Wives no longer taking back seat in making career decisions

Working women BLB

October 28, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Dual-career couples -- there are 13,735,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census -- have a lot of problems to work out.

And one of the hardest is what to do about career planning when both wife and husband are on a fast track.

In the past, whose career came first traditionally was resolved in favor of the husband, because he usually had the higher salary and was the breadwinner.

But today employed wives who view their careers as being as important as their husbands' jobs -- even if he makes more money -- are asking for equal consideration.

"I've relocated seven times for my husband's career -- I was always the tagalong, always portable," said Wilma Davidson, 48, owner of Davidson & Associates, a communications consulting firm in North Brunswick, N.J.

"He was making more money, was the primary provider, so it seemed totally logical to go where his opportunities were," said Davidson, who opened her consulting business 11 years ago and has among her accounts Anheuser-Busch Inc. and AT&T Bell Laboratories Inc. "It's usually the woman who defers, and I always have."

Stephen Davidson, also 48, is a former corporate vice president of human resources for a Fortune 500 company. He recently turned down another request to transfer and is now looking at other options. The Davidsons, who have two children, are formulating a joint strategy for career advancement -- as equals.

"Now that my husband's career is in transition, we're making these decisions together, and I'm no longer just someone who adjusts after the decision is made," said the consultant, who has a doctorate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Ironically, she says, just when her consulting business is firmly established and could be run from any location, the couple are taking a long, hard look at each one's career potential.

Last December, the Davidsons began dual-career counseling for executives in a program called Lifework Partners, a division of the outplacement firm of Jannotta Bray & Associates Inc. Individual testing and feedback followed by joint counseling and strategy sessions are given at the firm's offices in Baltimore; Chicago; Detroit; Grand Rapids; New York City; Northbrook, Ill.; Parsippany, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.

The program the Davidsons are taking costs $10,000, and Stephen's former employer foots the bill. Another program for couples, including retirement planning, costs $20,000.

"We now go for counseling once a month, and we both place our concerns on the table and decide what our priorities are," said Wilma Davidson.

The Davidsons have learned a lot: The battery of tests confirmed each is in the right career. Wilma has "no desire to start over again in a new locale, but Stephen still is a risk-taker." Yet, they respect each other's career commitments.

Like the Davidsons, 70 percent of the U.S. work force are two-paycheck couples, and the number is growing, according to Mary Graham Davis, managing director of Jannotta Bray's New York and Parsippany offices.

"Today, we're seeing a number of powerful and performance-oriented women -- and that must be acknowledged the spousal relationship," said Davis, who is married to George Davis, a banking consultant. The couple has five children and has relocated often.

Among the successful executives who have gone through the Lifework Partners program, Davis said, are a couple in their mid-40s whose joint income is $500,000. The woman is chief executive officer of a medium-sized company; her husband is an assistant general counsel for a major firm. Another two-paycheck couple in the program earns $200,000. She is a marketing executive; he is a financial officer for a manufacturing firm.

"It's important for couples to communicate as much as possible about their career aspirations, so that no one is blindsided," said Davis. "It helps maintain balance in the relationship."

Though wives and husbands now openly discuss their professional aspirations, what really is at work is "a question of power in the family relationship," said Lilialyce Akers, associate professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

"The most important social revolution of our times is the two-paycheck marriage," said Akers, a specialist in women and work who consults for corporations on women's issues. "What you're seeing today is a major and massive shift in the power relationship from men to women -- and it's not only changing the American family but also is affecting jobs."

Akers says counseling can be beneficial. "If you put issues on the table where they can be evaluated for reality rather than tradition, it's a good start," said Akers, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

She adds that what often comes out of such mutual discussions is this: "Behind every successful woman is a surprised man."

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