If you don’t find a partner who supports your career, should you stay single?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of leading gender consultancy 20-first, shared findings from her research into dual-career couples in a recent Harvard Business Review article and concluded that:

‘Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners — a super-supportive partner or no partner at all.’

If you are a female academic making your way in a fiercely competitive field, this is an important, if uncomfortable, question to weigh.

Wittenberg-Cox found that while marriages between similarly educated and ambitious people may appear equal at the outset, the trajectory they follow often strays far from this ideal.

When inevitable external pressures – such as the diagnosis of an elderly relative with dementia or a job offer involving relocation – are added to the often competing priorities of two individuals in a relationship, something or someone has to yield.

Despite considering themselves supportive and progressive, Wittenberg-Cox observed that most men presented with these situations refuse to change their working patterns or compromise their own careers. Left with little choice, a high proportion of married women go on to reduce their working hours or decide not to seek promotion in order to fill the resulting vacuum.

A growing body of research confirms this view, including a revealing study of 25,000 Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates by HBS’s Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman and Hunter College sociologist Pamela Stone. Their research showed that, at graduation, men and women shared similar career goals and expectations. But as their careers progressed, male HBS graduates were much more likely to find themselves in senior management roles (at 57 per cent) than their equally highly-educated female peers (at 41 per cent).

Probing the causes of this disparity, Ely et al. explored and then discounted women ‘opting out’ of careers for children as a contributing factor. What they did find was that 40 per cent of Baby Boomer and 39 per cent of Generation X female HBS graduates found themselves in non-egalitarian marriages where their husband’s career took precedence over their own, despite a widely-held belief at graduation that their future careers would rank equally with those of their husbands (80 per cent of Baby Boomer and 68 per cent of Generation X female HBS graduates).

Meanwhile, at graduation, 56 per cent of Baby Boomer and 61 per cent of Generation X male HBS graduates already expected their careers to be prioritised over their partners’. In reality this was even higher, with 74 per cent of Baby Boomer and 70 per cent of Generation X male graduates’ careers taking precedence over those of their wives in practice.

The inevitable result of this de-prioritising of women’s careers within so many marriages is lower job satisfaction and reduced career progression for women, and a dearth of women in top roles. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that those women who advance to senior roles in HE are far less likely to be married with children than their male peers – adding weight to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s argument that an ambitious woman should stay single rather than commit to a less than super-supportive spouse.

The situation gets starker still with the birth of a baby. Ely et al.’s study highlighted a further mismatch in expectations in this area, with half of women interviewed expecting to take primary responsibility for raising children, and more than two-thirds actually doing so.

Professor Mary Ann Mason from the University of California has conducted research over many years into this issue of why, despite excellent progress at the start of their career, so many female academics never reach the professorships and other senior roles they have been working towards. She and her team found that ‘family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer.’

The fact that women who have babies in doctoral or post-doctoral positions are twice as likely as new fathers or single women to drop out shows the scale of the problem. A comprehensive and concerted rebalancing in this area, with fathers actively making use of family-friendly flexible working arrangements to care for their children, is therefore essential.

Its many benefits include allowing women to continue focusing on career progress, reducing the stigma still attached to working reduced hours to care for children, and the retention and development by institutions of valuable, highly trained female talent. Children raised by parents who take dual responsibility for their care and nurture will also hopefully be more likely to embrace and sustain egalitarian partnerships themselves in the future.

But in the meantime, Wittenberg-Cox celebrates those marriages which are successfully balanced, resilient and mutually fulfilling, and proposes three ways for achieving this:

Vision. Discuss long-term personal and professional goals early, and revise regularly. Lack of alignment and mutual support between couples can derail entire life strategies. Be clear about what support will be required and expected to achieve these goals and where it will come from.

Active listening. The most common complaint from women is that they don’t feel heard; from men, that they don’t feel appreciated. For the first, introduce regular sit-down listening sessions (monthly is good, quarterly a minimum). Dedicated, face-to-face, concentrated, unspeaking, listening to everything your partner needs to say. Then repeat back what you heard. Adjust as necessary. Then switch. Sound awkward? Only until it becomes relationship-saving.

Feedback (aka flattery). Everyone appreciates feedback, but it is increasingly rare, both at home and at work. The rule usually recommended is 5 to 1: Five positive comments for every “constructive” one. Turns out humans love to be admired, especially by their intimate partners. So dial up the volume and tell your spouse how gorgeous, brilliant, caring, and supportive they are. Reward the positive and watch it grow. Sound artificial? Only until you see the light ignite in their eyes.’

Additional recommendations include:

Avoid assumptions. Don’t leave things unsaid or presume that your partner shares your point of view on important matters. As Ely et al.’s research demonstrates, outlooks can differ dramatically, with serious consequences. It’s therefore important from the earliest stages of a relationship to define, robustly explore and agree expectations.

Identify challenges in advance. It’s worth being intentional about scanning the horizon for potential crunch points such as the coinciding of the end of a short-term contract with the search for the next. Flagging these up in advance, discussing and planning for them together wherever possible will give both partners space to be as supportive as possible of each other.

Finally, for those in positions of influence within institutions:

Look to demonstrate value congruence. Long, anti-social hours and job insecurity can often be managed at the start of a career. But if this continues it can lead to burnout for academics with family commitments, even those with a highly supportive spouse, as explored anonymously in this article. Employers which successfully demonstrate value congruence – where they share and actively support their employees’ values – reap significant benefits in terms of attracting and retaining the very best candidates, and fostering career sustainability and gender diversity.

While persistent gender inequity in relationships still puts a woman’s professional progress at risk, it’s well worth asking yourself, and your partner if you have one, some searching questions about your relationship and career goals.

Further reading

This is the third in a series of posts in which Global Academy Jobs has been exploring the reasons behind the under-representation of women in senior HE roles. Read more here:

Mind the gap: six ways to address the under-representation of women in top academic roles

‘Competitive’ or ‘committed’? How gender-coded bias in recruitment damages diversity

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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