Of Love and Power: How partner choice may make or break a career

Prof. Aarti Ramaswami

In a two-part feature, Prof. Aarti Ramaswami of ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific and fellow researchers George F. Dreher at the Kelley School of Business and Tom Dougherty from Trulaske College of Business, share new research on the influence of partners on career attainment.

Related research: Women Reaching the Senior Executive Suite: A Framework of Life Partner Advocacy and Power, George F. Dreher, Aarti Ramaswami, Thomas W. Dougherty in the journal Research in Human Resource Management.

Commencement Day. Among the cheers, laughter and mortarboards flying high through the air in a celebration of years of hard study that come to an end, two bright young people of similar stamp catch each other’s gaze through the tumult. There is something serene about them. As though their eyes were meant to meet, as though the new life out there waiting was meant to be their journey together – first jobs, careers, home, little ones, happiness and fulfilment. In that precise moment in time, a decision was waiting to be taken. And of course, because we believe that good and lovely things happen in life, they took that meaningful first step forward to each other that was to lead to a common path taken. But what if they had stepped back, thrown a little perspective on that odd happening in such a noisy event? What if there was already a nagging question in their minds? A question that says: Is this person going to help me or hinder me in my professional ambitions?  

Career – and the couple – at a crossroads

Couples change. Lives change. And many of these changes are associated with our jobs and how we evolve in the world of work over time. From beginnings that research has showed bring people together of similar level of education and career-oriented values, initial parity will likely give way to the career of one of the partners in heterosexual couples outpacing that of the other half. What happens then? Do the men among us swallow the fact that our spouse earns more, goes to cocktails and flies off to exotic locations on business trips? Do the women among us simply bury our dreams and sacrifice our careers to look after the kids and support hubby – who, incidentally, also goes to cocktails and flies off to exotic locations on business trips? Among the upper echelons of management, the picture is telling: according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit organization focused on empowering and accelerating women in business, as of June 2018, there were only 23 Fortune 500 companies lead by female CEOs. Why should that be?

The field of career development and especially women’s career development has been widely studied and researched. This research, however, has mainly dealt with factors such as human capital development, motivations, bias, barriers and discrimination – leaving the view empty of other variables required to fully understand men’s and women’s career attainment.

This is where new research kicks in, carried out by Prof. Aarti Ramaswami of ESSEC Business School and her fellow researchers George F. Dreher and T.W. Dougherty. It focuses on the extent to which a life partner acts as a catalyst or inhibitor in the competition to reach the so-called C-suite – the corporation’s top tier of senior executives. Returning to the Fortune 500 statistics, it is indeed during the final round of the career tournament that a life partner may play a particularly decisive role.

Prof. Ramaswami’s research has led to four profile types of partner to be proposed and the various linkages and impact each of these has on a partner in reaching the C-suite. In addition, gender and culture dynamics are kneaded into the model to show how these variables affect and moderate the linkages.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: ‘I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.’ In that light, Ramaswami et al propose the question: What would be the most advantageous personal situation for a high-potential woman to be in at mid-career if she aspires to be a senior manager? Here’s what their research came up with:  in this article, the first two partner profiles are explained.

The partner as Career Competitor

Their first profile, the Career Competitor, takes on many of the characteristics of the alpha male/female who typically believes that his or her career is the lead career in the relationship with career ambitions at the very heart of their raison d’être. They are typically ‘the leader’ in the couple and lend little support to their other half. This is bad news for the couple, especially the one left behind – the development of the more powerful partner coming to be seen as an infringement on the development of the other’s. Conflict naturally results, one of the main issues being that while one partner has to relocate to a higher salary as part of the promotion package, the second partner loses out with a lower increase or even decrease in earnings. Typically, the latter tends to be the female partner in the couple.

You might think that two educated people would find a middle ground. But here again, research shows that the spouse in command of the most resources is able to impose decisions and outcomes that further their own goals to the detriment of their partner’s. Culture also plays a part. For those exposed to societal values that put emphasis on hierarchy, status and achievement, early career success will more likely spur those partners to believe that their career is the lead career in the relationship – to the detriment of the other partner even if catching up at a later stage. And what about gender? It seems that it’s harder for male partners to accept that their spouse earns higher pay. As such, a high-earning female will tend to take on a higher amount of housework and chores in an attempt to relieve the male partner’s unease with the situation – thus freeing up the lower-paid male partner to catch up the gap. In a nutshell, there are two lessons to be learnt from shacking up with a Career Competitor. First, that forming and maintaining a personal partnership with a career competitor will reduce the likelihood of reaching the C-suite. And second, that the negative effects of hitching up with a Career Competitor will be less pronounced for male contenders for the C-suite than for women.

The partner as Career Mentor

Couples may start out with goodwill and perceive each other’s career advances as beneficial to the development of each other’s. However, as the climb to the top reaches ever-higher heights, it becomes increasingly difficult for couples to sustain two C-suite-oriented careers. To maintain stability in the couple, one has to give while one has to push on – and invariably it is the partner with the most family power that will see his/her career take precedence. The partner who gives way will then tend to take on a Career Mentor role, stepping off the accelerator to their own career and using their acquired experience and networks to propel the other. This can come in the form of coaching, influencing and encouraging the other for key opportunities and roles, providing exposure and visibility to powerful others, and even protection from potentially harmful situations or people. For the ambitious C-suiter, this is a boon – having a high achieving partner who is willing to act as a broker within powerful networks, act as a mentor, provide support and understand career-oriented problems and stress factors, is advantageous when competing in the senior management career tournament. But here again, gender has an impact. And it’s the man, of course, who has difficulty in asking for or accepting career advice from his female partner and who suffers the negative effect. For women, the Career Mentor coin has another, more advantageous side. Typically, their male partners will be older and their greater working experience and access to power resources to which women may not have, can be potent for helping their female spouses in striving for career success.

Read Part 2 of this article: Bitter C-suite Symphony of Life: Your partner, your career

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