On this day in 1993 – probably about the time when I was starting to get my head around moving away from my tiny, sleepy little home town to go to law school – Dame Silvia Cartwright was being sworn in as New Zealand’s first ever female High Court judge. First ever. It is hard to believe that so shocking a milestone was achieved so recently.
I’ve written previously about women lawyers and the practical impediments they face. Since then, I’ve been doing some more thinking about this issue, and it strikes me that one issue facing women who have or want big, challenging careers is that they often (not always) have partners who also have or want big, challenging careers. And that can be a problem – particularly if the couple views their career negotiations as a zero-sum bargaining situation, where one person’s career investment means the other person’s career sacrifice, and brownie points are traded over the course of the relationship. (I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of this way of thinking from time to time.)
Last year I read an excellent book on this topic: Couples that Work, by Jennifer Petriglieri. It is based on research on hundreds of dual career couples, and it identifies a whole raft of traps that such couples face at various times.
According to Petriglieri, one important transition arises when the first triggering event – such as a baby, a seriously sick relative, or a change in location – forces a couple to truly meld their lives rather than allowing them to run along separate, parallel tracks. At that time, she says, it is essential for the couples to sit down and explicitly, consciously talk through how their melded lives will work. Where will they live? Are there any locations that are deal-breakers? Will there be a stint in one location followed by another stint somewhere else? Will there be any boundaries on work-related travel? How much work does each person feel comfortable outsourcing on the home front? Are there any home duties that one person actively wants to keep doing themselves, either because they enjoy them or because those duties are an important part of their identity? Will one person’s career be the focus for a time? How will any turn-taking work out? What are the agreed time frames?
Again, my husband and I failed to carry out this step, which in retrospect would have been immensely useful. Our first triggering event was moving to the UK for his postgraduate study. We didn’t think too hard about what that would mean for me and my career – at least, we didn’t sit down and make a plan, working through various contingencies. Maybe people don’t tend to at that age. We just tried to wing it, with mixed results. Oops.
Later, when we had kids, we fell into more of the traps identified by Petriglieri. To the extent that we planned how our dual careers would work, we put too much weight on short term, practical logistics. How can we make today work? And tomorrow? The future seemed too hard, too unknowable, and the daily grind was all encompassing. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that we also put too much weight on the short to medium term financial implications of our decisions. And we put too little weight on our long term aspirations, values, emotions, and fears. Oops again.
Somehow, though, we muddled through to a point where we are now both happy with our careers and the directions that our professional lives are headed. I think that is due partly to mutual goodwill, and luck (especially the fact that because we work in the same field it is easier to network and to provide support and understanding), and also because learning and professional challenge is something that we both need at a very fundamental level, so that need just bubbles to the surface – irrepressibly, inexorably – regardless of what we plan or decide.
What I hadn’t appreciated, though, is the extent to which our mistakes were not just our mistakes. They are part of typical patterns of behaviour that are easily revealed under the lens of systematic research. These patterns and struggles play out time and time again across a huge variety of couples, in all sorts of fields and at various levels of seniority. It seems that even Dame Silvia Cartwright and her husband grappled with at least some of them. I’ll leave this post with Dame Silvia’s own words from 28 July 1993:
“My husband is a remarkable man who has supported me (sometimes it must be said through gritted teeth) through my constantly changing career, usually at the expense of his own. That he has managed to build and develop his own career in spite of three changes of city in ten years demonstrates more than I can say about his talent and his determination. It has been a striking feature of the letters and messages that I have received since my appointment to this Court was announced that many have remarked on the personal sacrifice and the hard road I have chosen. It is axiomatic that my husband shares those experiences with me. For his love and loyalty, I thank him publicly today.“