What makes dual career couples work? A longitudinal comparative mixed methods analysis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Sociology


Longitudinal research has mainly focussed on women's problems in maintaining a career. However, mothers in a relationship are the ones who struggle because fathers often rely on their unpaid work efforts to maintain a career (Blossfeld and Drobnic, 2001, Gershuny, 2000). This suggests that couple-level shifts in the division of labour upon entering parenthood are at the heart of the problem of gender inequalities in life course career investment. Women who enter parenthood are also the majority of the UK female population (Office for National Statistics, 2012). Hence, this project's main goal is to understand how couples' careers are interrelated across their lives. The second goal is to analyse which factors are associated with dual career failure and dual career success.

The theoretical re-framing requires new methodological advances. The dual curve approach, which I developed during my PhD, to fill this gap and which I will further develop in the course of the project in combination with the following two recent data advances, enables these questions to be answered. (1) Whereas it used not to be possible to look at couples' long-term career trajectories because panel data only covered short time-spans, the US, UK, and German panel studies and Swedish register data now cover up to 45 years of couples' lives. This enables a comparison of the same life course stage at different historical eras with different levels of family policy support and analysis of how couple-level behaviour relates to family support across different life course stages. The panel datasets have been harmonized in the surprisingly underused Cross National Equivalent File which greatly reduces the start-up time for comparative research. (2) This exciting quantitative opportunity is paired with a new qualitative life course component: Researchers are only now being given direct access to arrange interviews with panel participants. This unique data combination - a mixed methods approach investigating macro- and micro-level factors using both longitudinal panel and register data as well as qualitative data - enables an unprecedentedly rich narrative of couples' careers across their lives.

This application is timely because a better understanding of couples' careers may inform current policy makers' efforts to efficiently support couples' careers (as exemplified by the 2014 US White House Summit on Working Families and the introduction of 26 weeks of paternity leave if the mother returns to work in the UK). The research is also important because (1) on the macro-level, dual career success can help balance governments' social security books, which are strained by an ageing population which has to be supported by an ever smaller number of workers. (2) A better use of human capital can help companies find the employees they need. (3) On the micro-level, dual career success can decrease women's and couples' risks of falling into poverty in case of divorce or the unemployment of the male breadwinner. (4) It can contribute to a fairer society by reducing inequalities within the couple with regards to human capital investments across the life course (OECD, 2013). And (5) it can increase the quality of couples' lives in terms of individual well-being (as my PhD findings suggest). Overall, it may contribute to a more competitive UK economic performance and a fairer society.

The project will allow me to bridge disciplines as well as qualitative and quantitative, register and panel data. It will build the capacity for future comparative work thereby adding value to the UK's current large investments in longitudinal and big administrative data.

A project start in 2016 is crucial as it will allow me to work alongside two complementary non-overlapping ESRC/ERC projects. The project adds a long-term couple-level work strategy perspective to the Centre for Time Use Research's analysis of the day and can inform a panel data harmonization project

Planned Impact

The re-framing of the debate will be of considerable value to couples seeking a better work-life balance and to public policy makers. My research can impact these beneficiaries as follows:

(1) Increasing couples' quality of life

The ultimate aim of my research is to help couples pursue the careers they want rather than having to opt for the wrong position or the wrong level of work hour investment (Daly, 2005). After all, couples are desperately seeking solutions which help them maintain a dual career, but research and information on how couples' careers evolve jointly across the life course and what hinders and enables a joint career (rather than what affects a woman's career) is scarce. My research on couples' careers and knowledge exchange with couples will go some way towards filling this empirical gap. A better understanding of how couples' careers evolve jointly may inform policies and couple-level practices aimed at helping couples to maintain a dual career. A more equal human capital investment among couples may in turn raise couples' well-being.

(2) Tailoring family policies and public services to address couples' needs effectively and thereby increase UK economic performance, competitiveness, and sustainable growth

The research will cover countries with a range of family policy regimes and couples at a range of different life course stages (e.g. early or late parenthood). My research can consequently contribute to a better understanding of how couples' careers relate to family policies across different countries and at different life course stages. A better understanding may further inform new policies aimed at helping couples maintain a dual career across their lives. These may include public childcare provision, after-school clubs for primary schools, and parental leave policies. Policies in these areas may in turn allow women to stay in careers which match their human capital investments rather than having to opt for less demanding positions or a lower work hour investment. A better match in jobs and qualifications as well as a higher level of labour market participation may help reduce women's years of pension receipt whilst at the same time increasing women's pension contributions. The tax returns from employment could further raise tax revenues. Similarly, the higher income within the family has potential to foster consumption. Overall this would result in more sustainable economic growth.

(3) Addressing international goals with regards to a fair society whilst including men in the debate

My re-framing of the debate as a couples' problem has already encouraged men and institutions representing men (e.g. The Fatherhood Institute) to join the debate. They are following me on twitter and have attended my dual career workshop despite it being hosted by a women's society. This may be because men are more likely to engage with the issue of working hours/earnings inequalities when it relates to their partner's career than when it is presented as an issue affecting women in general. Through the dissemination and knowledge exchange activities, the research will continue to contribute to the recent EU Gender Inequality Unit's aim of including more men in the debate surrounding women's employment opportunities.

As recent OECD pension statistics show, lower earnings, lower work hour investment, and shorter work-spells across their lives place women at risk of poverty at pension age (OECD, 2013). My research can help by raising couples' awareness of the implications of their short-term couple-level career decisions for within-couple inequalities across the life course. This may in turn incentivise couples to invest in both partner's careers even if this is economically less viable in the short-term. The research on how couples' careers evolve across the life course may inform policies addressed at achieving an equal life-course career investment within couples.


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Langner LA (2019) After the Burden is Lifted: Caregivers' Recovery of Life Satisfaction after The Death or Recovery of a Spouse. in The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences

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Langner LA (2018) Gender Differences in Spousal Caregivers' Care and Housework: Fact or Fiction? in The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences

Description Please see the impact section for further details.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Other
Impact Types Societal

Description Cited in Report by Fatherhood Institute
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in systematic reviews
URL http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Cash-and-carry-Full-Report-PDF.pdf
Description Centre for Time Use Research 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Department of Sociology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To enable the modelling of periods of non-employment in couples' careers, I am currently working on a paper with Professor Jonathan Gershuny from the ESRC-funded Centre for Time Use Research. I am responsible for updating the UK human capital measure, harmonizing and integrating the Understanding Society waves into the measure and for creating a comparable German version from the GSOEP of the measure.
Collaborator Contribution Professor Gershuny provided the basis for the UK version of the human capital measure, which we are currently extending.
Impact A human capital measure for Germany and the UK has been created and a paper will be presented at a conference.
Start Year 2015
Description Extending couple-modelling to later life 
Organisation University of Pennsylvania
Department Department of Sociology
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Because he was interested in my work on couples, Professor Frank Furstenberg asked me to work on a paper with him in which I extend my expertise to couples' life course outcomes in later life and health. We have submitted a paper on how partners' care and housework hours shift upon the onset of their spouses' disease. I am responsible for the modelling and the writing-up of the whole article whilst Frank is providing feedback on the drafts and the analysis.
Collaborator Contribution Professor Frank Furstenberg is providing input into the analysis and interpretation.
Impact A paper hsa been submitted to a Gerontology journal.
Start Year 2016
Description Flexible Men and Successful Women Press Release with International Coverage 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The paper "Flexible men and successful women: the effects of flexible working hours on German couples' wages" received significant media attention (top 5 % of all papers tracked by Altmetric). More importantly, first steps on several pathways to (potential) impact were taken: the findings were picked up by the most widely read UK HR magazine and a global network pursuing gender equality in companies. I found out by coincidence (my brother-in-law told me about it) that the paper's insights had been shared internally at an insurance broker in Italy, making you wonder which other companies may have made use of the information. Workingmother magazine (US) and workingmums (UK) wrote about it. The Fatherhood Institute asked to include it in its annual report and men's movement (over 100.000 followers) shared the link.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-07-26-flexible-men-result-successful-women
Description Supporting the New Dual Career Post Holder - Helping Couples at the University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A new post has been created at the Careers Service/Newcomers' Club to support partners of students and staff at the University of Oxford. I was asked to share my insights with the new post holder to help her understand what the university can do to support dual career couples in the future. I provided insights on what other university's have done in that regard, how the webpage may be improved and the importance of such a post from a research perspective.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017