Supporting Dual Career Couples: What does it really take?

“White-collar employees globally are more likely than ever to be part of a household where both partners work full time. And this story is only becoming more common. 78% of millennials in the US are in a ‘dual career couple’ compared to baby boomers at 47%.” — EFL Playbook, Supporting Dual Career Couples

Within a work ecosystem that was traditionally structured around the “breadwinner format,” dual career couples — defined as “couples (with or without children) where both partners pursue a professional career” — face a unique set of challenges in today’s workplace. On January 16, 2020, at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in San Francisco, the Berkeley Haas Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) launched Supporting Dual Career Couples, the Center’s first Equity Fluent Leadership (EFL) Playbook, designed for tackling these challenges.

Nicole Bennett, BCG Partner, whose team partnered with EGAL to prototype the Playbook, welcomed event guests and framed the importance of uncovering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies that fit within corporate strategies and offer real tactics to support thoughtful leaders. Professor Kellie McElhaney, Founding Director of EGAL, then offered an overview of equity fluent leadership, a concept developed at EGAL, and the Center’s goal to educate leaders who understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact. In service of that mission, the Playbook’s authors, Genevieve Smith and Ishita Rustagi, presented their work on how business leaders can support dual career couples before welcoming a panel of experts whose companies are at the forefront of this topic.

The conversation opened with an overview of industry trends and insights into the clear upsides for employers who are able to tackle these persistent gender inequities and adjust to a modern workplace format. Specifically, by supporting dual career couples, and therefore better meeting the needs of their diverse employees, workplaces are shown to benefit from:

  • Enhanced recruitment of top talent
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Improved productivity
  • Increased employee retention
  • And better capitalization on potential top talent

To achieve these workplace transformations, the Playbook offers seven evidence-based “plays” around two distinct categories: 1) Policies & Benefits, and 2) Workplace Culture, Mindset, & Strategy. Smith and Rustagi laid out the following seven strategic plays companies can implement to support dual career couples:

Leaders at companies including Gap Inc., Patagonia, IKEA, and BCG have already begun leading this workplace transformation by implementing some of the aforementioned changes within their organizations. Appropriately, the evening’s panel featured: Abby Davisson — Senior Director, Gap Foundation at Gap Inc; Amanda Happle — Counsel at Patagonia; Debra Packel — Director of Benefits at IKEA North American Services; and Lissa Filose — Haas MBA Alumna and Diversity & Inclusion Leader at BCG. Key takeaways from the conversation included:

Senior Leadership

  • Lissa Filose shared the noteworthy statistic that, among BCG client companies, the very top level of senior leadership has 90% single career couples, while one level down that statistic is almost flipped.
  • Reverse mentorship is one way senior leadership can better learn and understand the needs and challenges that dual career couples face.

Company Culture

  • Gap recognized that, having been founded by a dual career couple, their policies have focused on supporting gender equity at all levels since their earliest days.
  • IKEA has observed many couples with a broader overlap of life phases — i.e. couples with both a very young child and a child in college — and has noted the importance of addressing the specific challenges associated with these different life phases.
  • If someone is a member of a dual career couple, and/or has children, being visible about what they do to “make things work” can be helpful in impacting culture — i.e. making calendar events visible instead of private for things like “school drop-off.”

Innovative Policies

  • Flexible work options can look very different — ranging from flex time during any given day or week, to flex leave with large chunks of time-off over the course of the year, or mobility programs and transfer opportunities that offer flexibility over the course of a career.
  • BCG has designed their “PTO” (“predictability, teaming, and open communication”) program to focus on integrating formal and facilitated conversations around what employees are trying to “protect” in their work-life balance.
  • With a generous parental leave of eight weeks at 100% pay and another eight weeks at 50%, IKEA leaders initially had concern that employees would take their leave and then quit. In reality, those fears didn’t materialize and the average tenure of an IKEA employee who takes leave is about seven years.
  • In addition to offering onsite childcare (which Patagonia has offered since 1983), when nursing moms travel the company also pays for the baby to join their mother, and sometimes even the nanny or second parent too.

International Differences

  • IKEA determined that their American benefits policy that allocated just one week of paid parental leave wasn’t aligned with the international company’s core values, a unique challenge international companies face when, unlike the U.S., most other countries have legislation or public funding to support parental leave policies.
  • Accordingly, American companies face much higher costs in order to be on par with benefits teams in other countries.

Peer Groups

  • In addition to expanding their paid parental leave program, Gap has also worked on supporting parents after they return through a Gap Parents ERG (Employee Resource Group by and for like-minded employees who come together around a shared trait or interest). The ERG offers infrastructure to support parents as they return to work from parental leave.
  • Gap was also surprised to find that many non-parents benefited from joining the Gap Parents group to learn about the experience, should they want to become parents in the future.
  • As evidenced by the success of peer groups, some of these “plays” are best implemented through intentional communities, rather than by being passed down from the benefits team.

Rafael Sanchez, EGAL and Haas MBA alumna and Product Marketing Manager at Adobe, closed the evening with a call to action. Since he identifies as not being part of a dual career couple, he believes this affords him plenty of time to work on advocating for change. He encouraged everyone, whether or not they identify with these particular lived experiences, to start this conversation among colleagues and peers. This way, we can all build understanding around the unique and complex challenges dual career couples face in a work environment that wasn’t originally built with them in mind. He also introduced the community of practice that EGAL is building around the topic of dual career couples. Within this community, organizations and business leaders can share learnings from playbook implementation and, in doing so, can support EGAL in efforts to continually update the playbook over time.

For more information about this playbook, and future playbooks, visit EGAL’s website.

Photos by Jim Block

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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