Gender Inequality and the Two-Body Problem

By Jaclyn S. Wong 

When an opposite-sex couple decides whether to move for a job opportunity, their outcome often depends on the gender of the person who was offered that opportunity. When men are offered career opportunities requiring relocation, couples usually accept them and women move for men. However, when women are given job opportunities in another location, couples usually forgo them and women stay for men.  In both scenarios, couples’ behaviors result in adverse consequences for women, including interrupted work histories and lower pay over their life course. How do couples keep reproducing gender-unequal outcomes even when they favor egalitarianism – gender equality in work and family?

I answer this question by interviewing both partners of 21 heterosexual couples considering relocation for job opportunities following graduation from graduate or professional school. Studying this particular group of people allowed me to identify how gender shapes couples’ decision-making. Partners in graduate or professional school were similar to one another in their educational background and qualifications, so there was no clear career leader among men or women in these couples. Further, these contemporary young adults endorsed egalitarian attitudes toward work and family, meaning they did not assume men would take primary responsibility for working while women would take the lead in family affairs.Wong_2.8.17

I interviewed each person three times over the course of nearly two years to document how couples navigate their job applications and transition into their first careers. This over-time study allows me to capture peoples’ desired work-family arrangements as they prepare to launch careers at Time 1, their negotiations over actual work-family roles at Time 2, and their evaluations of their outcomes at Time 3.

Gendered Decision-Making Pathways

I document three gendered decision-making pathways. On one negotiation trajectory, eight couples maintain their egalitarian desires over time. At Time 1, couples make plans to achieve an egalitarian outcome.  At Time 2, when realities confront ideals, both partners, and especially the men, challenge cultural norms around gender, work, and family, and work within their constrained situations to devise contingency plans that enable couples to maintain their egalitarian desires.  Men actively help maintain their partners’ career by altering their job search to accommodate their partners, and by choosing jobs in locations with the most opportunities for their partners. By Time 3, most couples move together, and both partners find work in their respective fields.

On another pathway, seven couples changed their desires over time to justify a neotraditional arrangement in which both partners work, but men’s careers are prioritized.  At Time 1, these couples also planned to have an egalitarian arrangement.  However, at Time 2, when reality fell short of ideals, these couples, and the women in particular, did emotion work – managed their emotions – to change their desires to make life livable for the couple.  Persistent cultural norms linking paid labor with masculinity and family to femininity made it difficult for professional men to forgo careers and adopt primary caregiving roles when they couldn’t “have it all.” Men emphasized their desire to work, so women did emotional labor to justify compromising their careers to prioritize their partners’ careers.  By Time 3, couples on this pathway moved or stayed for men’s jobs; five of the seven women became unemployed.

On the last pathway, six couples deferred to one partner’s desires: one partner, in all cases the men, withdrew from decision-making to give the other, in principle, freedom to make an individual choice. However, this logic unintentionally left women the emotional and practical work of coordinating two careers and the couple’s life. At Time 1, these men said they supported whatever their partners wanted to do, but at Time 2, they did not actively engage in decision-making.  In accounting for this lack of action, they expressed a feeling that it was not their place to make choices for their partners.  By Time 3, most women were able to maintain both partners’ careers and their relationship despite having hands-off partners; women negotiated their careers in ways that complimented men’s careers, with some choosing long-distance relationships to “have it all.”

Men’s Power in the Workplace and Women’s Responsibility to Balance Careers and Family

My research shows how egalitarian young adults challenge and reproduce gender-unequal work-family arrangements. The workplace continues to favor men, so men have relatively more power than women in couples’ early career negotiations, despite their equal educational credentials. How men used their relative power shaped how couples distributed responsibility for achieving work-family balance across partners during their negotiation. The maintain desires pathway illustrates how some men leveraged their workplace power to maintain the couple’s egalitarian desires. On this trajectory, responsibility for achieving balance was equally distributed across men and women, which challenges gender-unequal work and family roles. The change desires pathway shows that some men’s relative workplace power incited women to change their desires to accommodate the couple. The defer to one partner’s desires trajectory illustrates how some men’s power allowed them to shirk responsibility for maintaining balance in the couple. On these two pathways, responsibility for achieving work-family balance for couple fell to women.  These processes reproduced gendered work-family outcomes, despite couples’ initial desires for egalitarian arrangements.

Jaclyn S. Wong is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. She uses qualitative and quantitative methods to study romantic relationships and the gendered patterns of work and family over the life course. Jaclyn’s article, Competing desires: How Young Adult Couples Negotiate Moving for Career Opportunities, is in the Vol 31 No. 2, April, 2017 issue of Gender & Society

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