For today's modern couples, deciding whose career takes top priority within the relationship is becoming more nuanced and complex.
The movement towards greater gender equity has made major strides, from a time where women had to fight for the most basic of human rights, like access to education or employment.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of feminists who have come before us, women enjoy far greater liberties and freedoms in their everyday lives than those of generations past.
We now find ourselves in a more progressive society that overall tends to be more inclusive and accepting. However, this means that the inequalities we are now fighting for are becoming more nuanced, complex, and less clear-cut.
One example of this is how modern couples balance their responsibilities at work and at home, and whose career gets the top priority within the relationship.
In the past, this would not have even been a question. Most legally acknowledged romantic partnerships were cisgender and heterosexual, and conformed to well-established gender roles and expectations. The men went to work while the women maintained the home and raised children. While women are now an essential part of the workforce, imbalances remain.
Dr Lillian Nejad, clinical psychologist at Skills for Life, explained that many people falsely assume that gender equity has all but been achieved, and that there is nothing holding women back from pursuing their professional goals.
While societal beliefs have become more egalitarian, unfortunately these attitudes have not always translated to actual changes in behaviour in regards to contributing equally at home and at work.
“There are further societal shifts that need to take place so that change can go beyond just our attitudes,” said Dr Nejad.
“The pay gap is one of the main issues of contention. Often the decisions about whose career takes priority are based purely on economic factors.
“Given women do not receive equal pay in comparison to their male counterparts, it is far more likely that a man’s career will take precedence just based on the fact that he’s making more money for the family.”
What’s driving persistent gender inequities at work and at home?
Dr Nejad explained that the inequitable opportunities women face in their careers are inextricably linked with imbalances that occur in the home.
“Research shows that although women make up half of the workforce, they still do the majority of the household chores,” she said.
“Women also tend to take on more of the mental load – the unseen tasks of planning, organising, and decision-making for the family, that often goes unnoticed.”
The enormous responsibility of managing a family can be a distraction from a woman’s career, hindering their ability to attend social and networking events. Some women may even feel they need to reduce their working hours in order to meet their family’s needs.
The extra pressures women face at home, combined with the systemic barriers preventing them from reaching their maximum earning potential, causes many women to resign to the fact that their career will always take a back seat.
Interestingly, in dual-income couples, research suggests that whoever earns more at work tends to do less household chores, but that for couples who earn the same amount, the labor is divided more equally. This highlights the vital importance of addressing the gender pay gap in liberating women to pursue their professional aspirations.
Are gender norms and stereotypes changing the way couples manage their careers?
Many people assume that modern couples will naturally fall into more equitable gender roles and break the mold that held women back in previous generations. However, emerging research paints quite a different picture, with younger couples continuing to follow traditional patterns.
“In a study examining Year 12 high school students’ preferences for their future family life, results showed that even though they were more open to different scenarios for couples, the most desired configuration was still ‘man at work, woman at home’,” said Dr Nejad.
This clearly highlights just how pervasive these ingrained gender expectations are, and that we cannot simply wait and hope that greater gender equality will fall into our laps. Closing the gender pay gap aside, women who are currently struggling to balance their work and home life may want to consider raising the subject for discussion to see if there is room to make adjustments within their family unit.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to personal decisions about balancing work with household responsibilities, childcare, socialising or hobbies. Ultimately, it just has to make sense for you and your unique circumstances.
“Every couple’s situation is different,” said Dr Nejad.
“Some couples may come to a crossroads when they have children, others may find themselves facing difficult career decisions that impact their lifestyle, where they decide to live, or whether they change their career path altogether.”
These issues all have the potential to cause significant stress in a relationship, so it is important to communicate your needs in an open, constructive way.
Making decisions that impact your entire family unit is never simple, however agreement on the best way forward is more likely when partners share similar values.
While some level of compromise is to be expected when it comes to shifting priorities around you and your partner’s career, there is no reason why a mutually agreeable solution can’t be found.
“If relationships are built upon a foundation of mutual respect, open communication and a willingness to compromise, couples can successfully work through the complexity of these kinds of conversations and decisions,” said Dr Nejad.
Finding balance when managing competing demands at work and home
Often, the harsh reality is that income is a big deciding factor into which career receives the highest priority. Even for couples who place a high value on fairness and equality, practicality and the ability to meet the family’s material needs must be considered.
Every couple is different, however, and in some cases some sacrifices can be made elsewhere to enable a woman to pursue her career with more focus.
“There is no right decision, just the best decision for the couple at that time,” said Dr Nejad.
As with so many things, deciding on whose career takes highest priority requires compromise and negotiation between both parties. Of course, this is far more easily said than done, but with mutual respect and open communication there is no reason a fair and agreeable solution cannot be reached.
“If both people in a relationship value fairness, equality and equity, then they are in the best position to make a decision that will feel good for both of them,” said Dr Nejad.
“When people feel heard and respected, they are more likely to be open and honest about their wants and needs, and this leads to more creative and effective problem-solving and decision-making.”
The good news is that no decision has to be permanent, and part of your negotiation could even include a predetermined review date where you check in and assess whether the situation is still meeting both your needs.
Achieving equity and balance in relationships is no easy feat in a society ruled by antiquated gender roles and norms, so finding what works for your unique relationship may take some time.
Try to be patient with yourself and with your partner, and view any missteps along the way as learning opportunities to gather more insight into what makes you feel happiest and most fulfilled.
Learning to make complex decisions that affect your family unit together as a team, with curiosity, respect and an open mind is a skill that will serve you well in facing any challenges that may be on the horizon.