Researcher Joy Pixley
Study finds that patterns of decision making among dual-earner couples have predictable long-range outcomes. Steve Zylius/UC Irvine

When people asked Joy Pixley for advice based on her study of dual-career couples, her joking response used to be: “If you and your partner are planning to take turns with career decisions, take your turn first.”

As her research progressed, however, she was surprised to learn that husbands had more lucrative careers in the long term when a decision early in the marriage favored the wife’s career. Conversely, women went on to earn more when an initial decision benefited the husband’s career.

“Taking the second turn might not be so bad after all,” says Pixley, UC Irvine assistant professor of sociology. Her study of career hierarchy in married and cohabitating couples shows that many early work-family decisions can have enduring consequences.

Pixley recently won the Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family Research. Her paper on dual-career couples was selected from about 2,500 articles published in more than 75 scholarly journals.

Here, she discusses her findings and their implications for families and employers.

Q: Your study identifies five patterns of decision making predictive of career and income gains for dual-earner couples. What are these patterns, and how do they influence outcomes?
The easiest pattern to describe is when couples never face any major decisions that would affect both their careers, which isn’t uncommon. Another pattern is “equal decisions,” in which they do make one or more major choices like this but with approximately equal effects on each spouse’s career. In the “husband moderate gains” pattern, couples make one or two decisions that are somewhat better for the husband’s career and no decisions favoring the wife’s.

In contrast, the “husband large gains” pattern shows one or two choices that are substantially better for the husband’s career, often preceded by an early decision slightly more beneficial to the wife’s. Finally, in the “taking turns” pattern, couples make at least two decisions that alternate between favoring the wife’s career and favoring the husband’s.

The most important finding is that these patterns of decisions were more strongly related to income than any of the summary measures we would normally use, such as how many decisions favored the husband over the wife or the overall extent to which decisions were better for one career than the other.

Q: According to your study, a husband’s or wife’s career benefits most when the other’s career is prioritized first. Why?
In the “husband large gains” pattern, most couples start out with a decision that benefits the wife’s career a bit more. When I looked back at the interviews with those couples, these early decisions were primarily for the wife to work to support the family while the husband earned an advanced degree in, for example, law or medicine.

Once he had done that and was establishing his professional career, it wasn’t long before they made a second decision that was substantially better for his career than for hers – often that she would stop working or cut back to part time in order to focus on their children. These couples planned traditional work-family arrangements, but unlike earlier generations, the wife’s ability to support them financially early on was an important element.

In the “taking turns” pattern, sometimes the first decision is better for the wife, but more often it favors the husband and the second decision is better for her. This pattern includes all the couples whose decisions show high relative career gains for the wives – that is, decisions that were much better for her than for him. These couples were generally more supportive of the wife’s career and more open to the idea that the husband might take a loss or at least not advance in order to promote the wife’s career.

Q: Based on your findings, what type of conversation should a couple have early in their marriage about work?
This research suggests that decisions made early in the relationship can have very long-lasting implications for each spouse’s career. So it’s definitely important for couples to discuss their plans and expectations about balancing work and family life before making major decisions – like moving or going back to school – that could affect both their careers. It’s clear that many couples in my study didn’t explicitly discuss these matters early in their relationships and later wished they had.

Q: What should employers and human resources departments take away from this study?
Employers need to remember that individual employees are often part of dual-earner couples who probably have a long history of negotiating their careers. They may have constraints on their ability to work late, go on business trips or relocate. On the other hand, dual-earner couples can use their skills, knowledge and contacts to help each other deal with job difficulties. This study doesn’t allow me to make any specific policy recommendations, but it does suggest being sensitive to that issue.