“Dual career support” – while for some a familiar term, others might ask: What exactly do you mean by that? To clarify the meaning of “dual career” and “dual career couples” (DCC), we spoke with Dr. Alessandra Rusconi, who works as a Scientific Research Coordinator at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. She talks about the challenge to navigate the wish for two fulfilling jobs in times of international mobility, explains the dynamic the decision to follow your partner could unfold for your own career and shares some learnings how to balance dual career orientation and moving countries.
What do we mean when offering dual career support? Talent Interlock does not solely address couples where both partners seek to work fulltime and/or both partners strive to achieve top positions. With “career” we foremost mean a fulfilling professional task in the new country (Belgium) for both partners. This could be a job, but it could also mean continuing education or other means of building your own professional way and to nurture your talent.
Talent Interlock: “Dual career couple” – what does this term mean?
Dr. Alessandra Rusconi: It is a difficult definition, at least in the literature. Often it just refers to both partners being employed. Other definitions are going beyond that. The question is: How do you define “career” compared to simply being employed? In our project we relied on the following to define “career”: Simply having a job is not a career. Being employed is a prerequisite, but it needs to be an adequate position given the person’s educational background. For example, a secretary is employed, but it is not a career when the person holds a university degree. And now comes the couple perspective: A professor with a secretary is a dual earner couple since both are employed. But they are not a dual career couple, especially not when both started equally in terms of educational background and career chances. Today more and more women are employed and fewer women stop working completely after having kids, but there is a new dimension of inequality. Nowadays they might rather lose the drive or the chance for a career after stopping to work for some time. And then partners become more unequal regarding their career positions throughout the life course. The professor and the secretary might be an extreme example, but still.
Does “dual career couple” implies both partners necessarily have highly ambitious careers in top positions?
No, careers paths and hierarchies can be more or less flat in different professions. Teachers are a very good example. They have a relatively flat career. But of course being a teacher is a career.
When did the term come up?
Very, very long ago. The first time it was mentioned in 1969 in an American book called “Dual-Career Families” by Rhona and Robert Rapoport. However, their definition of a “dual-career family” does not include childless couples. But these couples also need to make complex decisions when pursuing two careers. This does not just start with having children. That’s why we refer to dual career couples instead of families. But of course, a lot of research shows that things get even more complicated when kids come.
What does a double career orientation involve in times of global mobility?
This is one of the challenges when living as a committed couple. The labour market logic and career logic are individual logics. Today, to reach top jobs, you as an individual need to be geographically mobile. But geographical mobility is – among having children – one of the two reasons why sometimes couples start becoming unequal career-wise when they started equally. It is a private decision each couple needs to take for themselves. However, I think is important to point out that there are consequences attached to such a decision. A two years interruption of your own career when following your partner might have long-term unintended consequences. It is not about right or wrong. It is the question if couples realize that.
How do couples balance the need for mobility and the dual career orientation?
For many years the couples could do the international moves more easily! Men’s and women’s chances in pursuing careers were highly unequal. So, there were not much more options then the female partner saying, “Honey, I am coming with you, let’s pack the backs!”. Today you can see many different models: Women now put more weight in their own professional development. Some decide not to move with the partner and take the costs, even if that means a weekend relationship. Then you have couples who try to take turns: “Now I am willing to compromise. In three years it’s my turn to look where the job brings me.” Another alternative is to look for a place which offers the best for both partners. Individually, another place might have been better for each one of them, but they compromise. And of course there are still the more traditional couples. One is having a career and the partner says: “I will look if I also find something. If yes, fine. If not, also fine. I support your career, I take care of the kids, you can work long hours”.
How is the gender balance of travelling spouses? Is it more balanced today than let’s say 10 years ago?
It is still very unbalanced, but more balanced then 10, 20 years ago. The majority of “travelling spouses” is still female. One reason among many is that more men have a partner with an educational background a bit lower than their own or with a rather flat career, for example teachers or nurses. Women who have a higher occupational status then their partner are still very exceptional.
But you can see a little bit of change: More unwillingness of women to give up their career, to move every two or three years with their partner, to take all these little compromises. Today, you have a little bit more of awareness: To have both, you have to compromise. And it cannot be that only one is doing the compromises. Increasingly you see partners wanting and having a fairer share of family and work. You can also notice that men are more willing to take parental leave. I think the mentality is changing.
From your research regarding dual career couples, is there a learning how couples can handle the ambition for two fulfilling careers in times of international mobility?
Consider several options, if possible. Is the move to Brazil or London the only option? Could the partner also work there? Especially with international or intercontinental moves this might be difficult due to work visa and/or language barriers. Or is a move to – let’s say – Leuven smarter and the best for all of us compared to London? And you normally know about a move in advance. Look into your options! What can you do there? Work? Finish your PhD? Continue education? This is a different approach then “I do whatever is necessary for your job”.
And more and more employers are willing to help. If you want a good hire, some employers like universities realize the good hire will have a partner who is not willing to pack her backs and follow. This means the good hire will say, “You know, my partner is not coming, so I am not coming as well. Or can you offer something?” Private employers as well have come to realize if you want to hire good people and want to HOLD good people, you need to do something. Maybe the good hire and her/his partner come to Leuven but will leave again in two years if they find something good for both of them. You do not want to hire good people every two years. These are immensely high costs!
Dual career support first came up in the US in the 1980s and is more recent in Europe. Today there is a growing trend at universities and big companies to offer support. Do you know when this kind of support also started in Europe and what was the initial motivation behind it to establish it in both the US and Europe?
At German universities, for example, official or institutionalized dual career support started in the mid-2000s. Here, it was based on a gender perspective. The dual career support offices were mostly located at the equal opportunities officer of the university. In the US it started not mainly from a gender perspective, but it was a very strategic decision of the employers: “We need to help the people who we want with support for their partners. Or they are leaving once they find something better”. Employers see that dual career support gives them an advantage compared to the competitors.