There has been a dramatic shift in gender roles in the last century. Women no longer stay home and look after the children while men earn. Increasingly, both men and women go to work and no one career takes precedence over the other. Women build careers, while more working men take on housework and help with childcare.
But even as single-income households move to dual income, aspirations for jobs are no longer tied only to the incomes they generate. Recent studies show that both men and women seek career fulfilment — and struggle to find it.
Last month, McKinsey published a report called Making it Work that looked at challenges faced by 35,000 workers across sectors. Notably, 89 per cent of women and 70 per cent of men counted themselves as dual-career couples.
The report showed that couples struggled to find fulfilment at work as it wasn’t easy to balance their lives as well as understand demands of their partners’ careers. It was an issue that caused conflict among those surveyed.
While progress has been made and a lot has changed for women, some things remain the same.
Women marry later, establish careers and are less likely to give up a job. This is substantiated by a 2018 US report from the Pew Research Center that indicated 55 per cent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are employed full-time, a figure that has risen from 34 per cent in 1968. But despite more women building careers, they still do the heavy lifting in the family.
In 2016, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, women put in more than double the portion of unpaid work compared to men when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework.
Put another way, women strive for careers but lack the creative freedom, time and resources to meet their ambitions. When we view women as trying to catch up with men and characterise men as failing to support their partners, no one wins.
Here’s where the importance of both partners sharing a desire to pursue successful careers comes in. The descriptor dual-career couples has been around for a while. However, it seems that its time has finally come and from my point of view, not a moment too soon.
As one half of a dual-career couple myself, the phrase articulates the reality of my life. It’s a relief to know that my husband and I are not alone. The struggles we face are shared by others in similar family constructs and finding a name for what we go through increases the chance of finding practical solutions.
This month, author Jennifer Petriglieri published her book, Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. The associate professor at Insead spent five years following a hundred couples and distilling their strategies for successful relationships. Petriglieri writes that couples need to have in-depth discussions about values, boundaries and fears, the three areas that comprise what she calls a contract.
The aim of the contract is not to tackle specific challenges but to map out what matters most in the long term. A clear agreement on these areas can help couples work through work-life transitions and make challenges less daunting.
For their part, organisations need to adjust to the new reality of dual-career couples. It is fantastic to see progressive workplace policies for working women and mothers. Just as it heartening to see the slow shift towards recognising that fathers also bear and want to take on more responsibilities.
It is a mistake for organisations to view employees only as lone individuals rather than as people whose career choices are tied intimately to those of their significant others. Dual-career couples have several stressful logistical issues to think about and organisations should factor these in. Not doing so ultimately leads to employees feeling conflicted about the choices they’ve made regarding work-life balance.
As for those who say the phenomenon of both partners working is a nail in the coffin of the natural order of things, it’s worth pointing out that a truly flourishing household is one where both parties thrive. For far too long, women’s identities and ambitions have taken a back seat. Recognising that women have aspirations and goals, which include both the household and the workplace, is a celebration of the potential of a true partnership.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World