Mother working from home while holding toddler, family in background
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Anyone in a couple where both are pursuing careers knows very well the tensions of accommodating each other’s work priorities. Even before Covid-19, being in a dual-career couple involved a mutual balance of work and home life.

Then, the pandemic hit. The initial results were devastating for working women — especially those with children. Surveys by consultancy McKinsey found that one in four women with children under 10 were considering leaving the workforce, compared with one in eight men. In the US, 1.7mn women lost or gave up their jobs compared with 1.3mn men.

Now, as the pandemic recedes, new opportunities and pitfalls for dual-career couples are emerging.

Employers increasingly say they are unable to find the skills they need. This puts workers in a strong position to demand more flexibility on anything from parental leave to flexible start times and working remotely. And, for those whose jobs demand moving location regularly, the ability to work remotely opens up new options for both partners.

Anyone who ever got into a fight with a partner over who covers a childcare emergency knows how much of a game-changer flexibility could be. I still cringe when I think of the time the school nurse called with news that my son had chickenpox. My reaction — “but I’ve got a crucial interview and his dad is in a meeting” — would not have won me any parenting prizes.

The increased acceptance of working at home should ease some of these stresses for dual-career couples — at least, those in fields where remote work is possible. But there are two key caveats: the responsibilities must be distributed in a way that does not unfairly hurt one partner’s career; and the flexibility cannot become a source of additional stress.

Some employers are already raising concerns that hybrid working may exacerbate gender inequality as more men return to the office while women work at home and shoulder more domestic responsibility, often to cut childcare costs.

“What are [couples] going to do with hybridity?” wonders Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead business school, who studies career paths and is in a dual-career couple herself. “Will they use it to put slack into the system or will they use it to pack their schedules even fuller? I fear that couples are setting a trap for themselves.”

The saving grace could be that other workplace trend: substantial, or even equal, leave for the parent who was not the one giving birth. This can apply to fathers, adoptive parents, and lesbian couples. Pioneers such as UK insurer Aviva, which started offering equal parental leave in 2017, now have plenty of company. As of last year, 90 countries offered statutory paid paternity leave and 38 per cent of employers offered paid leave above the statutory minimum.

Paternity leave of almost any length has been associated with increased male involvement in child rearing. Many executives I speak to believe that shared leave will help reduce the penalty historically paid by women who take time off to care for children — for two reasons. Sharing the impact across two careers should reduce the effect on each one; and, if all parents take leave, employers will be less likely to shy away from hiring or promoting women specifically.

Studies in European countries where paternity leave of several months has been common for some time reveal additional benefits. Dads who spend at least two months at home with their children subsequently put more time into housekeeping and other chores.

That is great news for household equity, cleanliness and, studies suggest, family stability. US statistics show a link between paternity leave and lower divorce rates. And an otherwise depressing recent Swedish study — which found that promotion to a top job dramatically increases a woman’s chance of divorce — also determined that marriages were more likely to survive when factors such as similarity in age and taking a similar amount of parental leave were in play.

As Gen-X Americans, my husband and I had children too early to benefit from the newfound corporate enthusiasm for parental leave and flexible working. But I like to think my mandatory weekend shifts, which frequently left him in sole charge of the kids, helped create similarly positive dynamics.

Given that we’ve been trying to climb the corporate ladder in tandem for decades, I have to hope so.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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