In a new Harvard Business Review article, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox—CEO of gender consulting firm 20-fist—says that spousal career support should be top of mind for women considering marriage. As she puts it, "Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners—a super-supportive partner or no partner at all."
Wittenberg-Cox based this statement on research she's conducted on "dual-career couples," working people who are in a relationship with someone who's also building a career. In the Harvard Business Review, she gave three examples of women whose situations illustrated her findings: one who was trying to convince her husband to move so she could accept a hefty promotion; another who'd taken a sabbatical from her high-powered job to take care of the home so her husband could continue his high-powered job; and a third who had tried working part-time but felt sidelined at work and ended up pursuing a doctorate instead.
While personal circumstances—kids, career trajectories, individual setbacks—vary from marriage to marriage, Wittenberg-Cox attributes these persistent, gendered challenges to shifting perceptions of gender roles. "The 20th century saw the rise of women," she wrote. "The 21st century will see the adaptation (or not) of men to the consequences of that rise."
In particular, she's found that heterosexual couples struggle with these inequities because of similarities between power dynamics at play in the workplace and the ones that play out at home. She notes that while she's "heard stories of career-stifling spouses from same-sex couples" here and there, systemic gender inequality has its greatest impact on heterosexual marriages.
Wittenberg-Cox is quick to clarify that in households where this is a problem, husbands aren't necessarily pushing their wives to step into the homemaker role. In fact, she writes, many men "are happy to have successful, high-earning wives. They applaud and support them—until it starts to interfere with their own careers."
That last statement, about what she calls "unexpected tradeoffs" where a couple has to make tough decisions with both careers on the table, gets at the heart of Wittenberg-Cox's point. It's not enough for a spouse to applaud promotions or encourage late nights and hard work. There must be a willingness to sacrifice for the overall success of the family—and choose that sacrifice in a gender-neutral way.
To show that this is not yet the reality, Wittenberg-Cox cites Joan Williams' analysis of a 2004 study on high-achieving women who leave the workforce to raise their children. "While the women almost unanimously described their husbands as supportive," Williams wrote, "they also told how those husbands refused to alter their own work schedule or increase their participation in caregiving."
In essence, Wittenberg-Cox encourages her women readers to pause before walking down the aisle, and consider—both internally and with their spouse-to-be—if they alone will be expected to put their career dreams aside when home life needs extra love. Similarly, her words require men readers to ask themselves if they'd be willing to sacrifice their careers for family life at the same level that women have for decades.
And if you can't find someone who can support your career aspirations at an equal level, Wittenberg has two words of advice: stay single.