How to Have Both a Partner and Career Ambition

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in her HBR article “If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single”, states 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.

Sadly, her conclusions are backed by research. Commonly, men can be happy to have successful, high-earning wives (and these tensions are typically in heterosexual couples because of stereotyped gender roles) until it starts to interfere with their own career.

When the tensions between the demands of dual careers arise, it is easy to opt for the path of least resistance – the historical norm of a career-focused man and family-focused woman – made even harder to resist if the man is few years older, has a career head start, and earns more.

Again, and again I hear stories of amazing, clever women cutting back on their work to take the weight of childcare responsibilities or making sacrifices for their partner’s career progression, but not the other way around. This is not a problem in itself if this is a values-led, conscious and fair decision. But often it’s not. The ‘default’ has not been questioned, examined or critiqued, and the potential long-term costs are not thrashed out.

So, what we can do to increase the chances of women having both a partner and career ambition? Here are some ideas of things you can do to shift this manifestation of gender bias.

Raising our children

Adults involved in raising children – critically unpack, examine and discuss what real gender equality looks like in relationships. Critique the rhetoric with your children and follow though to concrete situations – don’t stop at the idea “Of course I’ll support my wife’s career”, follow through to what that might actually look like. We have to be deliberate and intentional to loosen any unconscious and unspoken expectations like “as long as it doesn’t effect mine”.

Before relationships

Young women:
All women deserve a super-supportive partner no matter what her career ambitions. If all women raise their expectations then it becomes the norm that relationships are more equal. Don’t settle.

I worry that young women, when faced with research like this, immediately think that they can’t have both and thus forgo a relationship for career or forgo career for a relationship. Be wary of that all-or-nothing thinking. You can have both.

And let’s keep working on destigmatising being single – being a wife and mother is not every woman’s dream. There are many forms of relationships and friendships that meet our needs for love, connection, and company that don’t necessarily have a label.

Young men:
Would you hope that your partner would move city for your career advancement? Then you need to be willing to move for their career advancement. Would you ask your partner to take a heavier load at home to support your long hours in order to get that big promotion? Then you need to be willing to take the heavier load at home when they need to work long hours to get their promotion.

Early relationship

Early in a relationship discuss what it actually means to support each other fully. Share each other’s dreams and how you can support each other’s dream to become a reality. Hash out values, preconceptions and expectations regarding your relationship, work, family, children etc. Don’t settle for less than you deserve.

And don’t lose sight of the long game. Your partner may be ahead in their career now, but you’ll never catch up if you don’t keep going.

Already committed

Couples can commit to loosen the operation of gender bias in their relationships.  This requires courage to be vulnerable, ask for what you want, negotiate, and face uncertainty and change. It requires awareness and commitment to change behaviours from their auto-pilot settings. Seek the support of a couples therapist if you need to.

Unfortunately, the person with the problem is the one who is initially most invested in change. But as Avivah stated in her article, if your partner is not willing to engage, uninterested in “leaning in”, or resistant to seeking help, you should ask yourself why. “What’s keeping you in this team? Are you staying out of love or fear? What is the life-cost?”

I’d love to hear the ways you contribute to fairness in relationships?


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