Poll: Balancing two ambitious careers

// 16 November 2011


This issue has been plaguing a few of my friends and myself as of lately and I would appreciate some feedback from the F-word crowd. How do you balance two ambitious careers between yourself and your partner?

Sheryl Sandberg has recently been quoted: “Until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much.” Sandberg has been promoted as the model woman who has achieved everything, COO of Facebook, mother of two and a loving ambitious entrepreneurial husband.

However, enquiring minds wants to know how exactly does it work? Specifically, how do you balance a partnered relationship where both parties want their careers first? It usually results in women choosing to find a partner later in their lives when they are strong enough in their career to negotiate with their partners. Often a problem arises when ones career may be concentrated in one city; the other person’s career is focused in another city. This may result a compromised career which be pro-actively chosen through child-care or the partner with the lower salary. While I am discussing about compromising location, there are other issues of negotiation such as who goes home when a child calls sick? Who makes time out of their career for parental leave?

Anecdotally, I’ve seen couples make agreements by living in a large city where they both can find satisfying opportunities, or they may live in a village halfway between their employment. While this may work for some couples, it would mean cities such as London would have the monopoly on ambitious couples.

I also know an international development couple who has made the arrangement of taking turns of deciding which country to live in. One will determine the location by picking the job, the other one follows. After a certain specified time, the roles are reversed.

What about you? What anecdotal strategies have you seen/heard? What works between you and your partner?

Photo above is of a couple having a disagreement which was taken by Ed Yourdon. It has been used under the creative commons license.

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 16 November 2011 at 1:15 pm

i suppose from my perspective, people who want to put their careers ahead of the other things in their lives, and it isn’t a pursuit of love (creative career, thinking what you’re working on will improve the world etc) their whole lives are competitions. you can either compete with them for your career to come first or you can compete with their career for attention. careerism is pretty much competition with your peers to get approval from the people higher in the chain, and as someone who believes in workers solidarity, i think its intrinsically harmful. sorry if it de-rails too much from the conversation, but i think looking for female managers, politicians, police etc is just looking for diversity of a power structure which is inherantly unequal. social mobility is a bit of a scam, and however many women and minorities are put in higher positions, those people will still be chosen largely due to the position and class they were born into.

on a more practical side, i think if 2 (or however many) people have a strong focus in their lives which takes up most of their time then they might be best keeping their financial and domestic responsibilities separate from one anothers. chances are they will only be together on evenings and weekends, and spend certain weekends away, so it might actually add to the romance for that time together to be less and special, rather than working out cleaning rotas together. id suggest if people within a relationship wish to have more commitment to each other or spend more time together then they take a step back from their other commitments, and expect the same back if we need it. we only have so much time and energy in our lives. but then its pretty alien to me to imagine living alone or with a partner. right now the idea of affording that is beyond me, so its quite lucky i find flat sharing preferable!

Vicky Brewster // Posted 16 November 2011 at 1:38 pm

I can comment from my own perspective, from what I’ve witnessed of my parents, and what I’ve witnessed of friends.


When I was small, Mum was an SEN teacher. It’s not a high-flying career, but it’s demanding and it’s something she loved. My Dad has had several ‘careers’ throughout my life, including technical management for Reuters, running his own business and teaching in Higher Education. I think their strategy is, “you make it work”. If you are of an understanding, from the beginning, that both of you have work as a high priority, and an understanding that you are equal, that you love and respect each other, and that you are both willing to give and take you will Make It Work. Case in point, when I was very small (under the age of 6) I had a nanny because we could afford it. If I was sick during the day (which happened quite frequently as I hated my nursery school — ahem) Mum had an agreement with her boss that she could bring me to work with her, and I would just be ‘part of her class’. Then, when Dad moved into a job where he was self-employed and could work from home, he looked after me if I was sick and did the school run. There was an understanding on both sides that their time would come. It came from a love of each other, and a love of me – I would hope at least equally. They both knew that, if they couldn’t do something domestic, the other half would see to it — and neither of them saw looking after me as a chore. I hope.


I have a very good friend who is a Finance and Budgeting manager. She lives and works in North Wales. Her partner runs his own (quite large) plumbing business. He lives and works in London. They have a girl who is now (I think) ten. They are both VERY focused on their careers. They would rather live apart five days of the week and be able to be autonomous in their careers, than live together and one of them have to sacrifice what they love and what they work hard to do. For them, it has been a matter of priorities.


I am very lucky in that career-ladder-climbing isn’t a hobby of my partner’s. He loves working, but he would rather have a job that he can leave at work than (be like me and) sometimes have to bring some work and a shitload of baggage home with him in the evening. But because of his job — a job he enjoys, though he’d claim otherwise — he has to work very unsociable hours. We are currently trying for our first baby. And making this decision has meant a lot of different conversations. Especially as I work a regular 8-5 job with little flexibility, and he does shift work with no flexibility. Neither of us will be able to afford to give up work. Our way of getting it right, because we’ve started our relationship quite early and talked about the decisions we’re making and have actively done ‘family’ planning’, is to time my (hopeful) pregnancy with a time in my life when I will be able to become self employed. If I were to become pregnant now, by the time I finished my maternity I would be able to start my own business. This will mean felxibility, (hopefully) a higher rate of pay and an ability to drop everything and pick up my kid if s/he’s sick. That’s how we will manage.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 16 November 2011 at 1:44 pm

Thank you Vicky, it has shed some interesting light.

Gwen // Posted 16 November 2011 at 3:40 pm

My parents went for a mix of the two approaches you mentioned. Both were very motivated and successful criminologists – they met at a conference. So the town I grew up in was determined by being 45 minutes away from both the city my mom was teaching in (Philadelphia), and the city my dad was teaching in (New York). Later, my father took a job very high up in the NYPD, which required him to have a residence there. For the first few years of that, he lived in a small flat in New York during the week, then would come back to the original town for the weekend. (I think they also had an arrangement similar to this with my mother flying up to a different university to teach during the week when I was very small, when we lived down south.) When he developed cancer the travelling was a bit too much, and we all moved to New York. My mother had been unhappy with her position for a long time and took a teaching post at the same university in new york which my father had been teaching at. When I was in elementary school they enrolled me in a program which went on for a couple hours after the school and took turns picking me up – I remember once when they got their wires crossed and both showed up! I got to pick which car to ride in, ha. And there were other times when one parent was away on business and the other’s train was late, so I was there playing board games with the very tolerant teacher until 7 PM. That stuff happens. But I think it worked pretty well overall, and I’m certainly none the worse for it.

Now that I’m living with my own partner and we’re both starting our careers, we’re having to figure it all out too. At the moment, we’re working at the same company, which makes things easy! But while I was looking for work, it was much more up in the air. The deal we made was that if either of us got a really excellent opportunity which was in another city, we’d both move to be there, regardless of the other person’s job – although possibly with a delay of a couple months while the second person found a position in the right city. I’m hoping to start on a graduate program in the next few years, which would require me to be much more flexible about location, probably moving around every few months. In that situation I think we’d do something much like what my parents did – my partner will stay in the same city and I’ll get a temporary place wherever I’m posted, and return to my partner every weekend.

Curt // Posted 16 November 2011 at 4:04 pm

The challenges you ask about here are certainly rampant in academia, where we’re all so specialized that finding two jobs in adjacent time zones, not to mention adjacent cities, is often more than one can hope for. I think the societal situation makes a huge difference. Here in Norway …. (often when I start that sentence, eyes roll, shoulders shrug, and I feel like I said “Here on Mars” …)

Related thoughts about these kinds of issues are raised in:

There are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top http://wp.me/p1xS1Q-iB

Josephine Tsui // Posted 16 November 2011 at 4:13 pm

Thanks Curt, you are right and I have a few academic friends encountering this exact problem.

Reading your blog, though it’s a bit of detractor as it asks why women are less ambitious rather how do you deal with ambitious women within a relationship. You’ve done a good job breaking down the reasons why women may not be able to interested in top executive position, however I disagree with your second reason. Women may choose not to be ambitious. There may be several categories within this reason, of which you don’t account for women choosing not to be ambitious because of reason 3, there are systematic discriminations against women. Meaning if you know it’s going to be more difficult for you than other people to obtain an executive position, you may choose that the extra effort isn’t worth your time.

Kate // Posted 16 November 2011 at 5:09 pm

My partner and I have worked round this mostly by having an almost-30-year age gap. She used to work very-full-time as a university lecturer, and when our children were first born, I stayed home part-time or full-time and took primary parenting role (which made things easier with babies and toddlers, as I’m their bio-mum and they were breastfed). Now I’m full-time at university training for a new career, and my partner is retired and working very-part-time as a tennis coach, and is the primary carer. When I qualify, I’ll then be the main earner and she’ll evolve her retirement around caring for the kids plus whatever else comes along as the wee one starts school and she has more time. So, yeah, careers for us both, but the age gap has meant they haven’t been at their height at the same time.

spicy // Posted 16 November 2011 at 9:53 pm

I don’t have this problem (I am, but my partner is not, career focused) but I employ (and have employed) a number of women who do. It is disheartening to watch since for most (not all but a good 90%), their solution is to compromise their own ambition as their partners are immoveable. In the handful of instances where the women has been equally immoveable, the relationship has ultimately ended so it’s encouraging to read about those who have found other ways of resolving the dilemma.

Rachel // Posted 17 November 2011 at 10:47 am

This is an issue that my boyfriend and I are dealing with at the moment. He’s significantly older than me, and is happily established in his career. I’ve just finished several years of postgraduate study and I’m now looking to take a step into a career that I’ve been working towards for probably the last 6 years. Unfortunately my boyfriend’s job is quite unique, and he’s managed to carve out a role that suits him down to the ground. It’s not a job that he’d be able to find anywhere else, in all likelihood.

The chances are that I’m going to end up working in London, as that’s where the jobs are for my sector (arts), so there’s a very real possibility that we’ll have to go from living together to only seeing each other at weekends. There’s never been any suggestion from either myself or him that one of us should compromise on our aims, but it’s very early days yet so obviously we’re both feeling a bit uncertain about what the future is going to hold.

There are certainly some issues that will need to be discussed at a later date. For example, I’m not willing to have a long distance relationship for an indefinite length of time, as I just don’t think it would make for a very happy existence. But at the same time I’m somebody who is very happy relocating to a new city every couple of years, and I’d like to be able to incorporate that into my life.

Basically, I can’t give you any answers yet, as I’m still in the job hunting phase of all this and it’s all very up in the air! I think so far what’s been helpful is a little bit of hopefulness that it’ll all work out in the end, plus a good dose of pragmatism and openness with each other about what we hope to do in our lives. There are certainly some aspects of living on my own again that I’d enjoy, and I know he feels the same way about that too. Plus I think that Laurel may be onto something about the benefits of only seeing each other on weekends, etc, and avoiding mundane conversations about whose turn it is do the washing up. So for now we’re just trying to think about it all from that point of view!

Fio // Posted 17 November 2011 at 1:41 pm

I ended a relationship because my partner wanted me to move with him to another city. I don’t earn as much as he does. but I love my job so even though it was hard, it was the best decision for both of us. I only would have resented him. I felt like it was a case of what Laurel says about competing with someone for your career to come first or competing with their career for attention. I was unwilling to play the same game as him or play second fiddle.

As a bit of an old red, I also agree here-

‘careerism is pretty much competition with your peers to get approval from the people higher in the chain, and as someone who believes in workers solidarity, i think its intrinsically harmful.’

Josephine Tsui // Posted 17 November 2011 at 1:54 pm

The political economy within relationships and financial income is an interesting topic. You bring up important aspects, of not wanting to play second fiddle to someone’s jobs.

I’m also well aware that often women who don’t earn as much as their male partners can often feel less able to negotiate within the relationship as a) the male partner earns more so his career is the priority b) not wanting to spend any of the family income on herself as he is the main bread winner.

I always thought a solution was for women to be able to hold their own economic clout, but maybe it’s only one way to look at it.

Careerism being a competition with your peers for approval…it’s an enlightening quote.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 18 November 2011 at 12:07 am

Well, what my partner and I did (after 6 years of living together) was live apart during the week for three years and see each other at weekends. This was a bit depressing really; mainly because we had a ‘home’ and only one of us lived in it, as opposed to having two homes, which might have made it easier. This meant that for the person at home, they felt an absence; and for the person away, they felt that they were in limbo, waiting to go home at the weekend. Plus because you only see each other at weekends, you tend not to socialise with other people as much, so it becomes more difficult to make friends in the location that you are living. So, my advice would be to try and make where you live a home, so you don’t get that sense of limbo. This was made more difficult for me because I spent two years living in hotels (different ones each week) and one year in a single room in a shared accommodation, so it was kind of hard to achieve that. Plus being on temporary contracts, you felt like you were just making friends when you had to move on. However, I have numerous friends who ‘live apart together’ and many cope with it for many years; some enjoy it. It does make it very difficult to have children though.

This year my hubby gave up his permanent job to move abroad with me (who is on a temporary contract). He is more transferrable, as a teacher, but this still involved him taking a big career risk, and he is currently looking for work. I guess we are hoping it is a gamble that will pay off and that it won’t hit his career too much, but it might.

Just as a random thought, I have recently been thinking about how much time I am willing to devote to my career at the expense of other parts of my life (because I don’t buy the whole career is everything mantra) but it did occur to me that one of the reason I want to succeed in my career is because we need women in higher places to help make changes to the system. And, I do wonder how to make these things compatible with each other.

Mary // Posted 18 November 2011 at 8:22 pm

I’ve always been lucky in this respect; my mother is an academic – a politics specialist – whose work has included publications on women and politics. These discussions always make me remember an anecdote in one of her books. Back in the 1980s one of the more junior ministers in Francois Mitterrand’s government in France was a woman with a young child. Her autobiography tells of an occasion when she was required to leave a high-level meeting – to the disapproval of her peers – to arrange childcare for her child who had been taken ill at nursery. At the time she was worried that she could end up getting the sack as a consequence. “It was only afterwards,” she narrates, “that it occurred to me that I could have told the nursery to phone my husband.” I think women face all sorts of difficult choices today, but I hope that this kind of situation, where high-flying women take it for granted that they are also the primary carer, irrespective of their partner’s career, happens a little less often now.

Cycleboy // Posted 18 November 2011 at 8:53 pm

A fellow tenor in a choir I sang with moved to the area to follow his wife, as she had the higher earning job.

A neighbour gave up his training when his first child arrived as his wife was, and would always, out-earn him.

A female colleague would arrive at work at 7am, leaving her partner to get the kids to school. She would then finish early to pick them up.

All wonderful and egalitarian.

However, a Radio 4 discussion with 3 women medical professionals: a surgeon, GP and lecturer left me shaking my head in disbelief. One contributor spoke about working 4 days a week and doing the shopping on the fifth. Another mentioned having to organise things if the “nanny was sick”. However, the comment that really incensed me was, and I quote, “I don’t think it’s fair to rely on your partner to do (childcare) unless they have the time and interest in doing it.” WHAT? You’re working full time. He’s working full time. You both contributed to bringing your children into the world, yet he’s excused even thinking about any domestic work, “…unless they have the time and interest in doing it.”

Give me strength.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 19 November 2011 at 9:41 am

Well said Cycleboy.

event planning university // Posted 22 November 2011 at 3:45 pm

I am just about to face this issue – I couldn’t say i was a career woman as such, but went to university and have progressed into a sort of specialist field, where there is still a demand for jobs in these current tricky times. My partner is currently unemployed and is seeming rather unmotivated – having worked in largely unskilled roles he is, despite being older than I, considering that a life where he is a house husband appeals to him. I found this shocking, not just because there is no way that my wage alone would give us the quality of life I would be happy with, but also what about children. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on relatives for childcare from day one, but if i was the only breadwinner I would be forced to get back to work asap – which isn’t how i would like to start my role as ‘mother’. Tricky times, not sure what we will decide as it is early days and i’m not sure if this is a deal breaker.

Cycleboy // Posted 23 November 2011 at 7:10 pm

event Planning university:

I found your dilemma very interesting. Would you mind if I try a little experiment, by slightly modifying the very words you wrote?

“(being) a house wife appeals to her. I found this shocking, not just because there is no way that my wage alone would give us the quality of life I would be happy with, but also what about children. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on relatives for childcare from day one.”

If a man said what you said, the phrase ‘have to rely on relatives for childcare’ would seem absurd, yet you assume that your partner will not be able to look after children. Maybe you have good reason to doubt his ability in this regard, but your attitude does disturb me, as you seem to be implying that only women can look after children.

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