Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Special Report - Dynamic Women in Business 2002 (3) - How Power Couples Keep It Together

2/11/2002
How do "power couples" strike a successful balance between home and career—and what issues do they face on their way to the top? Get some tips from three such professional pairs who took part in the Dynamic Women in Business 2002. Their topic: "View from the Top—How Power Couples Make it Work."


How Power Couples Keep It Together

How do "power couples" strike a successful balance between home and career—and what issues do they face on their way to the top?

Communication is at the top of Karen and Alan Dawes' list. They live in different cities during the week, she in Philadelphia, he in Detroit. "Every day we spend some time talking to each other," said Karen Dawes, Senior Vice President, Bayer Corp. (and most-senior woman at Bayer). "It's kind of ironic because we know some couples who live in the same city who don't do that."

"It's very easy to get over-involved with your day job, if you will, and forget about the job you have with your family or your spouse," she added.

"We protect [our] quality time," said Alan Dawes, CFO, Delphi Automotive Services. "That involves working things out structurally with our employers."

Joanne Burke, U.S. Regional Manager, Boston Domestic Private Banking, HSBC Bank, and her husband Tim Burke, a Partner with Bingham Dana LLP, sited flexibility and coordination as two keys to making career and marriage jibe. The Burkes have one child and Joanne telecommutes one day per week. "When I'm home, I'm working," she said. "Women have more to balance."

The term Power Couples "makes us sound ridiculously like super heroes," Tim said. "We should be called 'exhausted couples.'" Family support and having assistants who communicate with one another are crucial must-haves, he added.

Making the trade-offs
When asked if the trade-offs they made had been worth it, the couples expressed varied views.

There have been no tough trade-offs yet, said Mary Kroupa Wells, a manager at Bain & Company, though the prospect of having children "looms out in the future."

Her husband Scott, a Bain & Company VP, disagreed. "Well, before we were married I moved to California while she went for her MBA [at Stanford]. That sticks out in my memory," he laughed.

The Dawes have been married for twenty years, ten of which they've spent commuting. "Living in different places was a tough decision," Karen said. "If we hadn't each pursued careers we wouldn't be happy. It's tough because you have to be more organized."

Quotation
It's very easy to get over-involved with your day job, if you will, and forget about the job you have with your family or your spouse.
Quotation
— Karen Dawes, Senior Vice President, Bayer Corp.

Trade-offs are part and parcel of having both children and a career, said the Burkes. Though society no longer expects women to stay home with the children, Joanne Burke said that there's no precedent for this model. She worked out a plan with her company to cut back on hours and to telecommute—but luck does play a major role. "You learn as you go. Your manager is the determining factor."

Tim Burke said that they made a decision to wait to have children, recognizing that in their careers long and demanding hours would be the rule. Restructuring the workweek to accommodate childcare requires being proactive with your employer. "It's taking baby steps," he said. "Foster an understanding with your supervisor and do it on a test basis."

Outsourcing domestic duties
So, who does the laundry and who makes dinner and who takes the baby to the park? "We try to get someone other than the two of us to do it," said Karen Dawes. One thing all three busy couples had in common was their decision to "outsource" as much domestic work as possible. The couples hire cleaning services and rely on restaurants, take-out, and home meal delivery for sustenance.

But that's not to say they don't lift a finger around the house.

Mary and Scott Wells tried divvying up the housework. "Scott made a list and gave me my chores," she said, but she often "forgot" to do them. "It's pretty equal…or maybe Scott does a little more," she admitted. "We recently got a cleaning person."

While refurbishing their house, Scott realized they needed to play to their strengths. He explained it this way: "She's good at painting along the ceiling line but I'm a tremendous roller."

"I do much more with family responsibilities than my father ever did," said Tim Burke. "When I contribute, I tend to get this hero complex—'I'm changing a diaper!'—whereas the opposite is true for Joanne. She feels bad about working." The Burkes have a nanny come in during the day and family members in the area who can provide backup childcare.

Whose career matters most?
The Wells work at the same company, but rather than this causing tension, they find it valuable to share with somebody who knows the business. "I know he'll understand what I'm facing at work," said Mary. They have made it a rule to never work on the same projects at Bain. "I think it would freak out our co-workers," she added.

The spouses did not seem to envy each other's successes. "If we were to be competitive—you can't go down that road," said Alan Dawes.

"I think it's great," said Tim Burke. "I didn't want to come home to 'this is broken and the kids did this and I got in the slowest line at the grocery store' sort of thing."

Despite leaps in equal rights for women, however, it is still an unspoken expectation that it will be the wife who scales back her work hours when the children come. To that end, how difficult is it for women to ease back into the workforce after taking a hiatus or scaling back to care for their children? Surprisingly easy, said Alan Dawes. The problem, he said, "is convincing women to stick to the scaled-back level." He explained that, in his experience, once a woman is at home with her children, she tends to want to stay there. "We [at Delphi] try to reengage them. We haven't found the right formula yet, even at a company that's trying."

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