When Wives Transfer, Husbands Trail

Increasingly it's women who are relocating, taking families to new cities and spouses to new jobs.

In the not so distant past, only men got corporate transfers - and their wives always followed.

Fast forward to 1998.

As women continue to climb into management ranks, a growing number of husbands now follow their wives from city to city for new job prospects.

Deciding who should ditch a job for the other's advancement can be tough. Today, almost 60 percent of married couples are dual earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet when the roles are reversed, bucking society's stereotypes can bring additional challenges for both women and men.

Most people, for example, still assume that when a woman relocates, it's for her husband's job, not the reverse.

"Five years ago, it almost didn't happen," says Julie Beck, senior vice president at outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison in Portland, Ore. Today, she says, it's much more common for the woman's job to move the family.

While the typical transferee is still a man (usually married and earning about $53,000 a year) more women are joining the ranks of the relocated.

In 1996, women made up 26 percent of all relocations nationwide, compared with 16 percent in 1993, according to Runzheimer International, a consulting firm based in Rochester, Wis.

At AT&T, for example, about 40 percent of the managers transferred each year are women, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.

And Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the number of "trailing husbands" receiving its counseling services has tripled in the past five years.

Take Janice and Richard Wiles.

Early next year, they and their two young children will leave their suburban home in Washington, D.C., and move to Brazil.

And it's her job that has the family weeding out their closets, packing boxes, and practicing Portuguese.

As a NASA contractor, Mrs. Wiles will act as liaison for an environmental project NASA is launching in the Amazon.

"I left a great job to start raising the kids," she says, "so [my husband] feels like, 'Maybe it's her turn to have a little fun.' "

Her husband, vice president of research for a nonprofit environmental group, can continue his work in Brazil.

Still, the decision wasn't easy.

"I went through a period where I was feeling awfully nervous about my husband's career. I thought, 'Am I going to destroy it?' " Wiles admits. "At several points, my husband said to me, 'I'm doing this for you.' Finally I had to say, 'We made a joint decision, and you're doing this as much for yourself as you are for me.' "

Women - Wiles, for example - often approach the process differently. They usually consult the entire family before making a decision, career counselors say.

Men, by contrast, take the "pack first, ask later" approach, assuming the move is OK with the family.

Men threatened?

Most men, however, are still reluctant to follow their wives.

A United Van lines study finds 40 percent of men willing to relocate for their spouse's career. For women, the number almost doubles, 70 percent.

"Men tend to feel much more threatened and defensive about [being the trailing spouse]," says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "It doesn't mean women don't feel that way. But those emotions are there to a higher degree in men."

As a result, some argue that relocations are less successful with women and their families than with men.

Wiles tells of two women who relocated, only to become commuter spouses. Their husbands couldn't find jobs in the new location and moved back to their old homes.

Attitude a key

Yet others say relocations by women are largely successful.

"It's safe to say that the men in this situation do go into it voluntarily - they're not dragged into it by the wife, unlike the opposite situation," says Jan Nelson of Mobility Services International, a corporate relocation service in Newburyport, Mass.

"The No. 1 predictor of a successful relocation, be it domestic or international, is the attitude of the trailing spouse," she says.

Ray Rankin has moved twice in four years because of his wife's career at AT&T - once from Canada to New Jersey and then a year ago down to Miami.

The decision on the first move was tough: He had just started a good position as a property manager in Canada.

He and his wife, Dianne Bernez, a public-relations manager, took a year to negotiate a deal with AT&T to bring them to the states. The company ended up hiring him with a 25 percent pay increase. And when his wife was transferred a year ago, to head public relations for the Caribbean/Latin America region, AT&T transferred him to a new job, too.

At first, he felt added pressure working where his wife worked. But he says it can also be beneficial to her career.

"Her manager knows I'm fully supportive of what she's going to do or wants to do," Mr. Rankin says.

His advice to men: "You have to be 100 percent behind it. Because all the way, you will come across plenty of people who see it differently."

* Send comments on workplace issues to: coolidges@csps.com

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.