Making the workplace work for dual-career couples

Your partner should not have to bail on his or her career in order for you to move up.
Your partner should not have to bail on his or her career in order for you to move up.
Image: REUTERS/Phil Noble
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In a room filled with hundreds of c-suite executives, one of my former colleagues and I recently asked everyone to stand up. Then, we asked, “Those of you who have spouses or partners who stay at home and do not work outside the house—please sit down.” More than half of the room sat.

Next, we asked, “Those of you still standing—please sit if your spouse or partner works, but they have the “beta job.” By “beta,” we mean a job that allows for taking the lead on the house, the kids or pets, the eldercare, most scheduling, and leaving work to address issues like a sick child or emergency home maintenance.” There was a huge noise as more than 90% of those remaining standing now sat down.

In a room full of c-suite executives, the tiny minority still standing represented the equitably divided dual-career households.

A recent survey of 1,065 employees at a single company, which I co-authored, found that if you were to do this exercise one level down from the c-suite, about a third of the room would be left standing. If you were to go two levels down, 40% of the room would be left standing. If you were to go three levels down, 80% of the room would be left standing. Younger and more junior workers have more dual-career families; it’s just the reality. Unlike their executive mentors, they have no one at home minding the store.

If your company lacks relevant role models, change your culture

By the time your people are at their highest potential, you’ve invested so heavily in their development and their careers that there is a lot riding on your ability to keep them. But you need to assure them that their spouses or partners do not need to change or even quit their jobs for them to move up. To that aim, change these four things:

  1. The culture. If you’re a senior executive, talk about needing to leave early to get to your child’s soccer game, or talk about what you did over the weekend, or about your child’s school play or homework. Make it O.K. to discuss life and commitments outside of work.
  2. The work. Allow employees to informally flex their schedules to accommodate priorities at home and at work. Don’t assume everyone can go out for impromptu drinks for team bonding events. Don’t schedule routine 7 a.m. conference calls.
  3. What a career looks like. Not everyone wants or needs to be on the fast track to the top; and even when they are, priorities often change. Careers are marathons, not sprints. I stepped off the partner track ten years ago when my daughters were in middle school. I kept working at BCG, running the operations of the Boston office and running the Predictability, Teaming, and Open-communication (PTO) program globally, but I had no external client work and was required to do much less and much more predictable traveling. When my daughters went away to college, I came back as a partner, and I was recently promoted to senior partner.  A company’s definition of “success” has to allow for flexing up and flexing down during a long career.
  4. The support. One of my coauthors and former colleague, Brooke Allocco, who is a vice president at Boston Scientific, led an effort to establish a daycare center in her campus site. The company has since expanded on those services to include emergency back-up daycare and other programs to address employee life-work challenges, including a breast milk shipping service for nursing mothers when they travel for business, expanded maternity and paternity benefits, and a meal-planning service that saves employees time and promote a healthy lifestyle. There are many ways you can add a lot of value for your people, but you have to ask them what they need.

Like Brooke, I wanted to be a part of this research because for me, it’s personal—I have two children still at home—but also because the number one issue my clients are talking about is not having the talent they need at the top, and I believe the solution lies in making workplaces work for dual-career households. This is a business issue, a personal issue, and a talent issue. This isn’t a “soft issue.” It’s a majority-of-your-workforce issue. If we adjust our perspective, we can create the step change necessary to win the war for talent.

Debbie Lovich is a senior partner and managing director at BCG.