Commentary: Employers baffled by dual-income couples with joint ambitions

Commentary: Employers baffled by dual-income couples with joint ambitions

Technology has made it easier for dual-career couples to juggle work and family, but that's no reason for bosses to harbour decades-old expectations of their most talented staff, says the Financial Times’ Helen Barrett.

LONDON: A professional woman with a demanding job and three young children recently told me what an easy time of it she was having.

Hers was not the familiar working parent’s tale of exhaustion, burnout and defeat. 

On the contrary, this cheerful 45-year-old partner in a London law firm — who worked 16-hour days, dropped everything for demanding clients and admitted to planning life to the second — was totally on top of it.

Ten years ago she would never have believed this would be such a breeze. But 10 years ago she and most other working parents did not have smartphones.


The biggest change in the past decade that has made it possible for her and her husband to continue as a dual-career couple after children was not family-friendly government policies or gender equality targets — it was apps.

Uber for travel; Ocado for groceries; WhatsApp for school communiqués and nanny instructions; Amazon and Outlook for everything else.

“It frees up time,” she said. “And that’s huge.”

Better technology may be one of several reasons why more women work after having children (sympathetic policies by governments and employers have also helped).

FILE PHOTO - A photo illustration shows the Uber app on a mobile telephone, as it is held up for a
File photo showing the Uber app on a mobile telephone, as it is held up for a posed photograph, in London, Britain November 10, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson)

Research by the Modern Fatherhood Project in 2016 found the proportion of homes in which two parents worked full-time was rising steadily, from 26.4 per cent in 2001 to 30.8 per cent in 2013 across 17 European countries.

In the US, both parents work in 62 per cent of families with children, according to official 2017 statistics. Even in conservative Japan, dual-income households are on the rise.

But, according to new research by academics at Insead business school, the organisations that employ them have failed to keep up with this generation of parents.

They are behind on understanding how people in their thirties and forties blend work with domestic lives and on what they expect from their employers — including just how much they are prepared to give up.

This lag means their organisations’ strategies for nurturing and promoting talent are at risk.

READ: Is closing the gender pay gap still an elusive goal? A commentary.

READ: On gender equality and whether women can still "have it all", a commentary.

READ: Addressing our bias in the pursuit of gender equality, a commentary.


Human resources professionals can see problems ahead, even if bosses cannot.

Jennifer Petriglieri, an Insead professor of organisational behaviour, interviewed hundreds of HR staff working for 32 leading global employers, who she says were well-placed to describe how senior leaders think about working lives.

What she found was that bosses still want their most talented staff to trot through a series of jobs on their way to the top — the so-called “tour of duty” of the 1980s that often involved stints abroad. This approach, she says, is all wrong.

Today’s professional employees are just as committed to their partner’s career as their own, which means they are more likely to resist foreign stints, and the domestic upheaval that goes with them, at least until the time is right for their family unit.

Family Singapore
A family walking in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

A rise in “assortative mating” — the tendency for people with similar levels of education to marry one another — by nearly 25 per cent in the past three decades, according to Prof Petriglieri, is also working against organisations.

They are hiring bright, ambitious 30-somethings who are more likely than previous generations to be committed to someone just like them.

Many baffled bosses, meanwhile, continue to design careers as if it were the 1980s, assuming their underlings’ spouses are homemakers and happy to trail along. Increasingly, they are not.

Another of Prof Petriglieri’s findings may be useful for employers. Middle managers were typically battling with one another internally for the most talented staff with the greatest potential. Often those staff were of childbearing and rearing age — and the vast majority were one half of a dual-career couple.

Some of these bosses were “talent hoarders” while others struggled to fill vacancies, says Prof Petriglieri. What made the difference?


Managers with more egalitarian views about gender equality and flexible working recruited and retained the most talented staff.

“People talk to one another, and they gravitate towards those bosses who ‘get it’,” she says.

If a certain pocket is known as being supportive, more bodies flow that way, and empires build.

Part of the problem, she thinks, is that many men — and bosses are usually men — simply don’t understand working women. Her hunch is backed by a 2014 study published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, which found that men who were married to women who stayed home had “less positive” attitudes towards the women they worked with.

READ: For women of different cultures, classes, backgrounds and age – it’s still a man’s world. A commentary.

boss subordinate discussing work cafe office
A woman engaged in a discussion in a cafe. (Photo: Pixabay)

We tend to assume power lies at the top. But if employees are talented, they are more powerful than they may realise. So where does all this leave bosses aspiring to build their own empires? How do they know whether they “get it” or not?

“A lot of this comes down to curiosity,” says Prof Petriglieri. “If you are asking the question, it means you are edging towards the right side of the scale.”

And staff smartphones should be standard issue.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)