ASEAN’s dual-career couples have it tough

This file photo shows office workers walking down the street during lunchtime in Singapore. (AFP Photo)

The rising cost of living in Southeast Asia has led many married couples to work, taking advantage of a dual-career household which offers financial stability and the chance for both partners to pursue careers. By definition, dual-career couples (DCC) refer to a family where both parents have careers. This term is typically used for those who work away from home, with jobs which are career-based with advancement goals rather than self-employed or temporary work. 

Although some DCCs work because they need two incomes to support their households, many of them place career fulfilment as a top priority. 

A recent McKinsey report on ‘How dual-career couples find career fulfilment,’ found that across the professional sectors, 89 percent of women and 70 percent of men can be counted as DCCs. The report also found that Asian men are least likely (62 percent) to be part of a DCC while Asian women are more likely to be part of DCC (94 percent).

Work and home pressures affect both women and men, and this pressure is worse when both partners work. Jobs that award achievements usually demand 100 percent employee focus, and DCCs often struggle to find a balance between the responsibilities of work and home. And this is especially true for women in a DCC household. 


In the McKinsey survey, employees in DCCs are less likely to report being “happy with their job” than their peers in single-career couples. Recruitment firm, Monster, surveyed professionals in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines and found that choosing to have a family affected the career options of more women than men. 

Although the Monster study found that work-life balance is the biggest challenge for both men and women, working mothers fare worse than their male counterparts. Many women face a ‘motherhood penalty’ where they are often perceived as being less committed to their jobs or are held to higher standards of punctuality and attendance.

Source: Monster, 2019

There is also the downward trend in the number of women participating in the workforce as they go up the career ladder. Women may make up half of all the entry-level positions in companies, but at middle management, that number drops. Towards the C-Suite level, only 15 percent of businesses globally have women in the CEO or managing director position, based on a 2019 Grant Thornton report, ‘Women in Business.’ One of the reasons for this is the addition of children.

Child care cost is a significant consideration for many parents as they head back to work from maternity leave. In Southeast Asia, 66 percent of children aged four and under are cared for solely by a family member, including a parent, grandparent or other relatives over the age of 65. Couples who aren’t so lucky to have family support, have to either enrol their children in care centres or nurseries. A 2015 study done by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, titled ‘Early Childhood Education: Opportunities for Southeast Asian Children,’ found that 18 percent of children are cared for by a paid but unlicensed provider in their own home or someone else’s home. When cost and safety become issues, DCC households usually become a single-career household.

Support pipeline

However, there are countries worldwide setting benchmarks for policies to support men’s involvement in parenting with a focus on paternity leave. Having help in childcare reduces stress in mothers which allows for a smoother transition back to work. With more fathers involved in household chores and child-rearing, there will be a shift in gender norms, and the possible reduction in gender stereotypes.

DCC couples who persevere through the challenges of striking a life-work balance, may find satisfaction in the end through a rise on the career ladder. DCCs’ happiness with their jobs also increase as they advance through the ranks to senior levels.

The workplace is changing and becoming more flexible and companies can take steps to provide their employees with the support they need to juggle work and home. It is crucial that the employment sector identifies the needs of today’s working generation where quality work and family can coexist.

To foster success among employees in DCCs, companies should make sure that these employees enjoy equal access to opportunities for growth and development, promotions and career advancement, management support for work-life balance and sponsorship opportunities. 

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