, IBM, and PwC have used work redesign processes to address overwork.  IBM’s People Oriented Work Redesign Tool (POWR) has enabled teams to identify and resolve unnecessary, low value work at the departmental level and improve productivity among team members.

Seeking Schedule Control

In my study, the wife has more control over her schedule than her husband (in seven out of ten cases). One woman stated that her husband, who works in the corporate world, has “a lot” of control “in theory” because he is a regional manager; however, “practically speaking it is looked down upon in his industry to take a more flexible approach to work.”  All of the women in my study tried to create control and flexibility in their schedule, but only three husbands in my study created more flexibility in their work schedules by either switching or taking time off from careers.  One of the husbands in my study made the switch from private practice to academia and took a pay cut because he wanted to spend more time with his family.


Recent research has looked at flexibility stigma against men in the workplace.  In a 2013 study  men who requested family leave to care for a sick child or parent were more likely to be subject to demotions, pay cuts, and termination, and less likely to be recommended for promotions, leadership roles, and raises.  A 2013 study found men who took advantage of an employer policy allowing them to work part-time after the birth of a new child were seen as less dependable, committed, dedicated, and efficient.  Care-giving fathers experienced the highest rates of general mistreatment at work among men, such as being excluded, ignored, insulted, humiliated, or pressured.  However, a 2012 study  found that the long-term effect of FWP utilization on promotions is positive because the long-term effects of flexibility benefits utilization, such as conservation of time and energy, outweigh the negative effects of stigmatization.

The Importance of Social Support

All ten participants in my study stated that their husbands were supportive; nine used language such as
“extremely,” “incredibly,” and “totally.”  A little over half of the interviewees in my study felt their colleagues at work were mostly supportive.  In a 2012 study mothers who perceived more social support were likely to report lower levels of depressive symptoms.

Four women in my study felt their colleagues at work were not supportive.  Three women in my study felt they needed to “overachieve” in order to be perceived as successful in their jobs.  Overachieving included sacrificing time with family to work longer hours at the office.  Potential career penalties for women of flexibility stigma include curtailed benefits, career derailment, and mommy tracking. Stigmatization can lead to lower levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment, higher rates of absenteeism and withdrawal, and opting out.  In a 2013 study  workplace inflexibility and the stigma attached to part-time work played a major role in female employees’ decisions to interrupt or suspend their professional careers.

Franca-GodenziHigh career demands, including long hours, business travel, and job relocations, pose unique challenges for dual-career families.  Organizations need to take heed: workplace flexibility and social support are critical components to keeping dual-career couples from “opting out” of travel, of promotions, or of the workforce all together.  With talent shortages identified as one of top concerns of the global CEO – can your organization afford to let talent “opt out”?

Franca Godenzi is the Member Relations Specialist at the Boston College Center for Work and Family, where she is responsible for supporting members of the Global and National Workforce Roundtables.


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