When Jaclyn Wong graduated from college, she saw that her female and male classmates had different post-grad priorities. Several of her female friends followed their boyfriends to “wherever the men had gotten jobs,” while the women’s careers were put on the back burner.
In another instance, she learned that a male friend had broken up with his girlfriend because supporting her career didn’t fit into his professional plans.
“I had a hunch that broader social forces were playing a role in my friends’ professional and relationship trajectories,” Wong says.
Wong’s observations inspired her graduate dissertation, wherein she interviewed 21 dual-professional couples several times over two years. These interviewees were all in different-gender couples, highly educated and all had strong career aspirations.
Her research explored the couples’ division of paid and unpaid labor, their career aspirations and what they saw as an equal partnership. After initial data collection, she followed up with the couples five years later. The project continued as she joined the College of Arts and Sciences as an assistant professor of sociology in 2018.
Her research culminated into a book, Equal Partners?, that explores how professional couples make work and relationship decisions. She concluded that while some couples were gender traditional or gender egalitarian, others fell into a third category somewhere in the middle.
“These couples are really distinguished by how they prioritize individual opportunities and personal responsibility to not hold anybody back in pursuing their dreams, so this feels very gender-neutral,” she says.
In these couples, both men and women expressed that they would support their partners’ career aspirations. However, in practice, the men were more likely to focus on their own careers while women would “independently choose” to compromise their careers to accommodate their partners.
While the couples had similar professional backgrounds, factors like marriage status and children shifted their behaviors over time.
“Transitioning into marriage did seem to change the tune of these kind of independent or autonomous actors, as I called them, where they did start to make decisions together more jointly after they became married,” Wong says.
Wong determined there are three ingredients needed for truly egalitarian relationships: structural support, cultural support and collaborative joint action.
Structural support encompasses the big picture – laws and workplace policies that support equal partnerships, like paid parental leave for men and women.
Secondly, she found that couples need cultural support to maintain an equal partnership. This requires an understanding that men and women can equally contribute to paid and unpaid labor.
“If we culturally believe that it is only women’s responsibility to take care of the home and family, but men get let off from that, we're not going to have equality,” Wong says.
Lastly, there must be collaborative action within individual relationships to establish equality. Couples must set expectations to ensure that both partners are equally pulling their weight, something that can be difficult in practice.
“We don't have a society that is quite at that level yet, and that's why it's so rare to see perfectly equal partnerships,” Wong says.
After nearly 10 years of research, Wong hopes her findings will inspire a broader conversation about practical steps toward leveling the relationship playing field.
“If individual people read the book, I hope that they will advocate for these policies to be made available to them,” Wong says. “I hope that they talk to their partners about how do we explicitly set up an equal partnership given the tools that we do have.”