Think:Act Magazine “Sustainability”
It's time to redefine what a power couple is
Why superpowers are rooted in an equal partnership
by Shila Behjat
photos by Maak Roberts, Getty Images, John Durick, Scott Eells, Hannah Peters, Peter Foley, Carlo Allegri, Leo-Paul Ridet
Many married women (and men) want a "dual career" where both sides can achieve their ambitions. But how? We need to forge a new idea of what a "power couple" is – which could help change society and corporate attitudes at the same time.
Power couples: A term that desperately needs a reboot for the 2020s. While we might have seen the rise of female CEOs, heads of state and global leaders, definitions and Google searches still assert a rather outmoded idea of what a "power couple" partnership is. The paradigm that always comes back is Bill and Hillary Clinton, a "power couple that shaped the Democratic Party in the 90s." Let's set aside the argument of who would have made the better president and recognize that, for many, the "power couple" still draws a picture of one top-level career – usually a male partner's – with someone who identifies as "I'm-ambitious-too."
But where is the model of ambition parity in both the workplace and a family setting? And is that something achievable?
According to some thinkers, two decades of progressive steps followed by pandemic aftershocks mean it is now more possible than ever. "This is the most ambitious generation of women the world has ever seen," says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consultancy 20-first and founder of the European Professional Women's Network. She points to the latest statistics showing that 78% of millennial couples are dual-working compared with 43% of boomer couples. "The dual-career couple is the next societal model that will reshape everything."
The cliché of the two-career couple is mainly conceived as being very difficult: Whose career comes first? Where do you live? Who travels? And who unloads the dishwasher? A continuous series of arguments, quarrels and mounting resentments. Seventeen years ago, in October 2003, The New York Times Magazine published an article that coined a term that shaped a decades-long debate: the opt-out revolution. In it journalist Lisa Belkin asked "why don't more women make it to the top?" And concluded: "because they chose not to." In her own words Belkin took a look at "the surprising choice of ambitious, educated, achieving women to opt out, ratchet back and redefine work after having children." It was a choice. A decision.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), however, higher inequality in distribution of care responsibilities between women and men equals higher gender gaps in labor force participation. In countries where women spend almost eight times as long on unpaid care activities as men, they represent only 35% of the active working population. It is more likely that most women chose to work less or not go back at all because they simply cannot take on more responsibility at work for all the responsibility of managing and running the family – in many cases women work just as many hours as their partner, but unpaid work for family chores amounts to an average of 4.4 hours per day, compared with about half as much for men.
The uncomfortable truth is that women exiting the workplace is a silent brain drain with tangible economic effects. Or maybe it's not so silent if you bear in mind the bitterness that can almost be felt in headlines like this one from The New York Times: "Nearly Half of Men Say They Did Most of the Home schooling. Three Percent of Women Agree." "Language is important here because opting out really sounds like you had a choice. I thought I had a choice when I opted out. But I didn't. I was forced to opt out," recalls Eve Rodsky, a Harvard-trained lawyer turned author turned women's empowerment activist.
Her book Fair Play and the accompanying deck of cards form a game of discovery for working couples to share the 100 most important household tasks with some actionable goals. But maybe the roles partners play in a working relationship need to be analyzed and taken apart much more than they currently are. Enter Jennifer Petriglieri. A professor at INSEAD, Petriglieri has studied over 100 dual-working couples. According to her research the reality is rosier than the established narrative. "The numbers clearly show that couples thrive when they keep both careers going." She adds: "It is not easy and they are not happy all the time. But they have lower divorce rates and their performance is much higher." Petriglieri emphasizes the individual gains in a dual-career partnership. "There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. For some the alternating model works – one career has priority over the other for a limited amount of time. Others manage to go 'all in,' in both private and professional lives. This mostly works when there are boundaries to where the professional obligations can go, how much time it eats up."
The “power” component in the concept of a power couple should receive broader attention, according to Wittenberg-Cox. "You must think of it as 'couples squared': The sum makes up more than the individual parts. These couples are mutually self-enhancing. They are doubly well-connected and resourceful." Wittenberg-Cox recollects how Ruth Bader Ginsburg repeatedly emphasized that her late husband Marty's behind-the-scenes lobbying played a decisive role in her appointment to the Supreme Court. "Every woman deserves her own Marty," says Wittenberg-Cox.
In his bestselling 2017 book The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, established a similarly new view of marriage. While the primary function until the 19th century was quasi institutional – to provide food, shelter and protection from violence – in the more modern era it has revolved around love, companionship and sexual fulfillment. But now, Finkel writes, "a new kind of marriage has emerged, one that can promote self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth like never before."Considering modern marriage in this way lies in stark contrast with individual career advice. Plus there is the reality of the working world meeting the needs of family life where a partner, children and elderly parents might need care. Or all three.
How do you square that circle? Wittenberg-Cox has a fresh spin on that too. "We all will be working at least until we are 75. So the vertical idea of up or out in your thirties is completely worn out. This does not work for women or many modern men who do not think of their life or their career as linear. Many women's careers take off from when they are 45, if corporate structures allow it, that is." Companies needed to "flex their mindset of what corporate success looks like," she stresses. "Time is irrelevant. What counts are skills, knowledge and the energy you are ready to give." And for the couple dynamic, she adds: "As careers morph into 50-year marathons rather than 30-year sprints, we may also want to think of couple careers over much longer time frames. We still let too many decisions made in our thirties seal our professional fate for decades. How much more reassuring to know that you can hand the baton back and forth — and still finish the race in style."
Wittenberg-Cox and Petriglieri agree that the pressure points are both societal and corporate. In Asian countries or the Middle East, Petriglieri points out, family structures are built with a generational dimension. Grandparents mainly care for the grandchildren, domestic help is the norm which takes pressure off working women – and men. With that in mind, she adds: "These power couples that we look at work – in both senses of the word – best when they are earning roughly the same or have roughly the same level of seniority and when they roughly do the same amount of housework."
Two major challenges stand in the way of the smooth functioning of dual-power careers at the corporate end, according to Petriglieri: presenteeism and travel. "There is a lot of pressure at work in general to deliver facetime in the office. Only then are you considered a good 'performant.' If you are THERE," says Petriglieri. "Secondly, [there is the] willingness and availability to travel." But within the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, both of these decades-long and ingrained aspects of corporate culture have almost vanished in a puff. "Suddenly the old guys are not traveling anymore either. And they have worked from home and it literally worked. And no one wants us back in the office. So this is an interesting window." What can couples do to seize the moment? "They need time. Time to negotiate how their two careers do well together; whose career is taking priority at one point in time," says Petriglieri. She goes on to make a prediction: "This is the death of the linear career for the individual as well." She underlines the need to acknowledge that there are periods of transition – and that this 'times two' approach will help couples who struggle with transition better. "[It] doesn't have to be every week or every month. But couples should seriously and radically take time to discuss, plan, strategize."
Time seems to be the focal point. Whether it is referring to age or hours put into a job or years dropped out of the workforce to take care of kids. Time needs to be allocated to both parties, with both partners fully invested in each other's common progress, both privately and professionally. There still remains an unresolved issue: How to value time? Rodsky has a view on that: "We value the time of men like diamonds. The time of women like sand, like it is almost infinite." For her the argument is simple when you realize that – and it also explains why women have in the past struggled with their workloads. "The school calls the mothers first when the child is sick. And this is also why we ourselves think we can squeeze everything in. Because time is money and we earn less than our husbands. Well – here is your key on why women earn less."
A contract setting out career and life goals, Petriglieri recommends, can do the trick. Far from being too technical and financially oriented it should focus on constitutional aspects of married life, on values, fears and boundaries. It could for instance establish the decision to focus only on career options within manageable distance of the family home. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Petriglieri recalls how she and her now husband and father of their children Gianpiero filed the foundational work for their common life: on their third date on a piece of coffee-stained paper traveling through rural Sicily.