The role of the partner in promotion to top positions
Partner effects on promotions to top positions in Belgium companies were investigated by researchers from Vrije Universiteit Brussels who applied discrete time event history analysis to a dataset of full-time male and female employees obtained from the Panel Study of Belgian Households (1994–2001). It was concluded that their partner’s resources could help women to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ but that they also needed the opportunity and the time to do so.
In 2010, women made up less than 10% of the members of management boards in Belgium. To address the situation, a plan was adopted by Belgium’s parliament in June 2011 which introduced a quota system whereby at least 30% of the seats on management boards should be given to women (BE1106021I).
But although policy measures and legislation do influence the ‘glass ceiling’, many factors need to be taken into account including the economic context, company profile and personal characteristics. For example, the characteristics of one partner can have an effect on the career limitations and possibilities of the other partner in the couple. A study by Anneleen Baerts, Nick Deschacht and Marie-Anne Guerry of Vrije Universiteit Brussels highlights a specific type of upward mobility, that is, promotions to the highest hierarchical job positions (Baerts et al, 2010).
Their research examined the following question: What is the effect of having a partner and of certain characteristics of that partner on the probability of Belgian men and women being promoted to a top position? To answer this question, the researchers performed discrete time event history analysis on data from the Panel Study of Belgian Households (1994–2001). The dataset contained full-time male and female employees and workers. The dependent variable was the probability of experiencing a promotion to the highest hierarchical job category. This was calculated by dividing the number of events by the number of people who were not already in a top position.
The probability on experiencing a promotion to the highest positions was 4.7% for women and 5.6% for men. This gender promotion gap was for full-time employed men and women only; taking into account part-time employed workers would widen the gap considerably.
On average, almost twice as many men as women were in the highest hierarchical position. This position was closely connected to age, especially for men. The gender gap also seems to widen throughout the career.
Married men and women were more likely to be in top positions than single and cohabiting employees. The link seemed stronger for men, confirming the theory of a marriage premium for men’s careers. However, there was no evidence supporting the theory of marriage penalising women’s careers.
Effect of having a partner
There is a widespread hypothesis which states that being married has opposite career effects for men and women: a marriage premium for men and a marriage penalty for women. In the study, the effects of the relational status were not statistically significant for men or women. However, the labour market position of the partner did have a significant effect. For women as well as for men, having a partner who had been unemployed during the past five years had a negative effect on the probability of promotion. Men who had a partner who was currently employed were more likely to experience promotion to a top position.
Effect of partner’s labour market and financial resources
Two well-known theories offer opposite hypotheses concerning the effects of partner characteristics.
According to social capital theory, partner resources contribute to personal social capital and consequently have a positive effect on career opportunities. From an economic perspective, task specialisation is the most effective choice for couples. When there is a comparative advantage, both partners are better off with a strict division of domestic work and paid labour. Consequently, the resources of the partner have a negative impact on career opportunities.
These two apparently contradicting theories can be integrated by distinguishing between two kinds of resources. Financial resources (income from paid work) are expected to have a negative effect on the occupational attainment of the partner. Labour market resources (skills, knowledge, access to information, attitudes and ambition) are expected to provide a positive influence.
The results of the analysis refute the statement that the financial resources of the partner have a negative effect on promotion probabilities, though they do confirm the positive effect of the partner’s labour market. Women benefit from their partner’s high level of educational attainment, high socio-professional status or absence of past unemployment. An important exception is the effect of the number of working hours of the partner, which has a negative effect on the promotion probability of women.
This leads to the conclusion that labour market resources of the partner contribute to women’s promotion probabilities, but that women also need the time to build their own careers. Men’s careers benefit most from a relationship with a successful career woman. Thus, a stay-at-home wife is not a necessary condition for having a successful career for men, as might have been the case in the past and as is still often believed.
Not only governments and employers but also women’s partners have responsibility for creating equal opportunities and enabling women to break through the ‘glass ceiling’. Some new questions arise. To reach top positions, promotions at lower levels have to be made first. The low representation of women at the top may create an appearance of a glass ceiling whereas in fact discrimination is either more or less constant throughout the organisation or even concentrated at the bottom. An alternative explanation for the low representation of women at the top is women leaving the labour market. It is possible that women are pushed out of the labour market at lower levels in the hierarchy and that their partner plays a part in this process.
Baerts, A., Deschacht, N. and Guerry M. (2010), ‘The role of the partner in promotions to top positions in Belgium’, European Sociological Review, Vol. 27, No. 5, pp. 654–668.
Deschacht, N., Baerts, A. and Guerry, M. (2011), De m/v carrièrekloof: Carrièreverschillen tussen vrouwen en mannen in België [The M/F career gap: Career differences between women and men in Belgium], Academia Press, Ghent.
Caroline Vermandere and Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-KULeuven