Picture this: An executive is surprised to learn he’s been chosen as president of one of his company’s key businesses. The position is on the other side of the country, and the head of HR tells him the company will support his move. The next day, however, the man turns down the promotion: His wife is in the middle of a surgical residency, and a move would hurt her career. He asks if he could start the new position later, commute to the new position, or work remotely. The CEO shuns all these compromises, saying, “Leadership is about showing up.”
This is a true story, as INSEAD Management Acceleration Program co-director Jennifer Petriglieri writes in a new Harvard Business Review article. Happily, that man got a high-powered job at a rival company in a city where his wife found a position. But his career could have been derailed, and his clash with his intransigent CEO spotlights the dilemmas facing dual-career couples in a corporate culture that is still woefully inflexible.
Today’s corporate culture still reflects a time when households had just one breadwinner, with the other spouse serving as homemaker. But times are changing, and companies aren’t keeping up. Instead of embracing workplace flexibility to support their employees and their employees’ partners, companies are forcing couples to choose one career over another. And as The Washington Post reports, when it’s a heterosexual couple making this choice, it’s usually the woman’s career that suffers — perhaps because the couple is being influenced by antiquated gender roles or because they think the man has the higher earning potential. Either way, this trade-off is only making the gender pay gap and gender leadership gap worse.
Along with Otilia Obodaru of Rice University, Petriglieri has interviewed both members of more than 100 dual-career couples across generations and organizational settings, as well as the heads of people strategy at 32 large companies in tech, healthcare, professional services, and other industries. “The crux of the problem,” she writes, “is that companies tend to have fixed paths to leadership roles, with set tours of duty and long-held ideas about what ambition looks like.”
For example, executives are often expected to fill a multitude of roles as they climb the corporate ladder, often having to relocate more than once. It’s a talent-development model that originated in the early 1980s, Petriglieri writes, before technology had made remote work the viable option it is today. Back then, talent was mostly “unbounded,” she says, since most spouses didn’t have competing careers and could hold down (or even move) the homefront while executives completed their tours of duty.
These days, though, dual-career households are on the rise, so couples are often forced to make a trade-off when one gets a career opportunity — or else he or she will be dinged for a lack of “ambition.” One head of talent at a global chemical company told Petriglieri her company has a management acceleration program that has participants touring three different functions in three different locations around the world. “It certainly doesn’t work if you’re in a dual-career couple or for anyone who doesn’t want to drag their family around the world,” the talent head says. “So it stops a lot of great talent from even applying.”
Of course, not all companies require these tours, but some still expect their employees to spend a maximum of three years in a role before moving to a different function. One vice president of HR at a global logistics firm mourned the imminent departure of a “very talented woman” who was nearing the end of a three-year role but couldn’t move because of her husband’s career. This woman wasn’t even allowed to commute to the new position three days a week. “Her manager is saying, ‘No, it’s all or nothing. We’ll just have to let her go,’” this VP said. “It’s frustrating. Retaining senior female talent is a key priority for us, but the business is stuck in this rigid way of operating.”
And a lack of flexibility can even stall the careers of employees who get to stay in one locale. A management consultant named Jamal reported being passed over for a promotion because he left work at 5:30 p.m. every day to care for his kids, even though he brought in more business than any other senior manager. “It’s not that I wasn’t working,” he said. “I always put in an extra two or three hours after the kids went to bed. But I was told that my lack of presence signaled a lack of commitment to the firm.”
Indeed, as Petriglieri notes (and as we here at WerkLife have lamented time and again), there’s still a nagging stigma about remote work, even though remote work can make employees more efficient. Inertia is contributing to the problem — an attitude of “This is how’s it’s always been done” — as is a belief that junior employees should pay their dues — an attitude of “If I had to do it, they should, too.”
With these unproductive beliefs still plaguing corporate culture, Petriglieri proposes two changes: “a revised notion of what is needed to achieve growth and advancement, and a shift in the organizational culture to embrace flexibility in the talent development process.”
Some companies are responding to their employees’ evolving needs by listening to millennials—just as Ann Shoket recommends—and even setting up “reverse mentoring” between senior executives and younger employees. This kind of exposure builds understanding and empathy as the execs realize the value of flexibility and revise their assumptions. And exposure to new corporate norms works: One study shows men whose wives have careers are less likely to discriminate against women at work and more likely to facilitate their career development.
The business world is long overdue in accommodating dual-career couples. In nearly half of all two-parent households in the United States, both partners carry full-time jobs, up from 31 percent in 1970. And over the past three decades, we’ve witnessed a 25 percent rise in assortative mating, i.e. the tendency of people with similar outlooks and levels of education and ambition to marry each other. Implementing and normalizing workplace flexibility is the key to supporting these couples, and doing so is easier than execs might think.