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Dual Career Couples
Michael Meuser © October 2006

Much later than the United States, Germany, too, has seen research, science policy and economic interest focus increasingly on dual career couples as a "family" model. The term "dual career couple" not only stands for dual employment in the sense of two careers, but also and increasingly defines a substantial career commitment associated with both partners actively pursuing promotion and advancement throughout their career. A dual career couple's lifestyle represents a specific solution to the problem of combining career and family which our present-day society is facing ever more frequently. Both partners endeavour to organise two careers within the scope of a relationship. Both have high career ambitions and both are unwilling to sacrifice relationship or family for this goal. For many such couples, however, and in stark contrast to the traditional family model, this means that career and family are no longer clearly divided areas of life; a more or less strong process of "deseparation" takes place. Neither models nor institutional solutions exist yet for this way of life. It is generally up to the couples themselves to search for ways to combine, coordinate and harmonise their professional and private goals. They are to a certain extent "lifestyle pioneers".

The interest that has grown in the dual career couple way of life results from the changes taking place in the course of social modernisation processes. In the field of employment, these are above all rapid technological development and the globalisation of business and industry, which produce ever new challenges. Demographic change has led to industry competing more strongly for qualified young professionals. Highly-qualified women are becoming increasingly interesting for companies. And among women themselves, the individualisation processes of female life contexts have resulted in the traditional life design focused on marriage and family losing ever more appeal and significance. As a result of men and women reaching the same educational levels, through which women and consequently aspiring to higher career goals, it can now be seen that women are less willing to do without a career.

In academia, the field of business administration was the first to notice this topic in connection with changing executive management structures in the corporate sector. In particular, a new problem is emerging above all for companies in respect of highly-qualified positions. They have to take account of the fact that the spouses or partners of their managers are ever increasingly pursuing careers themselves. This limits the desired flexibility. Hence, it is becoming ever more important for companies to take into consideration – as above all shown by experience in the United States – that their executives and managers are trying to coordinate their own career planning with that of their spouses or partners. The growing openness seen above all in large companies towards questions of a "work-life-balance" is based on cost-benefit analyses. Measures to promote the compatibility of family and career are seen as investments in "human capital". Companies expect a "return on investment" calculated on the basis of typical models.

At universities, the whole "work-life balance" question, and so the dual career topic as well, has been a fringe issue. Initiatives by the DFG and the German Science Council also aim to create improved conditions for dual careers at German higher education institutions. However, these initiatives find themselves facing a structure that is poorly prepared for the employment of dual career couples and in some cases even resists such a development. In contrast to company executives, university executives do not or, if so, only very slightly seek to bind the young staff to their own institution. Both the academic culture in Germany and German higher education legislation are not designed to promote long-term bonds between staff and their respective university, at least not in the career phase prior to first professorship. In fact, the employment law provisions contained in higher education legislation absolutely stipulate that employment contracts for non-professorial staff must be limited and (at the moment) still prohibit in-house professorial appointments. The enforced external career mobility of academics and researchers implies that spending to promote the compatibility of career and family does not make economic sense for universities as an investment in their own future. To a certain extent, universities lack the economic incentive that makes companies increasingly consider measures with which they can retain highly-qualified professionals.

Human resources management pursues various rationalities. Companies practise "global" and central human resources management led and controlled by the executive management on behalf of the whole company, including all subunits. Universities (so far) have not bothered with human resources development concepts for the university as a whole. A policy of "active recruitment" pursued within the scope of such concepts and in which the protagonists are open to the topic of dual career couples strongly contradicts the German academic tradition and collides with the principles of academic (university) autonomy.

Some few university executives have meanwhile identified the dual career problem as a challenge, motivated by concerns about how to secure excellence. All in all, however, Germany's universities lack the culture to create a legitimate framework within which the problems of dual careers could be addressed in an appointments commission and in appointments negotiations. There is no "code" under which agreement can be reached on questions relating to the compatibility of career and family. The deseparation of career and family, for which such a code would provide a kind of institutionalised framework, does not seem to be that compatible with the traditional, handed-down academic culture at Germany's universities. Where it does take place, it is generally perceived as a "disturbance", at least when initiated by applicants, i.e. when they raise the issue themselves.

As the restructuring of Germany's universities continues, especially towards the model of a "corporate university" and towards new career paths that no longer require the postdoctoral habilitation, the conditions for the acceptance of dual careers can be expected to improve. The extent to which it will be possible, on the one hand, to retain outstanding young researchers at the university and, on the other, to compete with other universities could raise the importance of a cost-benefit analysis that makes it seem worthwhile to pursue an active dual career policy. Such a policy could prove to be a "locational advantage" for the respective university.


Behnke, Cornelia, and Michael Meuser, 2003: Doppelkarrieren in Wirtschaft und Wissenschaft. Zeitschrift für Frauenforschung und Geschlechterstudien 21, Heft 4: 62-74.
Behnke, Cornelia, and Michael Meuser, 2003: Vereinbarkeitsmanagement. Die Herstellung von Gemeinschaft bei Doppelkarrierepaaren. Soziale Welt 54, Heft 2: 163-174.
Solga, Helga, and Christine Wimbauer (ed.), 2005: „Wenn zwei das Gleiche tun …“. Ideal und Realität sozialer (Un-)Gleichheit in Dual Career Couples. Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich.