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Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: Work-Family Issues for Same-Sex Couples

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage a standard across the U.S. That event was a watershed moment for the LGBT rights movement. While it has certainly resulted in backlash (e.g., North Carolina’s bathroom laws), it has also contributed to the strength of the response (e.g., the DoJ’s opposition to that law).

Business and employers have been on both sides of the issue, becoming more or less inclusive and facing the consequences of those decisions. However, the mere fact of legal marriage doesn’t mean that the family lives of same-sex couples will immediately and completely come to resemble those of different-sex couples. Discrimination did not die with that court decision, and even if it did, same-sex couples don’t necessarily approach work and family in the same ways as male-female couples.

Same-Sex Couple Households

The most common example of these differences is the division of work and family roles. Many different-sex couples struggle with the societal legacy of strict gendered role divisions that often push women out of the workplace and lock men in. Concepts like “primary caregiver” reinforce the idea that while we may allow men and women to be in either role (though too often begrudgingly) we still see the roles as separate.

Same-sex couples, on the other hand, been found to be more egalitarian about gender roles and may experience a more pronounced set of work-family conflicts as both try to be breadwinner and caregiver in relatively equal amounts. For example, same-sex spouses may choose to put limits on both careers to make sure that neither career dominates the other. Similarly, there may be added tension between members of a couple who become uncomfortable with power and role dynamics that too closely resemble a traditional different-sex couple’s division of labor.

From an organization’s perspective this might take the form of high-potential employees in same-sex couples slowing down or changing employers in order to maintain equilibrium in the relationship. This would be especially likely if continued advancement would require the spouse/partner to abandon a role setup that he/she particularly liked.

Within same-sex couples there are likely to be work-family differences by a couple’s gender. On average men earn more than women, meaning that male couples will often have more financial resources and attendant options to outsource home responsibilities (like cleaning, child care, or laundry) than female couples. This may allow male couples to better adhere to stereotypical notions of the ideal employee than their female peers, allowing them to reap the attendant benefits (i.e., raises and promotions) and intensifying the disparity over time.

Other work-family considerations that inclusive employers should keep in mind as potentially affecting the inclusion of employees in same-sex couples:

  • The members of same-sex couples may not be equally out at work. The less open partner may be unable to request flexibility in order to care for children and other family responsibilities without disclosing his/her sexual orientation and family status. This can create stress in the relationship and place additional pressure on the partner who can be more open about the relationship to manage family responsibilities.
  • Community resources for child care and other family responsibilities may not be inclusive or supportive of same-sex couples, requiring such families to seek services from less convenient or less affordable providers. This may increase commuting times (if the chosen provider is farther away), reduce financial resources, or cause other complications.
  • Many couples rely on their families and communities of origin to provide support around work-family issues (e.g. child and elder care). For same-sex couples rejected by their families, such resources may be unavailable or accompanied by additional stress on already complex relationships.
  • Many same-sex couples will become parents through single- or dual-parent adoptions. Adoptions have additional administrative and financial requirements (e.g., required counseling, agency evaluations, legal and other fees) that compound any applicable pre-natal care costs. Requirements are often time-intensive, and work-family conflicts may be held against would-be-parents in the adoption process. In addition, even if laws allow same-sex couples to adopt, individual agents of the adoption service may be unsupportive or even obstruct the process.
  • Adoption of older children or children with special needs may create additional work-family demands. For example, an older child may require more time or special support to bond with adoptive parents and adapt to his/her new home. This may not be understood by work colleagues who imagine that adopting an older, more self-sufficient child is easier than adopting or giving birth to an infant.
  • Most organizational benefits policies were designed with married, fertile, different-sex couples in mind. Until recently, marriage was not an option for same-sex couples, and domestic partnerships were important for attaining some legal recognition of their relationships. Now that marriage equality is the norm, there may be expectations that all domestic partnerships will convert to marriages. Some same-sex couples may find the switch is not in their personal or financial best interests, especially after years under a different arrangement.
  • While in recent years the image of the same-sex parent has been popularized, it is not universally sought out by the LGB community. The relative rarity of same-sex couples with children means there are fewer role models and peers for this community to rely upon. Given the combination of work-family and gender role issues facing same-sex couples, their peers in different-sex couples may not be equipped to fully serve in those roles.

Truly inclusive organizations recognize that equality of options (e.g., legal marriage equality) does not mean equality of experience (e.g., everyone has the same kind of marriage, if they marry at all). As we celebrate the first anniversary of U.S.-wide marriage equality at this summer’s Pride events, let’s gather the strength, sensitivity and patience to continue building on this historic accomplishment.

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