Why couples need a congruent career strategy not dual careers

The traditional notion of a successful dual career couple  seems to me to be outdated. Instead we should be looking at a congruent career strategy.

I’ve just led a workshop at the #JUMP13 Forum in Brussels on “How to be a successful dual career couple“.  The first thing that struck me was  how confusing this very concept is:

What is successful?  One couple’s perception of success and a dream life is another’s nightmare. We all have our own ideas of what it means to be successful.  Research carried out by LinkedIn  “What women want at work study”  suggests that for women the meaning of success has shifted from achieving a high salary, to establishing a balance between their professional and personal lives

The notion of career:  what does that mean  in today’s world when meteoric  linear careers are a thing of the past and portfolio careers are  more typical.

What does dual mean really? 

(Definition  – Consisting of two parts, elements, or aspects)  This can cover a number of set ups:

  • two individuals within a relationship pursuing their own goals.  This is characterised  usually by the woman being caught below the glass ceiling while her partner strides purposefully to the top.
  • both members of the partnership supporting one career:  The Obamas would be a good example of this, trailing spouses  or stay at home parents who then have to deal with a parenting gap.
  • One career/one job:  typical of this would be the man pursuing a traditional hierarchical career and the woman compromising to accommodate family needs. This could include accepting a job below her skill set and ability, or switching to working part-time – both common options for women.

So how can we manage the complexity of modern life coping with conflicting demands on our careers,  relationships and  of course ourselves?

Congruent Career Strategy

I believe we will be seeing more of what I call congruent career strategies  (meaning when careers are in harmony or alignment), where both careers are considered  jointly and equally. Not just that there are two separate elements. Focus might indeed switch between the two parts at different points.The main difference is that this would always be in line with consciously stated and discussed goals and a jointly agreed  harmonious vision, rather than a reliance on unconscious beliefs and objectives, which is what most of us tend to drift into.

This would allow the pool of educated women to reach their potential and  for there to be shared responsibility for both revenue generation and  family,  split equally between both partners. Men would be relieved of the stress of being the main breadwinners and allow them to be present rather than absent fathers and partners, leading richer and fuller lives. The possibility to pursue two careers within a couple is no longer a luxury for many, but economic necessity.

We all know that our professional and personal lives are very intertwined and problems on one side invariably spill over into the other. Yet they are continued to be viewed separately with unsettling consequences posing difficulties for couples trying to create successful career strategies.

Let’s look at recent  trends

Recent complex, over lapping and discordant trends tell us that developed economies face aging populations and declining birth rates, presenting a worrying future for today’s governments.  We  actually need couples to have children to support future economies. But there are some significant disconnects which indicate that trouble is on the horizon.

60% of European graduates are women and we make up 50% of the workforce, yet occupy very low levels of senior positions in most developed economies. We carry out 80% of household chores and take 80% of parental leave. We earn 20% on average less than our male counterparts. We are creating a demographic that is unfulfilled, dissatisfied, but above all under utilised.



Choosing the right partner

Sheryl Sandberg suggests that choosing the right partner is the most important career choice that women make. Yet with between 33-50% of marriages ending in divorce, many of us are clearly not getting it right. Our choice of a partner is made at a time when we are least equipped to make sensible decisions:  madly in love and deeply in lust. Very often the failure to create jointly agreed common goals and to rely on unstated unconscious beliefs means many couples end up in relationships with people they eventually barely recognise, let alone would choose a second time round.   Susan found out that she and her husband had intrinsically divergent parenting values when their son was 14. This was after more than 10 years of frustration and tension resulting in their eventual divorce.


Faced with the challenge of coping with family and professional life causes many women to opt to work at  levels lower than their capabilities, or to switch to part-time hours  as part of a dual career strategy  (one career/one job model). This reduces their pensionable earnings,  leaving them financially vulnerable in  later life, another general negative trend lurking on the horizon. Yet an additional reason why a  congruent career strategy would be advantageous to the dual career models. And of course all this begs the question that the divorce rate might be stemmed with a more conscious and joint approach to career planning in place.  In Belgium 33% of families are now run by single parents, an increase of 26% since 1991.


In the workshop of about 50 women, it was clear that the burning issues were not just in the workplace.  The conversation focused on how to cope with the practical issues of:

  • corporate cultures and education systems that strongly favour the one career/one job,  or one career/two person models making it difficult for both men and women to find balance
  • the constant battle to avoid doing or managing it all.
  • finding the time to nurture both their relationships and themselves.
  • selling the concept to their partners

Many used professional  language for strategies to deal with issues in their non professional lives.  Low value work  ( a.k.a. ironing), time management,  prioritising, parent mentoring, unproductive and lost time (commuting) and outsourcing

The use of online technology to make communication more effective was clearly helping:  splitting grocery lists on-line, date nights scheduled into Outlook and a heartfelt plea for an app to manage family life,  not just those aimed at mothers!   Whoever does this will be a millionaire overnight.

Persuading men

Some alluded to the difficulty of persuading  their partners to engage in a more structured and participative approach to joint career management. Gen Y are exhibiting a desire for a greater balance between professional and personal life than they experienced with their Boomer parents. All research suggests that married men living with their wives and more involved with their families lead richer lives.  They live longer, are healthier, happier and enjoy better sex lives. It should be a no-brainer easy sell!

If the notion of dual career success is changing for both men and women, what we need to see now are the same changes reflected in our work places and government policies.

If you feel your career strategy is out of alignment with your partner’s, check out my programme:  Creating a Congruent Career Strategy. This programme is offered to couples on a face to face basis  (based in Brussels)  or for busy couples  via online webinar coaching with different locations possible!

Contact: dorothy.dalton@skynet.be

31 thoughts on “Why couples need a congruent career strategy not dual careers

  1. krissakabusi

    Hi Dorothy, this is potentially such a wonderful post, the base idea of congruent dual career strategies is forward thinking and empowering.

    I just wonder how many people let alone men are put off by this feminist diatribe (polemic). I do think thirty years ago there was a whole host of communities including woman that were marginalised by a Caucasian male dominated core of society but surely in 2013 things are changing. Is it the pace of change that is your challenge?

    Sorry if I offend, I’ve read the post a few times, I just love the concept of dual career strategies, and found the germ of the idea so empowering and was looking forward to the enlightenment from your considerable intellect and then got deflated.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my reply

    Kriss Akabusi MBE Executive Director The Akabusi Company

    e: kriss@akabusi.com http://www.akabusi.com

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Kriss – thanks for your comment. No offence taken at all. You‘ve raised an important point about perception and possibly also the role of subconscious bias and language choice.

      I’m always cautious about the use of terms such as “ feminist diatribe” which can be emotive. Merriman’s defines feminism as “ the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes “ and Diatribe as “ a bitter and abusive speech or piece of writing”.

      I actually don’t think it was a diatribe at all, but it was feminist because it was about the social equality of the sexes. To suggest otherwise would imply that the women at the workshop were bitter and abusive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      They were very measured and appreciative of their partners, but also very open to discussing the practical challenges they face every day. They were equally mindful of the difficulties facing organisations especially SMEs to meet their needs.

      What I set out to do (although your experience of the piece was not what I had hoped) was to highlight that there are certain sociological trends that in my view (and the view of many of the participants) that workplaces and governments are not responding to adequately.

      This was not an attack on Caucasian males at all – there are a number of direct references to how men will also benefit from this approach as much as women to lead richer lives. Men are equally caught up in career models which don’t work for them either and struggle to cope with the changes that are going on around them.

      What I was doing was providing some figures which although relate to Belgium because that’s where I gave the workshop, they are broadly similar in most developed economies with some regional differences.

      They would suggest that in 2013 that there is indeed gender imbalance. The figures speak for themselves. However, it’s how we interpret and respond to them which is important. My own view is that these statistics indicate that something doesn’t jive. Failure to examine the trends carefully will cause problems to economies and businesses in the longer term.

      On a micro level we are already seeing personal problems such as divorce rates, the increase in single parent families (26% increase in Belgium since 1991) and health (particularly stress and depression) all becoming workplace issues. They impact men equally.

      This was a snap shot of the workshop with a focus on the macro trends. When I do it again you should attend!

  2. Lisa

    This was a really interesting article. In our household there is only my husband and I (no kids yet) however there is definite consideration for both careers. We are also talking (in the lead up to kids) about how that will all work. We have been together long enough now to know when we are unhappy at work and what type of work satisfy’s us. It also gives us scope to know how this will impact our lives.

    Both husband and I have been offered opportunities in mining on a FIFO roster, but neither of us want to do it (despite the financial boost) because of the impact to our lives in being constantly separated.

    So the notion of congruent careers is alive and well in our house. However what is still evident is the feeling of “not being good enough” on husbands part for me either earning more or excelling in my career. He still has the old belief system that the man should be the provider.

    Time will tell how that will impact us when kids arrive…..

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Lisa – thanks for your comment. The content of the workshop and coaching programme is that you should create a strategy around that unconscious belief held by your partner and work out how you are going to handle that as a partnership when you have children! Good luck!

  3. Marianne

    Hi Dorothy – I found your piece presented a balanced overview of what is going on in the world around us. It was in no sense a diatribe and indeed powerful. Feminist diatribe is a pejorative and emotive description of a post that seemingly has dared to have the temerity to challenge the wisdom of the status quo.

    Your observations are correct and to link them to potential workplace issues is perceptive. We have cohorts of educated women who are being under utilised and who leave the work place or trade down professionally because of the pressures of coping with work and family life. When my company set up a work /life flex programme as many men jumped at the chance as women. We are seeing a shift in what they want too. Your post reflects that perspective.

    @Kriss, gender imbalance sadly is alive and well in 2013 and although progress has been made in the last 30 years, you are right the pace of change isn’t fast enough.

  4. Tom

    Dorothy and Marianne – agree it is dangerous to drift into the use of stereotyped language to suggest something that presents a synthesis of current statistics as a feminist diatribe! The numbers are pretty self evident.

    If we wait for gender balance to take its course it will be 2040 before that happens. I want my daughter to have the same opportunities as my son!

    Men do want to be released from the pressure of being the main wage earners and as portfolio careers become the norm no one is guaranteed a permenant job. Future couples can’t rely on anyone person being the sole revenue generator – male or female.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Tom – thanks – I agree all social trends ultimately hit the work place and vice versa. Generally we are seeing Gen Y men and women don’t want to live their lives the way their parents did -they will also not be able to, with many having to work until they are 70. These are interesting times and the pace of change is rapid.

  5. Agnes Lang

    @Kriss I’m curious why you got deflated. What were you expecting? What Dorothy has presented is widely reported and discussed. The implications of these trends are only now starting to be voiced. We are all going to need to work longer and shifting to lower income jobs or part time work at a critical period in our careers will impact future pensionable earnings. That is if pensions even exist of course – it’s highly likely they won’t. Divorce and single parenting also have an impact.

    Men and women do view their careers together, but with men usually earning more, women tend to downshift to be involved in childcare ( the one career/one job model). If that couple then divorce – there are instantly problems. 50% of marriages end in divorce.

    These are just facts – nothing feminist about them. As a single mother of color do I encounters barriers – yes I do!

  6. Tamsin

    Shocked by the comment that a piece linking a number of social trends would be labelled a “feminist diatribe” . That is unhelpful judgmental language which we expected to encounter 30 years ago. Disappointed to see it today especially in this context. It seems an attempt undermine a thoughtful post.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Tamsin – I find that many people who are not particularly interested or involved in this sphere don’t really know the extent to which disparity exists. Even women don’t know that generally they are paid about 20% less than their male counterparts. It comes as a shock! Hopefully this discussion might encourage Kriss to do some reading on the subject!

  7. Annaliese

    The expression feminist diatribe takes us back to the 60s and 70s and has no place in such a measured context. Women are not marginalised (although in some sectors they are) they make up 50% of the workforce and cannot not be ignored especially as they ae becoming more highly qualified than ever before.

    These are all feminist issues in the sense that they are about social and gender equality, but the point that Dorothy is making is that they are primarily economic issues.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Annaliese – thanks for your comment. I don’t want to detract from the issues that the practical issues that the women raised which are related to corporate practises and political decisions.

  8. William

    I am a father of 2 talented young women in their mid – late 20s. I own a small business that employs 90% women. At times this has been a challenge coping with maternity leave and demands for flexi-time and part -time hours.This is what I have observed:
    – some women want to be the main child carer and choose to do so making sacrifices financially to stay at home when their kids are small. They are then surprised when they struggle to re-enter the workplace.
    – some have to be the main parent because they are divorced.
    – some operate below their skill sets to be the primary carer because the father will not, or cannot, participate equally because of their own professional commitments.

    Many men are discouraged by their employers from working flexi-time. As an employer I would welcome congruent careers – very often I ask myself where are the partners and fathers! They need to step up to start redressing the balance. I want my daughters to have different futures!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks William -there have been some indications that men have been discouraged from taking parenting leave and been told that the ” daddy track ” would be harmful to their careers. I am happy to see that is changing as more companies offer structrues that facilitate congruent careers.

  9. Jenny

    My partner and I both want to have a congruent strategy. Like Lisa’s husband I sense he struggles at times with the notion of what his role is and a sense of masculine identity. He was raised in very traditional family-his dad could have made @kriss comments. He thinks gender balance has been achieved and it’s all hokum! Sometimes the relationship side is more challenging than the office!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Jenny – this was a comment in the workshop – from some younger women. It’s worth thinking about. Persuading partners to participate in a less stereotyped way. Research suggests that men are more fulfilled too.

  10. Sara

    A duel-career mode does no good to nuclear famlies. My husband has to work on shift, which is exhausting. I used to work in office, but now a part-time cashier in supermarket, in order to care my family. We live a much happier life than before. A few days age, I pass by a shop and it’s selling Labor law posters. My former workplace hangs that posters, too. However, I don’t regret giving that job up, because all I have now is what I want in my life.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Sara – I agree. My own thoughts are that corporate culture relies on a fully functioning nuclear family which is not reflected in the structure of society today. For us all to floursih in the long term we need workplace structures to accommocadate those wider changes. Thanks for your comment.

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  12. D. A. Wolf

    A very thoughtful column and the discussion that has followed is equally interesting. As you know, as a long time single/solo mother following divorce, my once more “traditional” international corporate career, already narrowed when my children hit school age, became all but impossible when I found myself on my own with two confused little boys to deal with and subsequently raise.

    While I was able to refashion something of a career, and have done so combining many activities I love, my earnings fell by 70% at a time when all my expenses were increasing. This has taken place without the security of an “employment status,” which, in the U.S., means virtually no social safety net, ie no leave of any sort for any reason, no vacations, no health insurance unless I cover the sky-high premiums, no sick days, etc.

    As any parent knows, as any person knows, this is a recipe for eventual disaster. The body will crash.

    So beyond working below one’s skill levels or at best, stagnating, we’re talking about some 15 million people (last figure I read) who are struggling to get by as “independent workers” – unprotected by employment policies, ineligible for unemployment, and essentially unimpacted by any of the much-needed structural changes that you address in your article and comments.

    The notion of congruent careers? It makes excellent sense, but in difficult economic times, those with jobs are job scared and hanging on as tightly as possible. Those with part-time work, with or without an “employee status,” are also hanging on for dear life. Options aren’t part of the picture. Only an improving global economy – and the educational and social policies to support real world families – will improve the situation in my opinion.

    One final observation about the 20-somethings and 30-somethings I’m often in touch with online. Many of the men I exchange with through online conversations are very interested in more involvement with their children and in general, their family lives. In those scenarios where they seem to achieve some measure of congruent careers, the nature of the work performed is a significant factor. Two corporate managers – (the case for my ex-husband and myself) – that’s going to be a tough one. A teacher and a writer? You have a better chance. A musician paired with dentist? Again, you may have a better chance. Two inflexible schedules (by the nature of the work) won’t play out in congruent fashion very well.

    I could go on… The wheels are churning. Terrific post.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Debra thanks for your comment. Your post resonated – in term of your pre-divorce position. As in many cases decisions were based in unconscious beliefs rather than stated goals and ended up in a lack of jointly agreed strategy. So a definite lack of congruity.

      The workshop took place in Belgium where only 3% of parents have stay at home dads and 33% of women work part time. The divoce rate in Belgium is 1 in 3 marriages ends in divorce – lower than other countries and one in 3 is headed up by a single parent. Like you if these women are impacted by divorce then their financial security, particularly in the long term will be impacted. Women live longer than men! The stats for the US are much harsher of course.

      The challenges you describe are the ones that impact single mothers. But I agree with your post that as oragnisations and governments base their cultures, assumptions and imperatives around a fully functioning nuclear family, they should make sure that it contributes to that functionality. Corporate culture and practises should be modified to support family life, not damage it. Economies need couples to have children and for many long careers are no longer a luxury but an economic necessity.

      Should a woman give up her job to support her partner and children? That will always be a matter of individual choice, but any decision should be made in the full knowledge that long term financial security is being impacted. I would take it the step further and say that both parents should be able to both work and have a career if that is what they want and not penalised or viewed negatively because they wish to support their children.

      You may also find my post Children a Corporate Inconvenience.

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