Bitter C-suite Symphony of Life: Your partner, your career

Prof. Aarti Ramaswami

Prof. Aarti Ramaswami of ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific together with George F. Dreher at the Kelley School of Business and Tom Dougherty from Trulaske College of Business, follows up with Part 2 of her research-based article on the influence of partners on career attainment.

From the forthcoming research paper 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.

 The partner as a Career Resource

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, one way in which to scratch the other’s back in return for increased family income and stability is to scale back on your career and provide additional support to the lead careerist. This might take the form of taking up a part-time job, flexible hours, early retirement or even quitting work altogether to take up the role of stay-at-home spouse. A key contribution of the latter is the capacity to offer social support that saves the physical and mental resources of the working partner, and may even take the form of caring for children and elderly parents, entertaining, or even taking off some of the workload from the other by organising schedules, planning business trips or writing up memos and reports. All in all, because of the extra availability of time and a flexible schedule, possible ongoing income and knowledge of the workplace, this partner type has the potential to enrich their partner’s career.

But there is a downturn. Because work in the office is more valued, staying at home – even with a workload – is a source of additional inequality between people. Very simply, it increases the decision-making and bargaining power of the employed partner. Moreover, men seem to benefit more from this type of partnership, mostly due to how we have been shaped by gender roles. Traditional fathers (with stay-at-home wives), for example, are perceived as being more stable, professional and requiring increased financial needs. All this leads organisations to boost male career advancement. The numbers crunched from research speak for themselves: married men with working wives earn less than married men with stay-at-home wives. And finally, women lose out because even if their male spouse stays at home, they will continue to perform a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work.

No Partner – lucky for some, less for others

Being in the no-partner category produces forces working both for and against the likelihood of you reaching the C-suite. No Partner can mean the eternally single, the currently on-a-break, or even the divorced and widowed. The odd thing is that at first glance this category of individual may seem to hold the upper hand when it comes to career advancement: they have the time, lack of commitment, and – able to eat whenever they want – don’t have to be present at 6.30 pm sharp with a napkin tied around their necks. However, think twice – being single presents its own set of problems to bear. Research shows that they are subject both to cultural biases and discrimination that have a negative impact on their capacity to reach the C-suite. Men are especially losers in this field because despite the increasing number of adults choosing to be single, cultural norms place a high value on marriage and married couples. Marriage signals maturity, family values and meaning in life with married men especially considered as more productive and effort-oriented. We even talk of a marriage premium of 15% higher wages. Lo-behold the single guy – less responsible, immature, carefree and even delinquent. For a woman it is different: here the research leads to the conclusion that single women are likely to advance more than married women (with or without children) – they are likely to have more time for energy-intensive jobs than married women, have fewer employment disruptions than married women and are more likely than married women to be perceived as having financial need because such resources are presumed to be provided by married women’s husbands.

Bitter C-suite Symphony of Life

Altogether, Profs. Aarti Ramaswami, George F. Dreher and T.W. Dougherty provide us with an interesting insight into the little researched area of the impact our partners have on our careers. The race to reach the C-suite for women may be handicapped from the outset – naturally so, because there is a universal preference found in virtually all cultures for women to prefer male partners who are three to four years older than themselves (or for men to prefer younger female partners). As such, this gives a head start for men in amassing both social, experiential and financial capital as they begin work earlier. It also means that women are more likely to fall into a relationship with an alpha male career competitor – the partner type that offers the greatest negative career consequences for becoming a top exec. Cultural context may also hamper a woman’s ascension to the summit – just think of Sweden compared to India, for example. All in all, choosing a perfect partner is a difficult thing. If you’re hell bent on reaching the C-suite, then it is a partner who acts as a career resource that helps most. And a partner who is a career competitor who hampers most.

Should we stop, step back and assess future career attainment each time that mischievous cherub harpoons us with an arrow? And what if we return to the beginning and the young couple whose gaze met on Commencement Day? Many of us have no doubt had such a moment – and it takes your breath away. Better to gulp in new air, step forward and see where things end up mid-career. After all, we want to believe in good and happy endings.

Read Part 1 of this article

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