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Leila Guerra tells an only-funny-because-it’s-true story.

Now assistant dean of postgraduate programmes at Lee Kong Chian School of Business in Singapore, she is a business school academic in demand, having worked in senior roles around the world. Whenever she moves jobs, which is often, her family goes with her: husband, children, pets — the lot.

At one posting everyone on her new team asked her: “So what does your husband do?” — assuming that she was following him. As she points out, a man would not be asked the same question.

Women’s earnings and potential salaries are so rarely equal to men’s that we still see the “travelling” male partner as unusual. Even in 2017, in the future-forward, ceiling-shattering world of business education.

The assumption that women hook up only with men with greater earnings or earning potential is not quaint but commonplace, and Guerra recounts the tale with good humour — albeit delivered with a hollow, resigned sort of laugh.

But the anecdote is more than just another example of casual sexism.

It helps to explain why the old assumptions about, and even disdain for, travelling spouses — whether they be men or women, in business schools or in the world of work — are a problem for all of us.

The old assumptions are, of course, that when it comes to foreign postings, women follow men, rather than the other way around. But regardless of their domestic arrangements, more and more women are on the move.

Women accounted for up to 25 per cent of foreign work assignments in 2016, according to the Global Mobility Trends Survey of employers by BGRS, a relocation consultancy. Two decades ago, the proportion was 10 per cent.

That growth is not fast enough for their employers, who know that diversity leads to greater profitability. Women’s reluctance to accept foreign assignments is causing problems: more than a third of the employers questioned said they were struggling to create gender-balanced senior leadership teams because women were turning down placements abroad.

Often, they rejected assignments because they were reluctant to disrupt the careers of their spouses or partners. Admittedly, the survey did not indicate whether those partnerships were between opposite or same-sex couples, but it is a reasonable guess that many, if not most, were heterosexual relationships.

Business schools tell a similar story, not just about faculty but also about students.

Pascal Michels of the admissions team at Iese Business School in Barcelona says that many female candidates for the full-time MBA course dither over accepting, and eventually decline, places because their husbands or partners refuse to relocate.

“It creates tension if your girlfriend wants to study 10,000km away from you,” he says.

But Michels points to one possible answer: the executive MBA programme — the part-time MBA programme for senior executives. With its comparatively work-friendly hours and structured, intense bursts of study, he says the old fears about uprooting partners are eased.

“Couples opt for EMBAs because, usually, you do not have to relocate,” he says. Global study bursts last between six and eight weeks — less disruptive for a couple than two years apart.

Guerra knows her domestic arrangements are unusual. She has often found herself to be the only woman on staff with a husband at home.

“At the kids’ school, it’s all about the mothers, even in an international school,” she says. “They assume it in their communications, in their groups — all for women. There’s even a WhatsApp group that’s only for the mothers.” Nevertheless, the couple are undaunted. “I am ambitious professionally, he is ambitious personally. It works,” she says.

Families take many forms and the traditional male-female partnership is only one way to cohabit, no matter where in the world you set up home. But women’s lack of progress is a stubborn problem. If the EMBA’s flexibility is helping to crack the hidden barrier of the reluctant-to-travel spouse, then it is worth saying so. 

Helen Barrett is Work & Careers editor. This opinion article is taken from our Executive MBA series.

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