July 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA4

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Serving Dual-Career Families: Problem or Opportunity?

The dual-career family lifestyle is becoming more common with Extension professionals and the genereal population. What are their educational needs? What are suggested programming strategies? Based on a study of 71 such families, the authors have some suggestions for us.

Susan B. Hester
Assistant Professor,
Design and Environmental Analysis,
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York,

Kitty G. Dickerson
Associate Professor and Chair,
Department of Clothing and Textiles,
College of Home Economics,
University of Missouri-Columbia.

Accepted for publication: March, 1984.

As the number of women entering the work force continues to rise, Extension professionals find it increasingly difficult to reach families when both spouses are employed. Some of these women are part of a relatively new lifestyle, the dual-career couple. Resulting primarily from expanded educational opportunities for women and the increasing job opportunities for these educated, aspiring women, the dual-career lifestyle has evolved during the last decade.

While the time and energy demands of dual-career couples will continue to restrict their participation in Extension programs, this new lifestyle may have, in fact, created opportunities for Extension personnel to serve a new audience. Dual-career couples have unique problems for which Extension programs may help provide solutions. Further, all indications are that the number of couples choosing this lifestyle will continue to increase. Thus, what might be perceived as a problem, can, instead, be viewed as a creative opportunity and challenge by Extension professionals who may themselves be experiencing the dual-career lifestyle.

What Is Dual-Career Lifestyle?

Rapoport and Rapoport define dual-career couples as individuals who, rather than being simply employed, have "jobs which require a high degree of commitment and which have a continuous developmental character." They define a dual-career family as "one in which both heads of household pursue careers and at the same time maintain a family life together." Johnson, Kaplan, and Tusel discuss other characteristics that are implied in this lifestyle, including high levels of career responsibility, economic rewards, social prestige, and personal investment of time and energy on the part of both partners. The number of couples currently pursuing this lifestyle is difficult to determine since career involvement is a more important determinant than income. What's relatively certain, however, is that the number of couples is increasing and will continue to do so in the decade ahead. The fact that married women are going to work and working more consistently than ever before is undeniable. Extension professionals have an opportunity to help individuals meet the challenges and cope with the stress so that they can enjoy the positive aspects of the dual-career lifestyle.

Challenges To Be Faced

The dual-career lifestyle has created a unique set of challenges, many of which relate to socialization and role expectations, work role conflicts, and family role conflicts. Many couples have difficulty resolving role expectations because the likelihood is great that the individuals involved have been socialized for roles very different from those they're apt to experience as part of this lifestyle.

A woman who tries to combine a career and a family is soon reminded that she's flaunting the socially accepted norms. She finds herself in a seemingly no-win situation. The qualities associated with the role of wife-mother (nurturance, emotionality, responsiveness to people rather than ideas) are seen to be incompatible with those qualities associated with success in the occupational sphere (independence, rationality, and assertiveness).

The man, too, is struggling with his definition of masculine and feminine roles as he has been socialized to understand them. A man grows up expecting to be the head of a household, to be the one who earns the money and has the power. For the most part, men aren't socialized or educated to fill roles calling for skills in child rearing or homemaking. Even if a man has the skills, he may perceive that devoting a great deal of time and emotional energy to domestic activities may negatively affect his career, particularly if he's competing with other men who don't have similar family roles.

Challenges arising from coping with two careers in one household are evident. The result of trying to juggle two careers may be that each individual is less competitive in terms of his or her own career advancement. Each person has to make compromises for the other's career, and the net result is often that each ends up with a little less. The home environment is a special challenge to the dual-career couple as two people try to meet the demands of careers and build a family life together. Maintaining a home and a family can tax even the most committed and energetic marriage partners.

It appears that most couples try to share the load. The standards are voluntarily lowered; some tasks may be eliminated or redistributed to domestic help, children, or spouses. Even so, the fact remains that in the majority of dual-career families, the responsibility for the domestic sphere lies with the wife. Even highly educated professional women retain that responsibility. Rapoport and Rapoport have studied this lifestyle for the last decade and report a shift in the location of the barriers to a dual-career lifestyle.

Ten years ago the barrier was in the workplace with its discriminatory employment and advancement practices; now the bottleneck is in the home, necessitating a redistribution of responsibility for domestic work.

Study of Coping Patterns

In a study of 71 couples living and/or working in the Washington, D.C. area, coping patterns developed by dual-career families in the domestic sphere of their lives were examined. Role patterns for meeting family needs for food, clothing, household maintenance, child care, and income were studied, in addition to the perceived stress related to these tasks.

Most respondents in this study favored the choice of a dual-career lifestyle. Both spouses supported the decision and saw real benefits for the family. They also saw real problems. With few exceptions, even in families that had adopted this lifestyle from their beginning, the husband and wife hadn't worked out an equitable arrangement for sharing family roles. Undoubtedly, due to the socialization of both spouses, the wife assumed the greater burden for keeping the family unit running smoothly.

The wife, in most cases, in spite of her equally demanding job and relatively comparable salary, still carried the load at home. For many of the tasks described, the husband and wife accepted joint responsibility, but the wife usually and the husband occasionally actually performed these tasks. The husband may have supported his wife's desire for a have supported his wife's desire for a career and encouraged her to pursue one, but his behavior at home is best described as a helpful husband, not an equal partner.

When perceived stress levels were compared for matched husbands and wives, the demands of meeting child care, household maintenance, and clothing needs produced more similar levels of stress for both spouses than did meeting food and income needs. Women experienced more stress in meeting family food needs; men, income needs. It's perhaps noteworthy that these patterns of stress for meeting food and income needs appeared similar to those of traditional couples.


Since this lifestyle is expected to increase, Extension personnel face a challenge to develop creative programming for dual-career families. Couples involved in this lifestyle are presently a minority with special needs and resources. They may be searching for new ways to meet these needs and to conserve their valuable resources of time and energy. The results of this study and others have implications for professionals working with individuals who need help in dealing with the role expectations and realities they face as they juggle their roles in a dual-career lifestyle. Individuals are faced with an array of difficulties, but informed professionals can provide help to couples who are dealing with or contemplating a lifestyle that includes careers for both members.

Problems associated with the dual-career lifestyle reinforce the need for programs that examine role expectations. Roles have been examined in the past, but the reality of actually implementing equal-sharing attitudes becomes a dimension that now requires added attention. Realigning expectations and roles is a constant challenge to dual-career couples; providing the skills to do these tasks should be a priority for professionals working with them. Role playing and simulated exercises can bring new insights. These activities can help prepare individuals for the give and take, the balancing of two careers. individuals can react to hypothetical questions of when to relocate and for whose career. Even more important, couples might be encouraged to explore and discuss their priorities for family life versus career advancement. Typical problems associated with this lifestyle present educators with the opportunity to do some preventive work. Strategies can be determined in advance; ground rules unique to each relationship can be established.

Teaching/discussion groups for this audience have merit. Couples can gain from interacting with others having similar pressures; sessions can foster a sharing of coping strategies. A valuable outgrowth may be the formation of Support groups among families who understand and help with each other's problems. A team approach may be helpful for at least some of the programs for this group. Using successful dual-career role models at times can lend credibility and provide practical suggestions for coping. Depending on the special needs of the group, resource people from the community could be invited for some sessions. For example, if most families were struggling with child care problems, a representative from the local day care council might be able to discuss the various options available in that community. Programming catering to the demanding schedule of the dual-career families is imperative; these individuals are unlikely to add another layer of meetings to their already hectic lives. Thus, programs that mesh with work schedules are ideal-such as noon sessions at or near the workplace. Other sessions might be family-oriented because dualcareer couples may be reluctant to give up another evening away from the family. There is merit, too, in involving the children, regardless of their ages. Children can benefit from a better understanding of pressures their parents face and from seeing that other families have similar demands. Moreover, children might appropriately be given suggestions on how they can share the domestic workload. A series of topics could be suggested and planned for, but flexibility should be allowed to meet the needs of the individuals present. In addition, any programming session should allow ample time for group interaction. A chance to brainstorm with others of similar interests may provide these couples with the opportunity to derive their own creative solutions. Perhaps that should be the professional's goal: to provide a setting and atmosphere that supports and encourages clients to fully use their own resources. The professional's role is as facilitator; the couples design and own the solutions to their problems. Follow-up measures are desirable, but difficult to devise. Many of the hoped-for changes are attitudinal and slow to evolve, as well as hard to measure. A structured phone interview with each participant after a number of months might provide the group leader with some meaningful feedback.


The dual-career lifestyle is here to stay. Extension professionals have a choice of ignoring this new lifestyle or dealing creatively with it. We believe many opportunities exist to help individuals through innovative Extension programming. Initial efforts might establish a support system through which couples could continue to turn to Extension professionals.



  1. F. Hall and D. Hall, The Two-Career Couple (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979).
  2. R. Rapoport and R. N. Rapoport, "The Dual-Career Family," Human Relations, XXI I (No. 1, 1969), 3-30.
  3. F. A. Johnson, E. A. Kaplan, and E. J. Tusel, "Sexual Dysfunction in the'Two-Career' Family," Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, XIII(January, 1979), 7-17.
  4. Hall and Hall, The Two-CareerCouple.
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  7. Hall and Hall, The Two-Career Couple and J. G. Hunt and L. L. Hunt, ''Dilemmas and Contradictions of Status: The Case of the Dual-Career Family," Social Problems, XXIV (No.4,1977), 407-16.
  8. M. M. Poloma and T. N. Garland, "The Married Professional Woman: A Study in the Tolerance of Domestication," Journal of Marriage and the Family, XXXIII (No. 3,1971),531-39.
  9. R. Rapoport and R. N. Rapoport, Dual-Career Families Re-Examined (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1976).
  10. S. Hester, A Comparison of Clothing Needs with Other Family Needs as Stress Factors in Two-Career Families (Master's thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, 1980).