The benefits of bringing your husband to work

August 30, 2002

It's timwe for universities to recognise the needs of academic couples, say Phyllis Moen and Stephen Sweet.

In the US and the UK, two in three couples with a child under the age of six are in dual-earner relationships. Many of these couples share the "three-jobs, two-people problem" - the difficulties of managing two jobs and maintaining household and childcare responsibilities.

For university employees, work-family problems are especially strong, given the pace and timing of tenure cycles and the the demanding nature of the work. People who aspire to work in academe face additional challenges in finding employment because many will need to accommodate the career aspirations of a partner. As many as 35 per cent of female academics and 40 per cent of their male counterparts have partners who hold advanced degrees. In some disciplines, the proportion is much higher.

Given the ways academic careers are linked, most of these couples follow one of three career pathways. One route is to move to a community that holds opportunities for both partners. Another path is for couples to favour one partner's career over the other. Our studies show that this is the norm in the US, with most couples favouring the career of the husband.

A third pathway is to "co-work" and for both partners to find jobs in the same university. One in four universities in the US offers formal or informal programmes to facilitate the employment of spouses, but little is known about how co-working affects work and family lives. After interviewing 6 couples with one or both partners working in one of two universities in upstate New York, we were surprised by how many couples co-work, even though both of us have worked with our spouses and know many colleagues who have done likewise.

In our sample, one in seven couples co-works, with the husband and wife employed in the same university. These couples are twice as likely to say that they do not prioritise one spouse's career over that of the other. Co-working couples also tend to be more educated, suggesting that this career strategy is more likely to be adopted by those employed in professorial or research positions. These couples tend to be more progressive in accommodating the wife's career, especially among couples in which both partners have an advanced degree.

Previous sociological studies gave us some ideas about how co-working might influence work and family lives. One possibility centred on the concept of role conflict and the competition between work and family responsibilities. For many workers, the job offers respite from the messiness of family lives. For co-working couples, this problem could be more severe as more family concerns would intrude into their jobs, making work less of a haven from family. Previous studies also indicated that co-working might complicate interactions with other workers and supervisors.

On the other hand, perhaps co-working facilitates work and family roles in a synergistic manner. One source of synergy could come from the increase in "social capital" gained by having a spouse employed in the workplace. This spouse might be able to observe opportunities and help avert potential problems. It is also possible that the increased communication between work and family might ease, rather than hinder, work-family functioning. Our other studies indicate that family-friendly workplaces tend to have supportive supervisors who allow employees to communicate with home freely during the workday.

Rather than treating work and family as being unconnected, family-friendly workplaces facilitate the bridging of roles. As these bridges would be strongest for co-working couples, we would expect less negative "spillover" between work and family roles and greater success in family and work relationships. On the whole, we find the greatest support for the latter conclusion.

For couples with advanced degrees, co-working is associated with greater work commitment among husbands, as well as greater family and marital satisfaction among some wives. This does not mean that co-working husbands and wives experience no conflict between work and family responsibilities. Our findings only indicate that they experience less than their counterparts who do not co-work and that co-working buffers some of these strains.

Demographic trends towards an ever-increasing prevalence of dual-earner couples in the workforce, together with these findings, suggest that university hiring and retention decisions ought to consider the concerns facing dual-career couples.

Phyllis Moen is professor of life course studies at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Careers Institute: A Sloan Center for the Study of Working Families. Stephen Sweet is an assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College.

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