08/09/2010 04:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The High-Tech Industry Must Adapt to the Reality of Dual-Career Couples

Last week, an interesting piece was published in the New York Times about the price women pay in career advancement for being mothers. Indeed, the economic price to pay for being a working mother has been well documented by research. Stanford professors Shelley Correll and Paula England, among others, have shown that mothers are more likely to be perceived as less competent and less committed to their jobs when compared to women without children, and therefore are less likely to be hired or promoted.

The pay gap is larger between mothers and women who are not mothers than between men and women in general. In the Anita Borg Institute research conducted in collaboration with the Clayman Institute at Stanford University, we indeed heard from technical women that work-family conflict leads to barriers to career advancement from a biased perception that mothers are not willing to travel, relocate, or take a position with greater possibility.

The bias and stereotyping experienced by women in the workplace is real, and working mothers are facing significant challenges that have been well researched. However, it is time we shift the public discussion to focus on working parents in general. A key problem in high-tech, and in corporate America in general, is that companies have not yet caught up to the reality of dual-career couples.

Our research shows that 82% of technical women are partnered with someone who works full time, compared to 37% of men. This shows that a majority of men in high-tech are still overwhelmingly relying on a stay-at-home spouse, even though nationally, only 19% of couples are still following the traditional model of working male and stay-at-home female (there is a dearth of data on same-sex couples). One woman we interviewed summed up this discrepancy by saying "I've noticed lately how there really is a difference between the stuff that's going on with me and the guys. They're talking about how their wife is taking care of kids and I'm talking about finding child care". However, those men in dual-career couples, while a minority, face many of the same challenges in combining work and family responsibilities as women do.

The high-tech culture now assumes 24/7 availability with the management of global teams and ubiquitous access, combined with increased expectations of doing more with less. One woman engineer we interviewed said that "logged in" meant "successful": "In the engineering community, they expect that you're turning emails overnight and you're logging in on the weekends. If a project is delayed because you didn't answer an email over the weekend that will probably get escalated to your boss - it's an overriding mentality that still exists."

Tying advancement to constant availability, whether face-to-face or virtual, is unsustainable, because it is predicated on the assumption that an employee has a stay-at-home spouse or a support system that outsources family responsibilities. Men also pay a price for this expectation of constant availability, especially if they are in a dual-career couple.

The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce of the Families and Work Institute found that young men entering the workforce are expecting to be in dual-career couples and are also more likely to experience work-family conflict than previous generations of men. Men are increasingly sharing parenting responsibilities and are looking for companies with flexible practices. Meanwhile, until things change, they are experiencing challenges.

In the course of my research, I have had numerous conversations with men in high-tech about this - how if they leave at 5pm to pick up the kids at the end of the day (just as the pizza delivery arrives for those who will stay at work all evening) they are told they are not "team players"; if they take a paternity leave they are viewed as somehow less committed to their career and fear the impact on their advancement (I heard of one case where a father returning from paternity leave was asked by sneering colleagues if he was "still breastfeeding"). I hear from others that their boss with a stay-at-home spouse is unsupportive when they have to miss a meeting to take care of a sick child.

I would love to see more men speak up about the issues facing working parents in the high-tech industry, and more research on fathers in dual-career couples. Only when this stops being solely framed as a woman's issue will we see workplaces where family is no longer framed as an inconvenience and a barrier to advancement.